Yes, best to hedge his bets—even though his feature debut, 2007’s absurdist lark Son of Rambow was a hit around the world; his second film, the coming-of-age drama Is Anybody There?, opens this month; and his third movie, an adaptation of David Almond’s YA fantasy novel Skellig, wrapped last December. “I wouldn’t say I wanted to be an actor,” he says in a phone call from Hampton, England, where he lives with his family. “But now that the opportunity has come along and I’ve experienced it, I really love it.”
Self-deprecating and modest, Milner is also a charming screen presence. His Rambow character is a sheltered member of a religious sect whose imagination is sparked when a rebellious classmate recruits him for a scrappy home-movie sequel to the Sylvester Stallone action film First Blood. In Is Anybody There?, Milner plays ten-year-old Edward, the youngest resident (by far) of a nursing home run by his parents. It’s a much darker, intermittently sentimental yet very funny story that the teen handles with aplomb, hitting all the tonal shades of laughter and pathos without a misstep.
To stem his loneliness in a place bereft of other children, Edward nurses an obsession with ghosts and the supernatural—not surprising in a house where people frequently die of old age. But when a grouchy retired magician named Clarence (Caine) moves in, Edward strikes up an unlikely friendship that changes them both.
The movie is a less-than-obvious choice for tweens (with all the sagging flesh and mordant humor, it’s not exactly Harry Potter). But kids with an awakening awareness of mortality will enjoy the film as much as adults will. “It was quite strange,” Milner admits about the script. “I did find the story line an odd thing. It’s one of those films that’s really hard to explain in ten words. You kind of have to watch it to really understand. I’m glad I was taken with it.”
The honor of working alongside Caine was a big draw, too—and not intimidating in the least, despite the fact that the Oscar-winning Brit last shared the big screen with Batman in The Dark Knight. “He’s just a really friendly guy,” Milner says. “I did find it quite easy to act with him. And you can really talk to him, even though there’s a big age difference and we didn’t have anything in common.” Better still was the master class that Caine inadvertently provided. “I talked to him about tips and advice, but it was just watching him and being around him when he acts,” the teen adds. “I probably act more natural now that I’ve acted with him.”
As for the supernatural part of the story, Milner is open-minded. “I wouldn’t say that I believe in ghosts, but I do think there are spirits of some sort. You imagine the scary sort of thing from Ghostbusters and stuff? I think they just want to make friends.”
Oddly, both films in Milner’s résumé are period pieces set in the early 1980s, before he was born. “It’s crazy—I’m typecast, you know?” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t really feel out of place. It’s quite normal, although the TVs are funny and the phones are huge.”
Outside of work, Milner is concentrating on his studies. The youngest of three (his brother, Max, is 17 and his sister, Joanna, is 20), he knows there’s more to life than being in movies. “I thought I wanted to be an artist,” he says, pointing out that Joanna is at college majoring in art history. “But now that I’m at secondary school, I’ve kind of noticed how average I am. I’m no Van Gogh.” Looks like he’s stuck being an acclaimed actor.