Mak­ing no apol­ogy

How John Boyega and Will Poul­ter faced their ‘Detroit’ roles


DETROIT – Less than a week into pro­duc­tion on the po­lice-bru­tal­ity docu­d­rama “Detroit,” John Boyega found him­self un­nerved. The film’s direc­tor, Kathryn Bigelow, had told Boyega a sched­ule shift was forc­ing her to shoot a key in­ter­ro­ga­tion scene that day in­stead of weeks later.

“We had just started film­ing, and there we were in this crit­i­cal scene,” the gar­ru­lous Nige­rian Bri­tish ac­tor said re­cently at a Mo­tor City restau­rant with costar Will Poul­ter. “I sat there on set, and all I could think of were Trayvon Martin and San­dra Bland and Michael Brown, and how when they woke up that day they didn’t know what would hap­pen to them. I found my­self star­ing at the hand­cuffs in the cor­ner —”

“I no­ticed the same thing,” Poul­ter, an equally out­go­ing Brit, agreed ex­cit­edly from across the ta­ble.

“Those hand­cuffs —” “Did you see the dried blood on the wall?” “Yes! We had the ex­act same re­ac­tion.” That may have been the rare time that could be said of the duo on “Detroit,” which opens na­tion­ally Friday. The well-re­viewed film did strong business in lim­ited re­lease last week — bring­ing in $350,000 from 20 the­aters — and is ex­pected to mint $10 mil­lion to $15 mil­lion as it ex­pands to more than 2,500 the­aters.

Boyega, 25, and Poul­ter, 24, play law-and-or­der men of rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent out­looks and tem­per­a­ment. Poul­ter’s pa­trol­man Philip Krauss is abra­sive and abu­sive, while Boyega’s armed se­cu­rity-guard Melvin Dis­mukes is tac­i­turn and brood­ing — a yin and yang of cin­e­matic in­ten­sity.

Given their back­grounds, Boyega and Poul­ter might seem like left-field choices for the roles. The for­mer is best known as Finn from the cur­rent “Star Wars”

fran­chise and the lat­ter as a sex­u­ally naive teen in the hit com­edy “We’re the Millers.” But their per­for­mances in the scald­ing drama of “Detroit” demon­strate that some­times the best cast­ing is the kind you never fore­see, and that of­ten the clear­est way to hold up a mir­ror to Amer­ica is with peo­ple from well out­side it.

Real-life events

Di­rected by Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) from a jour­nal­is­tic script by Mark Boal, “Detroit” chron­i­cles the har­row­ing true events at the city’s Al­giers Mo­tel dur­ing the civil un­rest of 1967. Three Detroit po­lice of­fi­cers along with Dis­mukes and a Na­tional Guards­man were ac­cused of en­act­ing a reign of ter­ror that led to the death of three young African Amer­i­can men. (A se­ries of tri­als re­sulted in no con­vic­tions.)

Krauss and Dis­mukes — the for­mer shares sim­i­lar­i­ties with the white of­fi­cer David Se­nak while the black Dis­mukes is a real-life fig­ure — are on op­po­site sides of a di­vide.

Krauss is a rin­gleader of vi­o­lence that also sees more than a half-dozen black men and two white women thrown against a wall and beaten in a trumped-up search for a gun. It’s a vi­cious per­for­mance, the ac­tor’s baby­faced de­meanor en­hanc­ing the ef­fect.

“He’s a racist first and fore­most,” Poul­ter said of how he delved into the Krauss char­ac­ter. “There’s noth­ing I can re­spect or ac­knowl­edge as sane. I didn’t want to apol­o­gize for him. But I don’t know that he’s a cos­mic form of evil. He’s a hu­man be­ing re­spond­ing to many of his frus­tra­tions by pro­ject­ing blame on a sin­gle group,” adding, “he is the epit­ome of hate.”

Dis­mukes, on the other hand, par­tic­i­pates only min­i­mally in Krauss’ tor­tur­ous stam­pede and wears a con­flicted ex­pres­sion for much of the film.

Still, his­to­ri­ans pro­fes­sional and armchair have posed the ques­tion: Should he have done more to in­ter­vene?

“Here’s the thing about telling some­one to be a hero from your po­si­tion of com­fort: It doesn’t make sense,” Boyega said, laugh­ing dis­be­liev­ingly. The ac­tor is an ex­pres­sive sort who laughs to dis­play more than just com­edy — pas­sion, skep­ti­cism, gen­eral em­pha­sis. “I was sad he was la­beled an Uncle Tom. That was like say­ing he didn’t have ac­cess to his feel­ings.”

Boyega paused. “Look, I to­tally get it. As a black per­son some­times there’s an ex­pec­ta­tion to stand up in a par­tic­u­larly dis­tinct way. But some­times you can’t. Be­cause what we all are be­fore a cer­tain color is hu­man. And that can over­ride ev­ery­thing else.”

Plenty of con­trasts ex­ist between Poul­ter and Boyega in real life too. Tall and wiry, Poul­ter had a solidly mid­dle­class up­bring­ing as the son of a car­di­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor in the pros­per­ous Lon­don neigh­bor­hood of Ham­mer­smith. Com­pact and mus­cu­lar, Boyega is the off­spring of an im­mi­grant preacher and grew up in eco­nom­i­cally strafed South Lon­don.

But they bonded as they tried to com­pute what hap­pened in the Mo­tor City in July 1967.

