Will Poulter’s Role As A Racist In ‘Detroit’ Was So Difficult He Hugged Co-Stars Between Takes

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Nothing can quite prepare you for the harrowing second act of Detroit – based on the real life events that occurred at the Algiers Motel during the Detroit riots of 1967. Kathryn Bigelow has a knack for creating suspenseful scenes and continuing to turn up the tension until it’s practically unbearable. And playing the lightning rod of all of this unbearable tension is Will Poulter’s Officer Krauss.

This was a difficult role for Poulter, often having to hug co-stars between takes just as a release, a respite, to what they were filming. Officer Krauss is a composite character of the Detroit police officers who were at the Algiers that night – racist and sadistic, Krauss uses terrifying “interrogation” techniques on the residents of the Algiers in a scene that, at times, feels never-ending. Krauss is cruel. And for Poulter, there’s wasn’t much to grasp onto here in terms of humanity.

Ahead, Poulter (who is no stranger to tough work environments after his work on 2015’s The Revenant) discusses why Detroit was such a difficult role and why this is a movie with themes are more important than ever right now.

Jason Mitchell said that after some takes you would break down and give out hugs.

Yeah, I think there were certainly occasions where the nature of the material we were shooting was so intense, so violent, so kind of naturally upsetting that, yeah, when we got the opportunity to break and nothing else was required of us in that moment or on that day, we would find ourselves kind of hugging and embracing each other. And kind of doing the antithesis of what we were capturing onscreen. But for the most part, when it came to shooting the incident of the Algiers Motel, we had to sort of remain pretty focused and we had to do what was necessary to capture that kind of intensity. So that meant that, for the most part, the culture onset was sort of pretty quiet, very focused, and kind of naturally tense.

Is Krauss a composite? I know the officers’ names were changed…

I would describe Philip Krauss as a composite of several different police officers who were present at the time.

So how do you wrap your head around this kind of character? There aren’t any redeeming qualities.

It is difficult. And the reason being that normally when you play a character, or you approach a different personality, you’re able to identify with something in their makeup that you either possess yourself or you feel like you can adopt – because it’s not too far-fetched, and it doesn’t force you so far away from yourself. But the tricky thing when I looked at playing Krauss is I couldn’t see a single thing about him that I could relate to beyond the fact that he was a white male, right? That was really my only sort of, kind of relatable trait I saw in Krauss. So really, I was kind of just building a character without any sort of feeling of relation. And it was about looking into what informs a racist and what kind of mentality they have. And it’s built on fiction and on a lot of mythology and mistruths about people who belong to different ethnicity groups. And you’re really forming a psychology and a personality without any sort of rationale. So therein lies the challenge, I think.

When things start really going terribly, there’s one moment we think we might be seeing some humanity, but it was self-preservation…

Yeah, I think that’s an interesting moment because while that initial shock might be interpreted as a sort of moment of like sensitivity or humanity in Krauss, what actually unfolds is much the same of what you’ve seen already: which is that his concern is for his fellow police officers and his own people. And he further dehumanizes and criminalizes the young African American in question by instantly covering it up – totally showing absolutely no remorse for the death.

The second act of Detroit plays out like a horror movie.

Yeah, I think the motel incidents, even on the page, read as some of the most kind of visceral and emotionally affecting scenes. Of course, I find the whole story affecting, but that certainly struck me as the sort of intense emotional core of the action. And, you know, I knew the sort of three weeks that we dedicated towards the Algiers Motel incident, it was going to be very intense and it was going to require quite a lot of sort of resilience and hard work from everybody. But to your earlier comment, the sociopolitical relevance of this – the amount of research and the amount of hard work and fact-finding that went into this – was not lost on me. You can tell even just from reading the project how informed it is by what really occurred: the documentation that was available, the contribution of Detroiters and people who experienced the rebellion. All of that makes it a very, very special script, and I think all of that has carried right through to the end product.

What does Kathryn Bigelow bring to a movie like this? She has a way of building tension to almost unbearable limits, as we also saw in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.

Well, what I really respect about her – and you only have to look back at the two previous films you’ve mentioned paired with this one – that she’s looking to impact social change with her movies. She’s not interested in just making a piece of entertainment – you know, you don’t sort of like eat the fruit and toss away the peel…

Yeah, you don’t walk away from this movie feeling good about much.

Right, you don’t walk away feeling good about it, but I think you walk away with a new perspective. I think you tend to watch a Kathryn Bigelow film and it’s at least made with the intention of provoking thought and conversation. And hopefully a positive reaction that looks to improve on whatever the ailment is or encourage people to discuss ways of aiding whatever the problems are that are being discussed. And, you know, she is a revolutionary filmmaker in that respect. She is looking to really make a change to society with her work and with her art. And I think especially with what a kind of politically turbulent time it’s been – not only just in America but just globally speaking – I think Kathryn Bigelow is kind of leading the charge along with a number of other creatives to try and make sure that their work actually stands for something beyond just offering escapism. It’s actually encouraging people to look at life and consider what they can do to make things better.

What do you hope people will get out of Detroit?

I think first and foremost, it’s just important to inform people of the facts of what happened and make this story better known…

And she does such a meticulous job was done of that, just presenting what happened that night…

Right, right. So that’s the thing, first and foremost, is just getting the facts straight and drawing attention to a story that is in many senses kind of under-told, right? But although there aren’t any kind of obvious answers when it comes to how do we improve things – what we can safely say is that in order to move forward, we need a better understanding of everybody in our society. And greater empathy for experiences other than one’s own experience. So to understand your fellow human being and have empathy with their life experience more than you do. I know that that’s been the case for me. And to make people aware of the fact that social justice is continually denied to, of course, the African American community, but to many other ethnic minority groups. And these events happened 50 years ago, but it’s 2017 and we’re still seeing social justice denied to people repeatedly. And there’s nothing more disappointing than seeing police criminality go unconvicted. Because, as it’s pointed out in the film, police criminality should be treated like any other form of criminality – but when the individuals responsible for protecting and serving communities let us down in such a way, there really isn’t a more tragic collapse of order than that.

Obviously this is set in 1967, but it doesn’t seem that far removed from the present, which is horrifying.

That’s very true. And that’s absolutely correct. And I think the important thing to remember is of course there is a host of very hardworking, unbiased, well-intentioned police officers who do an incredible amount of work and put their life on the line to serve and protect. And I know that based on my own experience as a white male, which I appreciate is a unique one.

But I’ve come into contact with a lot of police officers through this process and I’ve been really sort of encouraged by some of the things I’ve seen. I came into contact recently with the Chief of Police in Detroit, James Craig. He’s an African American man. And getting to talk to him and talk about how warmly he received the movie, how other officers in his department – which now happens to be the most diverse in America – responded to the film. Hugely encouraging. So the Detroit Police Department alone speaks to the progress that’s been made, but if we are watching a film in which the themes parallel so closely to what is going on in 2017 when it was set 50 years ago, then we can’t deny that that’s a failure, and we need to do more. And I just hope people walk away with a knowledge of that and feel encouraged to do their part in order to progress.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.