Will Poulter: “My biggest challenge was playing a character I felt no connection to.”
He plays a racist police officer in “Detroit,” a fact-based drama set during the 1967 Detroit riots in which a group of rogue police officers callously brutalize several black American men. For the British-born actor, who is known for his work in the films “The Maze Runner” and “The Revenant,” relating to the role was a huge challenge. “I couldn’t relate to him at all. I couldn’t find a parallel. It was all about understanding the negative, ill-informed thought structure that characterizes such racist behavior,” shares Poulter, who will admit his lack knowledge of the events that transpired 50 years ago.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”,” Zero Dark Thirty”), this film is a shocking portrait of police misconduct that occurred during the 1967 riots when reports of gunshots in the vicinity of a National Guard staging area prompted the Detroit Police Department, the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Army National Guard to search and seize an annex of the nearby Algiers Motel. Flouting procedural rules, several policemen forcefully and viciously interrogated motel guests, conducting a “death game” in an attempt to intimidate them into confessing. By the end of the night, three unarmed young black men had been gunned down point blank, and several other men and women were brutally beaten. Bigelow doesn’t use melodrama to show how terrified the guest were, she uses realism as she explores the traumatic civil unrest that tore apart the city of Detroit.
“I knew very little about American history and even less about African-American history,” continues Poulter, “and even though I had to do some research, it was difficult trying to embrace the kind of methodology that leads to the dehumanization of African-Americans, and the role that white people have in promoting that kind of system.”
The film focuses on the actual events that transpired that evening when three police officers played by Poulter, Ben O’Toole, and Jack Reynor, zeroed in at the Algiers Motel after hearing gun shots in the vicinity. Determined to get a confession, they viciously interrogated ten black men and two white women, none of whom were armed, for an hour. While it was difficult to take pride in his work playing a man who callously brutalizes others, Poulter says he felt a responsibility to expose that kind of aberrant behavior and distinguish it from the actions of law-abiding policemen. Krauss, his character, he explains, is not based on any one individual but rather a character who reflects the behavior of the police officers implicated in these events and is based on testimony from first-hand accounts of what transpired.
“He is the orchestrator of a method used by the police at the time in which they used antagonistic tactics to provoke an aggressive or violent reaction from African-Americans so they could justify arresting them,” shares the actor who admits the burden of playing such an amoral person wore on him.
Also starring John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell and Jacob Lattimore, “Detroit” with its profound emotional impact explores yet another painful racist chapter in America’s history and is an important statement about a time and a condition that should not be forgotten.
“Detroit” is currently playing in theaters.
By Samantha Ofole-Prince/Photo Credit: Annapurna Pictures