Will Poulter embodies the thankless role of Kraus, the racist policeman Poulter describes as being “the main demonstrator of pain and violence.” In a film of insufferable provocations, Poulter plays the center piece. This is a man you’ll be hard pressed not to hate but which, in spite of its racist brutalities, the film never glorifies a violent response to. His counterpoint and co-star John Boyega plays store security guard Dismukes, one of the film’s heroes, as a careful man forced to face evil with patience.
At a recent press junket, Will Poulter and I discuss his unanimously hated character Kraus, the unfortunate link his character brings from 1967 to now, and the emotional trust required for the cast to authentically evoke the night’s terror.
Cinelinx: Detroit is going to make people livid and you’re the central face of that anger and frustration. What does it feel like to be playing the focal point of audience scorn?
Poulter: Yeah, you know, I was sort of prepared. And now in the last few days, as some people have been able to see the movie, I’ve had the opportunity to hear a number of different responses and receive a sort of plethora of comments — all with a varied sense of refinement. A lot of them are anger. A lot of them are laced with the frustration that you talk about… And I think that’s valid. The only response that I haven’t had, and that I wouldn’t expect to have, and that I’d be concerned if I had received, would be empathy. If you empathize with my character I think I’ve done my job wrong.
One might empathize with a good, honest, hard-working, police officer who makes an honest mistake. But there can be no empathy, and there should be no allowances made for racially motivated — and if we’re being honest racists in general — but specifically a racist police officer.
You cannot be racially biased and harbor racist views and simultaneously and unbiasedly serve and protect everybody in a community. Those don’t go hand in hand. Unfortunately, we’ve seen cases – and all too recently- where there are individuals who are clearly racially motivated and who have acted upon those motivations. The result kills people; and then to rub salt into the wound there haven’t been convictions for those criminal acts. And that’s really the unfortunate parallel that exists between Detroit as a movie, the events of the rebellion of 1967, and what we are seeing going on all too recently.
Cinelinx: Part of the reason I experienced such anger and frustration towards your character is that he’s not a two-dimensional evil. When you show humanity it only makes it harder to endure.
Poulter: Yeah, I think you are entirely right. I think it’s vital that he does feel human to an extent because you want to be able to hold this person accountable in reality, right? As opposed to judging this demonic or evil force that’s imported into a real life situation. I think it was important to recognize Kraus as a living member of the community at that time, but also make him human and current enough that he’s identifiable today. And hopefully that’s part of the effect that character has on people — this parallel between him and the people that practice racially motivated crimes today. So it was important to humanize him. Kathryn brings about a level of authenticity in her movies that I don’t think would allow for any caricatures or hyper representations. Everything else in the film is so authentic that it would have drawn you out of the film.
Cinelinx: Kaitlyn mentioned that the script was hidden from certain actors because their characters were meant to feel more bewildered and confused, did she do anything like that with you or create a specific environment for you that had an effect on your character individually?
Poulter: Actually I read the whole script, and I felt that was necessary as my character is the main demonstrator of the pain and violence. I needed to be in control and know where this was all headed, and I needed to know what their whole sick game plan was. But the benefit for Kathryn in not having certain individuals know their fate until the last moment was that she got to capture a real sense of shock and surprise. And with the combination of that technique and the natural ability of the actors playing these actors — Detroit has some spectacular performances — from the actors playing these victims.
Cinelinx: Is there a career-risk at all in taking on a role like this?
Poulter: Mmm. I don’t think there’s necessarily a career risk; I just saw it as a big opportunity and a big responsibility to play the character of conflict in a film that has so much potential for social change and which contributes to society in a critical, yes, but ultimately positive way. The hope is that people learn from Detroit, and apply what they learn for the betterment of them and everyone else in their community, that the people that lack critical knowledge, and I imagine the vast majority of the people who lack that knowledge will be white like myself, will be encouraged to learn more and develop an empathy and understanding that is required to progress.
Cinelinx: I’ve gotten a general consensus from the other cast that you were able to generate a rapport and trust beforehand for the sake of these more difficult scenes. But I imagine that – while shooting them – you don’t joke or get lighthearted in between takes. How was it then?
Poulter: When we were shooting, and specifically the Algiers motel incident, it wasn’t appropriate nor was it helpful for us to joke or have those moments of levity at that time. But I feel like it was important for us to form genuine bonds with one another, formed out of trust, mutual respect, and love, so that when we did end the day we could enjoy each other’s company and reflect together. And because we inherently and unwaveringly entrusted one another we could go to the utmost extremes on set, and not question our genuine safety.
That way we were able to push it right to the brink. If we weren’t comfortable with each other we might not have felt confident going all the way and exploring those extremes. And it almost sounds like a paradox to build these genuinely loving & trusting relationships and perform the antithesis — at times it made it harder I suppose. But in the long run, I’m glad we made that decision because we could walk away from the experience with both a movie that we’re proud of and genuine relationships — and a sense that we did this as a team, united in the same goal.
Cinelinx: There’s an unfortunate irony in the fact that Detroit’s 1967 retelling could so easily be told today in 2017. What does the film say about today?
Poulter: I think the broadest comment that the filmmaker’s make with Detroit — is to shed light on the fact that there are people that are continually denied justice in our society, still today, just as they were then, and in similar circumstances. A great deal of progression has occurred and hard work has been done, and a lot has been achieved, but when we’re seeing instances of police brutality — fatal shootings — against innocent black people who are unarmed, totally not to blame, mistreated and denied justice the way they are, it’s hard to believe that there has been progression and genuine change. The fact is, not enough change has occurred and these things are recurring.
We can’t afford to have these criminalities go unconvicted and it needs to be treated like any other form of criminality… And I think that any hard working, honest policeman, would agree with that.
Experience Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit when it stirs up theaters August 4th.