Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12, Men, Women & Children), one of Variety’s top ten actors to watch, plays Karen, one of two women to bare witness to the tragedies of the Algiers Motel Incident in Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film Detroit. Despite the difficult subject matter, Kaitlyn emphasizes the comfort, trust, freedom, and friendships that subsisted and ascended from her time on set. Nothing was overly discussed or rehearsed. Kathryn was open to whatever the actors had to bring to their roles and she lightly shaped the performances from there.
Cinelinx: Detroit is a busy film with a sprawling ensemble cast. How do you economize to craft a character with range?
KD: I mean the preparation for the role was fairly quick too. I got the script just a couple of days before our first shoot day. But, I was able to do some more research on the Algiers motel incident, because it’s such an untold story that I wasn’t really aware of at all. I wanted to do my research so that I was more aware of it.
In terms of getting ready for the role I think we all took it day by day. Especially with the way Kathryn works, we weren’t really sure what tomorrow or the next day was going to be like. She also let us do what we kind of wanted to do with the roles and she guided us from there. I felt very free to explore different things for the character while I was on set.
Cinelinx: What was pre-production like? Was the cast all able to talk with one another?
KD: Overall it was a really quick process. I had auditions in L.A. and then the next day I got a callback. A couple days later I found out I had gotten it. We went to shoot it [and] I think it was really important that we all met. I think we had a week to get to know each and hang out a bunch. With the circumstances we were in and the tough and heavy things we were shooting it was important that we could hug it out afterwards [laughs] and know that we’re not like that in real life.
We were totally hanging out on the weekends. We were all hanging out and having a good time. When we were on set and shooting the scenes you kind of have to keep to yourself so that you can stay in the moment. But there were no rules like that we had to stay separated, we were all friends.
Cinelinx: Is a film like this more physically taxing than say acting in a light hearted indie comedy?
Right, No, it is. It’s very physically draining and I think emotionally as well. I think that it — I can say that it was hard as an actor because it was. But at the same time I kept thinking in my head, this is not nearly as physically taxing as it was for these people in real life. I think we were pouring our hearts out, everyone was into their performances so that we could have that feeling come across, but yeah it wasn’t the easiest shoot — but I think those are the best ones in the end.
Cinelinx: On Kathryn’s openness:
KD: Yeah, I think I always go, on different projects, with what the director wants to do. I don’t personally have a specific way of working. If the director likes to do a lot of rehearsals then I’ll do a lot of rehearsals, and if they don’t like rehearsals I won’t do them. For everything I do I do make a music playlist, I think music is a really good way of — you can just pop your headphones in and put yourself into that world. So I listened to a lot of songs from the 60’s that I listened to all the time on set. But with Kathryn, her process is super easy. We hardly did any rehearsals, and if we did run through the scene it was super light and easy. It wasn’t until she called action that we did it full out. I remember the first day. My first day on set I was super nervous, I had no expectations going into it. I knew I was working with one of the greatest director’s of all time [laughs]… and we got into this room — we were shooting a scene in this hotel room and there’s like 12 actors in one room, and she’s got cameraman, she uses three cameras at once, so there are all these people in one room and she sort of told us to just go. And we were kind of like “Where do you want us to go?” And she was like “Go wherever you want!” And that was really cool as an actor. Oh, okay, I get to go walk into the kitchen if I want to, or whatever. It was really really cool.
Cinelinx: Were all of your scenes shot like that or were others a little more rigid?
KD: I think most scenes were like that. I think certain scenes you have to work things out more, but generally no, we were free to do what we wanted.
Cinelinx: Do you ever refer to a specific performance to prepare for a role the way a director watches other films too?
KD: For this, I watched a few films from that time. Because women — men and women — from the time talked so differently. So I kind of just wanted to explore that a little bit. I need to watch more movies [laughs] I have not even touched on the AFI 100, I’ve seen a couple of them but I need to see more classics. And with this, there was such little prep time.
Cinelinx: You say you felt comfortable day 1, but did it take a while for things to really click? Or was it really that immediate.
KD: Yeah, and sometimes it takes a week [laughs] to get acclimated to the setting and the people. I already had become really close with the cast because we were all staying at the same hotel, so that was really great. By the first day on set, we were already friends. Then for this set, the first day was kind of just yeah, I felt very comfortable from day 1. I didn’t right before I started shooting. I remember being so nervous. [laughs] But then it was like there’s no reason to be nervous, Kathryn Bigelow is the coolest person on the planet.
Cinelinx: Does Kathryn talk big ideas with the actors, or hone in on individual moments/characters more?
KD: I think she, with whom she hires — she cast this movie so well that I think she put her trust in everyone. I think for some of the actors — some of the actors never got a script and still haven’t seen a script to this day, because there were some characters that she wanted to be more in the unknown — where they don’t know what tomorrow’s going to be like. So she was having more discussions about the film with them I think. I think she was really — the cool thing about her is that she’s really trustworthy. If she did have a note it was very rare for everyone. I think that when she wasn’t coming up to us that she loved what everyone was doing. And we listened to everything she says, we were in awe of her. I look up to her so much, such a role model.
Cinelinx: Does Kathryn do anything to the environment of the set to prepare the actors for the more intense scenes?
KD: I think the great thing about it was that there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure going into the heavier scenes. She knew what she wanted to come across in these scenes and the actors knew what they wanted. There was a huge sense of teamwork. So I think the fact that, you know, I’m comparing it to — I haven’t shot any heavy scenes like this before in a film. In other projects, if you put a lot of pressure on it before it makes everyone a little more tense. Whereas Kathyrn created a very calm environment, and it was easier to rev it up and bring it to that place, for me at least, to get it to that level when things are a little more chill.
Cinelinx: I guess a big part of this industry is being adaptable, but have you developed a preference for the way a set or director works?
KD: No, I, again, I always just tend to go with the flow. I think that’s what is easiest for me personally. I think that the best sets are the ones where no one has a big head, where everyone’s working towards one goal. I firmly believe that’s how Kathryn Bigelow’s set was. Everyone was on the same level. Everyone ate lunch together — I mean it was just like the best experience possible and I think those are the ones in the end that have the most success; Because there are no expectations in the beginning. There’s just, we want to make this amazing film no matter what, and I feel like that’s the best it can be.
Cinelinx: What does Detroit say about today?
KD: I think what they wanted to do was tell this story in general because the Algiers Motel incident was pretty much buried and no one talked about it after it happened. That was one of many reasons why the film was made. But I think that’s also what drew me to the story. Before I got the script I knew what the film was going to be about and I felt very privileged to be able to tell a story that people need to be aware of. And I think it definitely needs to be told because of the fact that it is so unfortunately current. These tragedies are still going on.
Cinelinx: Why do you think people keep needing to be reminded or are trying to forget?
KD: I don’t think that we’re trying to forget. I think it just happens that way. It’s bad and it needs to stop. I think the main goal for this film was not only to bring awareness to this specific incident at the Algiers Motel, or the rebellion at Detroit, I think it’s meant to bring light to every tragedy that’s happened since and that is happening now and to learn to have empathy towards these circumstances.
Cinelinx: Future films coming up?
Yeah, I just did a project with Steve Carrell and Timothee Chalamet called Beautiful Boy, based off a book, well two books, Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, and Tweak by Nick Sheff.
I also have a film with Jay Duplass and Edie Falco directed by Lynn Shelton. It’s untitled [laughs] I can’t give you a title because I still don’t know what it is. That should actually be coming out soon.
See Detroit in Theaters Now, and check out our interview with fellow Detroit star Will Poulter here.