Interview: Bill Milner talks iBoy, Son of Rambow and Netflix
James R | On 26, Jan 2017
Almost exactly 10 years ago to the day, the world’s greatest Rambo sequel premiered at Sundance. The bad guys? Scarecrows and ninjas. The heroes? School kids. In the lead role? Bill Milner, making his debut at the age of 11.
A decade later and his new film, iBoy, is about to be released.
“Gosh, I’m getting old!” laughs Bill, when we speak to him just after the 10-year anniversary. “That makes me feel really weird, nostalgic. That’s actually lovely.”
Since then, we’ve watch him grow up on screen, going on to deliver a starmaking turn in Is Anybody There? opposite Michael Caine, a scene-stealing appearance in X-Men: First Class as a young Michael Fassbender, and a moving vocal role in Tom Hardy drama Locke.
Now 21, Milner cuts a humble figure. He doesn’t really watch himself after a film’s been released, not even Son of Rambow when it was on TV the other day – “I switched it on and I could last maybe 20 seconds!” He certainly didn’t expect to pursue acting as a career.
“I definitely didn’t see it going that way,” he comments, noting the role his mum played in keeping his head grounded as a child.
“We expected it to be a lucky one-off situation,” he continues. “It’s been weird then slowly moving into making it more of a full-time thing and taking it more seriously. It took a while at first, which I think is good, you know, I just enjoyed it for what it was, more like a hobby, as it were.”
What else would he have done? “I dunno,” he admits. “I don’t think I was very career-driven as a kid! I quite like using my hands and stuff like that, so some sort of design or woodworky thing would be my kind of thing.”
Growing up was nothing special, he observes. He was “quite a standard, boring 14-year-old kid”, going off for maybe seven or eight weeks a year to do some acting. “I’m very, very boring now!” he insists.
While Bill’s been growing older, technology’s been changing too: when Son of Rambow came out, phones were a thing, but tablets didn’t exist. These days, according to Ofcom, one in three pre-schoolers have their own tablet or similar device.
“I’ve got a three-year-old nephew – three! – and he already knows how to unlock it and find his favourite YouTube video!” exclaims Bill. “It’s nuts! When I was doing Son of Rambow, I don’t think I had a phone.”
Back then, the final few movies were still being released on VHS and the idea of iBoy, which sees Tom, a normal teenager, get parts of his phone embedded in his brain following an attack (giving him high-tech powers), would be an absurd piece of science fiction. Today, with people increasingly living their lives through their phones, it’s worryingly quite plausible.
“It’s so close to reality now, it’s insane,” agrees Bill, “which I think is what’s great about it. There is so much reality in it. It is really beliavable, despite the kind of ridiculous events that lead up to it! At the end of the day, there are people now developing these weird implants and things like that…”
Indeed, last year, BBC Three released a documentary looking at exactly that, with one girl putting an NFC chip in her hand so she could make contactless payments, or tap in on the London Underground, with her fingers.
Bill’s not quite at that stage. “It seems a little bit unnecessary,” he chuckles. “I don’t tend to lose my Oyster card that often!”
But, like most people, he does use his phone a lot. Only the day before we spoke, he was on Twitter in the middle of a night shoot discussing animals that can and can’t swim.
“I’m quite bad, I reckon,” he admits. “With my job, I’m always just on the go, so it’s always there in my hand. I probably don’t have an unhealthy relationship with it, but it does keep me up at night…”
One of iBoy’s strengths is the way it brings those powers and that technology to life through some nifty special effects. Data streams out of buildings. Texts appear on screen. Video clips beam into his eyes. Is it weird to act out those scenes? Is it just a case of staring at nothing and thinking really hard about exploding phones?
“It’s super weird!” he says. “I didn’t really think about it when we were in rehearsals and reading the script, but all of a sudden, it’s like ‘Oh, I actually have to react to this virtual reality which isn’t there’. I had to learn really quickly. I hope it works!”
It pays off in dividends during one bedroom scene between him and co-star Maisie Williams (who plays Tom’s classmate and crush Lucy), when they share a conversation via text, without either of them saying a word.
“That’s one of my favourite scenes,” says Bill. “It was a real challenge, to know if we were doing too much, or if it was too obvious. Adam [Randall], our director, was in the corner reading out the texts for us!”
It helps that he and Maisie have excellent chemistry, less because they sort-of worked together on ITV’s The Secret of Crickley Hall – “our characters never crossed, so we only crossed paths once or twice” – but because their paths have done so off-screen.
“We have a lot of mutual friends and things like that, so I’ve known her for quite a while,” he explains. “I think the director and assistant directors found it annoying that we were getting on so well, because we wouldn’t stop laughing on set! We had a good time.”
So how much of that was them talking Game of Thrones? Did he just keeping asking Maisie about Arya Stark?
“Yeah, pretty much!” laughs Bill. “It took her a while to realise what a big fan I am, but now she knows, she sells me these lies about the show to kind of shock me, so I just don’t listen to anything she says.”
As well as their chemistry, the film’s realism stems from its London locations – the estate Tom lives on, near Liverpool St, really does sit just two roads from the City of London’s financial hub. At one point, Rory Kinnear (who plays the film’s villain) gazes out the windows of a house, reflecting on how many residents have made it across those two streets, from the towers of the estate to the skyscrapers of the UK capital.
Kinnear is one of a long list of veteran actors Milner’s worked with in just 10 years, from Hardy and Fassbender to Caine. Rory’s “gotta be up there” on the ranking of greats, says Bill. “I worked with him a while back on a film called Broken and we had to do this scene with a pack of ham at the front door and it was hilarious but also some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The movie marks new territory for both actors, as iBoy is a Netflix original, released directly onto the world wide web this Friday for subscribers to see. The movie will available in 190 odd countries.
The streaming service came on board the project around the same time as Bill. He hadn’t read the book the film is based on, but went back to it, after seeing the script and meeting with Adam. The result is a rare thing for Netflix – a small-scale British production – and, despite the superpower-themed narrative, a rare thing in its own right: it’s a pleasure just to see a young adult film that isn’t set in a dystopian future with a shady organisation and a world-threatening conspiracy. You can easily see the appeal.
“It’s really gritty and dark,” concurs Bill. “There are some quite shocking topics for teenagers to read about, like sexual assault and gangs and drugs. I think it’s important to bring those topics to the front of the conversation.”
As for Netflix, Bill says he’s looking forward to seeing the response from the audience – although he may not stream it back himself, on his phone or otherwise. The last thing Bill did have in his Netflix watchlist? The OA. “Love it!” he cries. “Best thing ever.”
With iBoy available globally at the touch of a button, is being released on Netflix cooler than being in cinemas? “I think it’s getting there!” the now grown-up Son of Rambow star replies. “I hope so, anyway!”
iBoy is released worldwide on Netflix on Friday 27th January 2017.