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Interview : Will Poulter – star of Detroit

Will Poulter has been in the acting game for a good decade, and the young actor has been seen in such film as “Maze Runner”, “We’re the Millers”, “The Revenant” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”.

“Detroit” is his latest release, an American period crime drama that is set in 1967, in the midst of the Detroit riots. The film is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who directed such classics as “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”. “Detroit” focuses on one event in particular – known as the Algiers Motel incident – and the film marks the 50th anniversary of the event, which resulted in the loss of 3 lives, all African Americans.

Poutler plays Police Officer Philip Krauss, an officer who takes the riots very seriously and takes it upon himself to lead his troupe to find justice – even with deadly consequences. The film also stars John Boyega, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, John Krasinski and Anthony Mackie.

Katie sat down with Poulter to discuss “Detroit”, as well as how he disconnected from such a confronting character and storyline.

Congratulations on “Detroit” – I absolutely loved it, it’s a fantastic film. 

Will: Thank you. I appreciate that!

It’s very full on and confronting – but in a good way and sorry thought provoking. What drew you to the role originally?

Will: I am glad to hear that. Originally before I knew anything of the film or really what the script was entailing I heard that Kathryn Bigelow was casting probably and that was enough for me and I think Kathryn’s name is kind of synonymous with socio politically confronting work – to use your own words – and so that was really exciting to me. I think it also came at a time where I mean, you can argue that her work is sort of always exceptional in that sense but that wasn’t really anything else close to it. So, I was just really, really motivated to keep up any opportunity to try out and I heard Mark Boal had written it and obviously I was aware of the fact they collaborated on “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark”, I was just mad to be a part of it anyway I could.

Yeah, well that’s a good segue to my next question…how is she to work with? Kathryn? 

Will: Phenomenal, you know she is kind of really sort of calm and deft orchestrator of chaos, like Kathryn I think is at her best when everything else is seemingly out of hand and mental around her, you know. She maintains this composure that we all rely on I think so heavily when the material is at its most testing, it’s so difficult to grapple with.

Kathryn is just unflappable and that was one of the things I really appreciated about her. Also she is interested in doing what’s natural. Her catch phrase was “do whatever feels natural”, which as an actor is the best thing you can hear.

And she is incredibly trusting, she gives you such exceptional and a freedom and also I’ve got to give a shout out to Barry Akyroyd as well, he is our DOP because between Barry and Kathryn we have the opportunity to explore every space we are in totally free they were actually no marks, we weren’t told there was anywhere off limits, it was almost literally 360 most of the time and also we weren’t stuck to the script now, the script happens to be exceptional so been stuck to the script wouldn’t have been a problem but we were given the opportunity to explore our characters outside of that and again take the phrase “do whatever feels natural” to attach to the limit.

So your character is quite calm and collective and shows really empathy – in his words was “just doing his job”, did you find that hard to get into that character especially based on the truth surrounding the events.

Will: Yeah I think playing someone who seemingly lacks all sense of empathy is very difficult, I think the hardest thing for me with Krauss is he is so far removed from me or anyone I had encountered. that finding an entry point into his psychological was really tough.

Normally when I play a character I identify something within them that I can relate to, that I can sort of identify with or even something that I may see within myself that I have but Krauss there wasn’t anything there and the only parallel that existed between me and Krauss was the fact that we were both so white males and in a world that is very unfair and in a world that in 50 years on means that if you are a person of colour, social, justice and civil rights are not a reality for you necessarily, and that’s a very unfortunate reality.

Yeah, I was drawing a lot of parallels between what’s happening now in America versus back then like Australia is a bit different but I mean, all cultures are different, but I think that’s a little…that’s very confronting when you think that these things do happen.

Will: Right, I think that’s the point we wanted to accentuate, this film was set in 1967 but the events that are depicted in this film could have easily taken place yesterday or could easily take place tomorrow and I don’t actually think that’s a gross exaggeration, and particularly when you talk about America but racism as a sort of broader topic is a global one and so everyone I think has a responsibility to discuss it and all work together towards finding some sort of solution and making social justice and civil rights a reality for everybody not just a select few, it’s about trying to deconstruct the systems that have long oppressed people of colour and mean a very privileged existence for well, as I say a very small number of people

Yeah absolutely. Did you undertake a lot of training for this role? Physically or otherwise?

