WILL POULTER 1967, Detroit

Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) latest film sees her cast a directorial eye over the events of the 1967 Detroit riots, and the atrocities of the Algiers Hotel. Although still surrounded in mystery and obfuscated by police officers involved in the torture, abuse and executions that happened on that night, Bigelow, and long time collaborator writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), have brought those events into the spotlight for Detroit. Central to this is actor Will Poulter (The Revenant, We Are The Millers). DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to Poulter about his riveting performance, and what it is like to play such an intense and abhorrent individual.

Playing the role of Philip Krauss, Poulter is the police officer leading the brutalisation of individuals in the Algiers. Although a fictitious creation, Krauss is a composite of several real officers at the time, participating in events based on the testimonial and accounts of actual witnesses (a number of which acted as consultants for Detroit).

How are you finding Australia?

First time in Australia for nine years and my first time in Melbourne. I’m just slowly eating my way around Melbourne. I’ve had more coffee in the last few days than l ever had in my life. I don’t know whether that is because the coffee is just so good, or I’m just jet-lagged up to the nines. I think it’s a combination of both.

What attracted you to the character of Krauss?

I think the thing that attracted me about Krauss was the thing that attracted me to the project overall, that unfortunate relevance with what’s going on today – police brutality, social injustice, the legal system being pushed against people of colour, and that same legal system failing them when the people that should have been protecting them were walking away scott free from murder charges. To have the opportunity to expose that individual, that racially motivated police officer, was a very exciting prospect. As trying as it might have been emotionally, I was excited at the chance to make an example of that sort of individual.

How would you describe him as a character?

He is severely lacking in empathy. He is righteously ignorant, as l think a lot of racist people are. He’s power hungry, he’s bigoted – these are many obvious traits that a racist in positions of power possesses. He’d be a racist no matter what job he did, but I think it’s a very dangerous combination being a racist and a police officer at once.

How do you put yourself in a mindset to play someone like that?

It’s tough… it’s tough to play someone so far removed from anyone I’ve ever really encountered. I’ve played unlikeable characters in the past, but there’s always something I can relate to. With Krauss that wasn’t the case, it was a matter of building a character out of virtually nothing. But you find (unfortunately) inspiration from characters that still exist today. You go on Youtube and you can find some frighteningly bigoted and misguided people discussing other races and ethnicity groups, and it’s appalling. But that was part and parcel of playing a racist. Trying to understand the mis truths and misinformation that the racist rhetoric is built on.

Inhabiting that character for hours at a time, for days at a time, must have been grueling, especially during the re-enactment of the Algiers Hotel sequence?

Oh shit… the three and a half weeks we spent on the Algiers Hotel were incredibly tough, it took its toll on all of us. That three and a half weeks was very hard on everyone, mostly the people playing the victims. To be the recipient’s of such hatred, and abuse, and violence… I could imagine was unbearable. The experience took a massive to toll on me, but for the victims it must have been unbearably worse.

How did you unwind from those days?

The best way to detach ourselves from the material and the characters was to spend time with each other. To fortify the bonds of our genuine friendship. There was a lot of respect amongst the cast. Getting to know each other, outside of our characters was a lovely way of reaffirming we were safe, and really united us in this experience.

How have people reacted to Detroit, and especially to your part in the film?

It’s been really interesting. I’ve had conversations with American police officers who’ve been really really welcoming of the film. I’ve spoke to James Craig, chief of police in Detroit, who suggested this film was required viewing for all new recruits. Which has been the most comforting response. And like every film I’ve done, I’ve met those that didn’t like it. I think the common response has been that this film is undeniably relevant, and emotionally effecting.

What does Detroit have to say to us in 2017?

Given that it’s 50 years to the date that the events depicted in this film happen, and that there are similar events that have happened recently… at the risk of undermining the great work that has been done to progress the civil rights of people of colour, it is clear that not enough has been done. It’s clear that there is more work to do. I hope it’s obvious to people that aren’t affected by social injustice, it is not OK to stay silent anymore. If you do live a privileged life, as I do, it’s not acceptable not to engage in conversations about racism or social injustice, or not to have a hand in deconstructing an unfair system, just because it benefits you. One of the takeaways from this film is we should engage in such a conversation, so that in 50 years time we don’t need to make another Detroit, and the film doesn’t feel as relevant as it does now.