When it comes to favorite movie eras, everyone’s got their sweet spot. For Imogen Poots, it’s the period between the late ’80s and early ’90s, Hollywood’s last gasp before succumbing to green-screen fever. And while most fresh-faced female actors might keep Hepburn, Streep, or Winslet atop their Greatness Index, Poots name-checks Taylor, Plimpton, and Mathis—that’s Lili, Martha, and Samantha—as her celluloid goddesses. “And then of course there’s Winona,” she gushes, bowing to the Queen Bee of plucky, Gen-X ingenues. “I Shot Andy Warhol, Running on Empty, and, of course, Reality Bites, are unreal films. I’ve always wanted the chance to access these stories I’ve watched for so many years through my own work.”
The 23-year-old London native got that chance two summers ago, when she and a band of independent filmmakers set out across New York City to tell the story of how, in 1991, Jeff Buckley, an aimless California musician, became Jeff Buckley, rock music’s falsettoed prince. In Greetings from Tim Buckley, Poots plays Allie, an emotionally available free spirit who cracks the young Buckley’s (Penn Badgley) shell when the singer travels to New York to headline his late father’s tribute concert. “He was this brooding, melancholic guy with all these insecurities, and she was there to make fun of him. That’s what has to happen. You have to bring idols down to a human level,” says Poots, who’s back in New York putting the final touches on Are We Officially Dating?, a raunch-com in which another Hollywood heartthrob, Zac Efron, charms his way out of bachelorhood and into her arms.
Poots began acting professionally at 15 and skipped college as her career accelerated, but she speaks about the making of Tim Buckley like an excited Cultural Studies major. “When I first read the script I fell in love with it, because my character was talking about [playwright] Richard Foreman, performance art, and Kafka, and I was going through that, too, in a very ridiculous, romantic way,” she says. “You read a book like [Patti Smith’s memoir] Just Kids, and you’re mentally in a place where all of that makes sense. Then something like this movie comes along that encapsulates everything you’ve been feeling.”
Later this year, Poots, who comes across as both a youthful romantic and self-effacing goofball, will be seen playing another rock muse, this time to André Benjamin’s Jimi Hendrix in the guitar god’s origin story, All Is By My Side. “She was the one who sort of discovered Hendrix,” Poots says of her character, Linda Keith, who also inspired Keith Richards to write “Ruby Tuesday.” For the period piece, Poots chopped off her hair—at the moment a banged tangle, bleached Cobain-blond— into a black ’60s bob. “I was more aware I was making a film about Hendrix, because it was the ’60s, whereas Tim Buckley is a bit more childish, and that’s its charm,” she says. “Because the Buckley movie was set in the ’90s, it was a lot easier to live in its world.”
Poots grew up in the ’90s, but didn’t come of age in them. She was barely 11 when the decade ended with a Y2whimper. At 14, she signed up for a local theater group in her West London suburb, and, with her best friend, spent two hours each weekend writing sketches and “doing weird shit.” By 16, with the help of a boutique talent agency, she was playing a young Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta, and two years after that, outrunning a zombie flash mob in 28 Weeks Later. Only then did the notion of acting as a career begin to crystalize. “I didn’t know if I had permission to be an actor, from the universe or from myself,” she says. And then, without a dot of sarcasm: “I have this warped idea that if you really, really believe in something, you can make it a reality.”
Poots’ current reality is as one of the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood. Following her 2011 portrayal of the vacant socialite Blanche Ingram in director Cary Fukunaga’s carnal retelling of Jane Eyre, she toplined her first studio film last year, opposite Anton Yelchin and Colin Farrell, in the revved-up horror remake Fright Night. Since then, with just “a couple of weeks in between,” according to Poots, most of her life has been spent on movie sets. This year alone, she’ll appear in an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel Filth; as a drug-addled party girl in Michael Winterbottom’s tawdry drama The Look of Love; as a woman contemplating suicide in the Nick Hornby tale A Long Way Down; and alongside Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, and Cate Blanchett in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. “It sucks balls that I can’t talk about it,” she says of the notoriously secretive auteur’s new project. Poots, who, with the help of storytellers like William Faulkner and Bob Dylan, romanticized America’s heartland growing up—“I just wanna jump into a fucking pickup truck and ride into cornfields”—has loved Malick since she saw his sweeping 1973 Midwestern odyssey, Badlands. She describes the moment Malick called to inform her she’d been cast as “one of those things your mind can’t compute.”
Still, of all her upcoming roles, the one that will project Poots’ bright face across the most screens is that of a street-smart car dealer in next year’s video game–inspired production, Need for Speed. Some might argue that a loud, fast, American blockbuster isn’t befitting of a diminutive British charmer like Poots, but it’s her hunger for experiences that fuels her choices, notoutside expectations. “I’m curious about the world,” Poots says, “and the way I intend to experience it is through this profession.”
Photography by Charlie Engman. Styling by Jessica Bobince.
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