Jason Mitchell had his big breakout role in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, receiving accolades for his portrayal of Eazy-E. Since then he’s appeared in Kong: Skull Island, Keanu and, now, playing the pivotal role of Carl Cooper in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (read our review of the film here).
The entire second act of Detroit recreates the incident at The Algiers Motel – an intense and deadly police interrogation after there were reports that gunfire had come from the motel, which was most likely just Carl Cooper’s harmless starting pistol. And as Mitchell explains ahead, the way Kathryn Bigaeow (whom he refers to as “The Big Cat”) shot the scene, the actors didn’t have the full script and didn’t know what would happen to other characters. So when some of the actors see Mitchell for the first time, it’s a shocking experience because they didn’t know that would happen. (SPOILER ALERT: Mitchell does get into spoilers about what happens to Carl).
Carl is one of the most pivotal characters in Detroit.
The other actors didn’t know my character was killed until they were brought out of the room. They didn’t read that in the script, they didn’t find that out. They saw me laying on the floor, dead. You hear what I’m saying?
Oh, I didn’t know that…
Yeah, it was very, very, very organic. Everything that I knew about the situation was very, very abstract. You know what I mean? I didn’t even know some of these things until I got on set because I didn’t have the entire script. Man, so I knew I was coming to make history, but I didn’t know why.
Could that also be frustrating?
You know, as an actor, you live for creative control. You wait for that day to say, “I want to improv all my lines, and I want to do all this, and I want to do all that.” And it happened for me at that time. And it was such a bigger-than-life moment because I had so much control. But at the same time, it was such a great responsibility because you have to keep it 100 percent real and keep it 100 percent authentic. And it was scary sometimes. Like, it got very eerie. Me and Will Poulter, we saw each other at an award show maybe a year before we did this movie and we were like, “Yo, we’re going to work together!” And we’re such big fans of each other. Then we meet each other and he has on this uniform and it’s turned up and we have to take it there, you know? And as much as it is a privilege, it’s tough. Super, super tough.
Will Poulter, just as a viewer watching this movie, his character is so evil you almost start hating him personally.
And on the day when you’re in there, everybody wants to know what the movie’s going to look like when it’s edited and when it’s done. But he brought a sort of commitment to the role that, on the day, it felt so real that when the camera cut, immediately, he would hug us sometimes. I’ve watched this man go shed tears because it’s hard. It’s hard to be that honest. But you’ve got to come with it, otherwise we’re not making history. We’re holding punches and it’s not revolutionary because people want to sweep these conversations under the rug. And he brought that shit, he brought the fire.
What did you learn about Carl before playing him?
I had the pleasure of meeting with Juli Hysell (a survivor of the incident). She was there on set with us every day at the Algiers Motel – which, I know it was tough for her. But she gave me some really, really great details about Carl. But more than anything, he was the guy that everybody loved. He was the breath of fresh air that you could go have. And I think with the climate in Detroit at the time, he was not only a product of his environment, but also a beautiful piece of standup innocence. So I think she made it very clear to me that the thing that me and Carl had most in common was the fact that our light isn’t something that can be dimmed at all.
You have one of the most powerful scenes in the film, where a scene involving a starter pistol goes from humorous to serious very quickly.
But the thing is, pressure makes diamonds. So no matter what type of situation you’re going through, people find the humor in life. And he is the direct balance of that because watching these riots on TV is affecting his feelings directly and he wants to explode on the inside, but who he is is a smile. He’s a laugh. So he’s somebody who’s oppressed by his surroundings, and his feelings control him and that’s why it spirals out of control.
Kathryn Bigelow always has this way of creating almost unbearable tension. What’s that like on set?
What I really, really respect about Kathryn is, do you remember grade school? Like kindergarten and they go, “Jason, you’re talking way too much. You have one mouth and two ears. You should listen twice as much as you talk.” You know what I mean? She brings back that: the life fundamentals. And she hires actors because she doesn’t know how to act and she reminds you of that. “I hired you because I think that you’re the best and I trust you to make my vision come to life.” So when somebody of that caliber is that humble, it brings a different type of hunger out of you. You realize that you’re on a mission with somebody. She’s like, “Yo yo yo, I don’t know how to be Jason Mitchell. I don’t know how to do Carl Cooper. That’s why I hired you. So here it is. Here’s the clay, here’s the bat, and I’m going to throw you a pitch. I’m expecting you to hit it out of the park.”
I call her The Big Cat because she knows how to lay back and just be cool sometimes and put everything together. And she has tips and she has tricks and she has all of that – but on the day, she is not looking to give you tips and not looking to give you all of that. She’s looking to give you safety and give you a situation to react naturally because acting is reacting. Everybody hates to see somebody acting on TV. So she puts real people in real situations and let real things come from it, and she just captures it so good.