“Imag­ine, Will, if we saw tanks rolling down the street in Lon­don,” Boyega said.

“Just go­ing down Por­to­bello Road,” Poul­ter said, shak­ing his head.

Tour­ing Mo­tor City

The two men had come to Detroit to pro­mote the movie, en­gag­ing in a se­ries of ap­pear­ances at the likes of the Charles Wright Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory. They were clearly out­siders. Poul­ter had been to Detroit only once pre­vi­ously, to film some quick scenes. (“Detroit” was shot in Mas­sachusetts, for tax rea­sons.) Boyega had never been to Detroit.

Yet that oth­er­ness might ac­tu­ally have helped Poul­ter play a racist vil­lain. An­thony Mackie, who costars as a Viet­nam-vet survivor of the Al­giers in­ci­dent, said, “Will came from a place where he wasn’t apol­o­giz­ing, be­cause it wasn’t his legacy. An Amer­i­can would have come from a place of apol­ogy. And that would have been a dif­fer­ent per­for­mance.”

Poul­ter, in­ci­den­tally, didn’t speak to Se­nak be­fore shoot­ing the movie; it was un­clear which of the two had made that de­ci­sion. The ac­tor did watch on­line clips of Ku Klux Klan grand wiz­ards and other white su­prem­a­cists to un­der­stand a bigot’s mind set.

“It’s real-life hor­ror footage,” Poul­ter said. “The level of cer­tainty and con­fi­dence is what’s most hor­ri­fy­ing.” He also be­gan study­ing the Al­giers in­ci­dent, which to his frus­tra­tion was not taught in Bri­tish schools — or, he soon re­al­ized, Amer­i­can ones.

Boyega first learned about the Al­giers when he was couch-surf­ing in Los An­ge­les wait­ing for a pro­longed “Star Wars” au­di­tion process to play out. “I was stay­ing with th­ese girls I’d met at a party in In­gle­wood. It was Black His­tory Month, and they started watch­ing things like [Tariq Nasheed’s global African do­cuseries] ‘Hid­den Col­ors’ and episodes of ‘Roots.’ ” He soon learned about the Detroit upris­ing too, whet­ting his ap­petite for the even­tual Boal script.

One hardly needs to be a fan­boy to draw par­al­lels between the char­ac­ter of Finn, a Stormtrooper who de­cides to aban­don an es­tab­lish­ment force af­ter wit­ness­ing its cru­elty, and Dis­mukes, a man con­flicted af­ter get­ting a sim­i­larly un­com­fort­able front-row view. Boyega didn’t elab­o­rate when asked about the com­par­i­son but said the off-screen drama in­volv­ing his cast­ing as Finn — race-bait­ing crit­i­cisms fol­lowed by the ac­tor’s fa­mously cool “Get used to it” In­sta­gram post — did set the ta­ble for this role.

“I was re­minded of my color in a way that had noth­ing to do with the hel­met,” he said. “It doesn’t mat­ter where you go — a few ig­no­rant in­di­vid­u­als will come in and make com­ments about your race. Even though when you look be­hind the cur­tain it’s a bunch of id­iots. A racist sit­u­a­tion led me to see how ugly this world could be, but also led me to see that a lot of peo­ple aren’t racist.”

“Dis­mukes,” he added, “saw mul­ti­ple sides of a sit­u­a­tion too.”

Trau­matic scenes

While many of the ac­tors sub­jected to Krauss’ worst be­hav­ior de­scribed a kind of trauma on set, Poul­ter said be­ing on the other end of the gun posed its own chal­lenges. “We went to some ex­tremely heinous scenes of vi­o­lence and ha­tred. It was so hard. I’m two feet away from a man point­ing a gun, and it looks like a real gun, and I pull what feels like a real trig­ger, and it sounds like a real bul­let and a blood-bag ex­plodes in my face. It was crazy to think of the pain I in­flicted. And I thought, ‘If I felt that way act­ing, how the…. did that make [a real cop] feel?’”

The in­ten­sity of scenes like that have drawn some com­par­isons to a hor­ror movie — and could, as the film is seen by more peo­ple, elicit some crit­i­cisms it ex­ag­ger­ates the bru­tal­ity for dra­matic or po­lit­i­cal ends. Poul­ter dis­missed the idea.

“There are a lot of peo­ple who will watch this and say it’s hy­per­bolic, a car­i­ca­ture,” the ac­tor said,

“You white [if you say that],” Boyega said, laugh­ing acidly.

“They don’t know the re­search — some­times we un­der­played it.”

Boyega said be­ing in­formed about the in­ci­dent and the ri­ots they were set against isn’t just about un­der­stand­ing his­toric hor­rors but mod­ern trou­bles.

“I see ‘Detroit’ the movie as Detroit’s ori­gin story,” he said. “The scars and the hurt. This place was vic­tim­ized by sys­temic racism and vi­o­lence. And that cre­ates an im­bal­ance that’s very, very hard to sort out.”

Jef­frey Sauger For The Times

“DETROIT” STARS Will Poul­ter, left, and John Boyega play author­ity fig­ures with vastly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and tem­per­a­ment.

An­na­purna Pic­tures

“HE’S A racist first and fore­most,” Will Poul­ter says of his char­ac­ter. “I didn’t want to apol­o­gize for him.”

Fran­cois Duhamel An­na­purna Pic­tures

“DIS­MUKES saw mul­ti­ple sides of a sit­u­a­tion,” says John Boyega of his char­ac­ter in “Detroit.”

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