Poulter keen to cause change
Known for action movies and comedies, one British actor is a chilling revelation in his latest role, discovers James Croot.
Escapism is fine, but Will Poulter wants to be involved in movies that can alter perceptions. The 24-year-old British star of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, We’re the Millers and The Maze Runner franchise says working on his new movie Detroit has given him a taste of the power of cinema.
Set around the 12th Street Riots in the eponymous city in 1967, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow’s film sees Poulter play Philip Krauss, a police officer prepared to go to extreme lengths to uphold the law, as he perceives it.
Speaking from Sydney while on a whistlestop promotional tour for the film, Poulter says ‘‘a trifecta of things’’ attracted him to the role.
‘‘First, all the creative ingredients were there. Just working with Kathryn Bigelow was enough to excite me. Secondly, I think the role offered me the chance to show off a different side of myself. And, third and most importantly, it was an opportunity to be a part of a story that I felt really needed to be told.
‘‘It was a case of severe injustice that wasn’t well-known enough and that actually bears a really unfortunate relevance to a lot of the issues we’re seeing now, not just in America, but the world over as far as race relations are concerned, as well as cases of police brutality that aren’t being stamped out harshly enough.’’
Admitting that he didn’t know much about the specific events in the film, Poulter says he approached his part by educating himself about what it would be like to be a police officer at that time.
‘‘As part of the Detroit Police Force, you would have been part of an organisation that was 95 per cent white who was supposedly looking to serve and protect a community that was 40 per cent African-American.
‘‘There was a wildly disproportionate amount of African Americans and people of colour being arrested and being made the subject of police brutality. That was heartbreaking, because a lot of African-American people came to Detroit, as they did to many other cities, in search of the civil rights they were denied in the south, only to find them continually denied.’’
Poulter adds that he believes that while much has changed in the intervening half-century, recent events have shown not enough has.
‘‘There’s still a great deal more progression to take place and we need to think very carefully about how to make that a reality in the not-toodistant future.’’
The life-long Arsenal fan (who admits to having his heart broken by Arsene Wenger’s side too many times in the past decade) says he enjoyed working with a cast (which also includes John Boyega, Anthony Mackie and John Krasinski) from backgrounds very different to his own, admitting that he learned a lot from them.
‘‘As a straight, white male, I have virtually no experience of prejudice. I heard stories from people who have and learning about their experiences was key in developing my empathy and understanding. A lot of people will hold their hands up and confidently say they’re not racist, and I was one of those people, but I couldn’t confidently say that I’m actually taking steps towards making the world fairer. I think it’s all very good standing on top of a platform and pointing down at atrocities below, but if you’re not contributing towards levelling the playing field and making things fairer, then I don’t think we’re maximising our opportunities as human beings.’’
Conversely, Poulter says the toughest challenge of bringing this role to life was ‘‘having any sort of faith or confidence in such a flawed logic as racism’’.
‘‘When you look at the intimate details of the racist rhetoric, it’s very hard to see anything that’s factual or sound, or based in reality. What racists believe is a subversion of the truth. That was a difficult thing to grapple with.’’
The toughest scene for him was when he had to brutally ‘‘interrogate’’ young black man Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore).
‘‘Jacob is a friend of mine and having to enact that sort of brutality against someone I knew well and is just such a phenomenal actor was so affecting. I think part of why I found it so difficult was that his performance just kind of splintered my character’s resolve.’’
Poulter, who fell in love with New Zealand when he attended the 2011 Rugby World Cup with his dad, says director Bigelow played a big part in helping him meet the challenges of the role.
‘‘In many ways, it’s what she didn’t do. She reduced her direction down to something as simple as ‘do whatever feels natural’. That’s like, arguably, a dangerous thing to tell an actor.
‘‘I think what she does is she puts realism and accuracy at the top of her list of priorities. She is interested in making something that is as immersive for her actors as it is for her audience. What that does is it makes for realistic performances and hopefully a realistic impression left on the audiences that watch our films.
‘‘She’s also a revolutionist. With every piece of work she’s trying to cause change, trying to create art that really does palpably impact the world in a positive way. That’s what I think more people in the creative industry need to get in touch with.
‘‘Escapism is fantastic and there’s room for everything on the entertainment spectrum. But the stuff that actually causes change, that’s what I personally want to be a part of, and obviously we need more of.’’ ❚
Detroit (R16) is now screening.
In Detroit, Will Poulter plays Philip Krauss, a police officer prepared to go to extreme lengths to uphold the law, as he perceives it.
Poulter says it was an honour to work with Detroit director Kathryn Bigelow.