Will: Not so much physical, fortunately for me in 1967 there was a rigorous physical test for cops. I think you were free to eat many donuts as you want but there was some training in respect of the police practices in 1967, it was about understanding I think the socio political climate. I did quite a lot research just because I was out of touch with the events of the late 60s as far as law practices were concerned and particularly how a police officer during that time would approach trying to enforce the law on people of colour as well particularly and I was just learning about how racially motivated police work was and just how disproportionate the amount of arrest were made against people of colour, it was quite shocking to find out about.

How gruelling was the production schedule? How long was it? 

Will: You know what? The production schedule was tougher for a couple of reasons, one – the process prior to actually getting the role was about long as the shoot was,

So that made it quite tough and I would say the other thing that made the process that made “Detroit” gruelling was the fact that Algiers Motel incident was 3 weeks long, so shooting in that motel for 3 weeks was really tough, it was like a boiler room. I mean, it took…it took its toll on us I mean, there was a double edge sword factor with the shooting of that incident. It was great to be able to do it in sequence but it did mean there was little respite for sort of 3 weeks from a very intense period of abuse, aggression and violence.

Yeah, I must say you have nailed the American accent!

Will: Oh thanks!

Is it actually just something that came naturally to you or have you had training?

Will: Do you know who absolutely nails it is Ben O’Toole, he is Australian, but you wouldn’t know from his accent! It’s interesting I didn’t know whether you feel like this been from Australia right, which is where you’re from originally?

I am yes.

Will: But in UK I feel like we are at a massive advantage as far as learning the American accent compared to some other places because we, or rather we are an advantage to learning the American accent if you compare the task of learning an English accent for an American, that’s the thing people say “the Americans can never do the English accent” -you hear that a lot. “The Americans can’t do the English accent”, but as an American kid I imagined that you can assume you wouldn’t hear the English accent as prevalently as an English kid hears the American accent. Like we grow up consuming so much American media whether is their music, television, film or other really that it’s like if you can’t do one roughly decent impression from the Simpsons or you are not quoting Friends or you haven’t seen… I don’t know, one of the many highly successful American films that have made it overseas that would be kind of strange, so we have that kind of advantage.

Now you said you did a lot of research around the history and everything, were you familiar with any of the events of Detroit prior to the film?

Will: I am ashamed to say I wasn’t.

No but to be honest I wasn’t either, and I got home after watching it and really read up on it because I found it fascinating. But I suppose it is really before our time.

Will: Really bit before our time but I suppose the reason is necessary to look at it and learn about it is because even though it was sort of the events were…didn’t take place in recent history as I said it could have easily happened in our time and actually have happened.

And you’d hope that kids these days know about Michael Brown and they know about Laquan McDonald, and they know about Philando Castile, and they know about all about these innocent people of colour who have been murdered by the police and got away with it and you’d hope it’s not part of their future but you hope it remains a part of their history that they are aware of. Actually going to America, one of the things I have experienced is that lots of people didn’t know about the rebellion in 1967, I think it’s likely that you knew that they were rebellions of that nature occurring in America during that period and there have been some very famous “riots”, I would use the term rebellion because “riots” as it suggests unprovoked anger whereas rebellion are the voice of people who were kind left with no other option. You might know about other “riots” that went on such as the once that occurred in LA or the once that happened in Boston a year after the ones in Detroit but this Algiers Motel incident specifically is relatively unknown, and it’s quite possible if you are from Detroit community you didn’t know about that and that’s quite a terrifying thought because think about this: if 3 innocent white men were killed by the police in a motel in America it would be one of the most famous stories in the world over

How would you usually unwind at the end of the day of filming? 

Will: Do you know what? By spending time with each other our of our characters and just because what it help to do is it helped us totally detach and it helped I think fortify the genuine respects that we had for each other and it helps contribute to this ultimate feeling of safety when we were on set that maybe we could go through the extremes and we could play far away from ourselves in the comfort of knowing that we were all going to be safe and it was always in our control I think.

That’s a great way of looking at it, yeah. So you got any other exciting projects upcoming?

Will: I just finished a film called “The Little Stranger” with Lenny Abrahamson, and I worked with Domhnall Gleeson and Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling, playing on that I felt so loved to be a part of it. Lenny is one of my favourite directors, someone I have wanted to work with ever since I saw “What Richard Did” and his film “Frank” so I feel very lucky to be part of that movie and that comes out on August 31st.

Detroit is released theatres in Australia from November 9th.

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