Star John Boyega talks about re-cre­at­ing tense, fa­tal 1967 riot in Mo­tor City

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Wen­zel

W het­her play­ing a wide-eyed Stormtrooper go­ing AWOL in “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awak­ens,” or a South Lon­don teen bat­tling aliens in “At­tack the Block,” John Boyega has swiftly carved a niche for him­self as a ki­netic, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him per­former.

But there’s more to Boyega than re­booted franchises and edgy sci-fi, as the 25-year-old Bri­tish ac­tor has shown in TV se­ries like “24: Live An­other Day.”

For his lat­est project, di­rec­tor Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” Boyega por­trays se­cu­rity guard Melvin Dis­mukes, who played a cen­tral role dur­ing 1967’s 12th Street Riot. Specif­i­cally, Dis­mukes be­came en­tan­gled in events at the Al­giers Mo­tel in which three black men were mur­dered and nine others bru­tal­ized dur­ing a chaotic, racially mo­ti­vated in­ter­ro­ga­tion by white po­lice of­fi­cers and sol­diers.

As the only black man in a po­si­tion of (rel­a­tive) power dur­ing the in­ci­dent, Dis­mukes helped defuse a sit­u­a­tion that had all the mak­ings of an out­right mas­sacre — or so the film ar­gues, fill­ing in the gaps of court tes­ti­mony with the help of the re­al­life Dis­mukes, whom Boyega spoke to for re­search.

We caught up with Boyega via phone from Detroit this week, where he was pro­mot­ing the movie, about its in­ten­sity, work­ing with Bigelow — the first woman to win a Best Di­rec­tor Os­car (for 2009’s “The Hurt

Locker”) — and what his life looks like in the run-up to “Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi,” which will be re­leased on Dec. 15.

Q: I’m guess­ing you have your pick of pro­jects lately thanks to Star Wars. How did “Detroit” come to your at­ten­tion?

A: It came in as an au­di­tion op­por­tu­nity and my sched­ule freed up, so we as­sumed that we had time to just fit a movie in — but a movie that was grounded and based on a true story. It’s an is­sue that I’m very pas­sion­ate about given the sub­ject mat­ter, so it came through my agents and I trav­eled to New York to au­di­tion, where I read the script for first time and found out Kathryn (Bigelow) was di­rect­ing it. I got it the same day.

Q: Wow. Is that an unusu­ally quick turn­around?

A: Yeah, it was the first time I had read the script and ev­ery­thing, given how se­cre­tive it all was. I had to read it in my ho­tel. So then I au­di­tioned, got the part and went back to Lon­don to start do­ing prep for it.

Q: Cer­tainly you’re no stranger to se­cre­tive scripts, given your role in the new Star Wars tril­ogy.

A: Haha ... yeah, that wasn’t a prob­lem. I re­ally don’t know why (the “Detroit” script) was so se­cre­tive. But every­one has a cre­ative process and I didn’t have the de­tails, given how I came to the project. So when we were ready to shoot I was just like, “cool.” Noth­ing is hurt by mak­ing the script se­cret. Some­times you might be go­ing through rewrites, or there’s some­thing you want to change that is in­ac­cu­rate, or some­thing gets out and peo­ple as­sume that’s what’s go­ing on with the film.

Q: How did you prep for your role?

A: Ac­tu­ally I had a great op­por­tu­nity be­cause Melvin Dis­mukes is very in­ter­est­ing for a few rea­sons. He’s the eyes of the au­di­ence, kind of how we would all be in a sit­u­a­tion like this. He’s al­ways caught be­tween sev­eral dif­fer­ent worlds. It was a tricky story for me to un­der­stand, be­cause in most sto­ries like this the char­ac­ters pick a side. And be­fore I spoke to him I only had to see him as a char­ac­ter. But he gave me so much more per­spec­tive on how he ac­tu­ally felt, and be­ing con­fused in this. He didn’t wake up that morn­ing ex­pect­ing to be in that sit­u­a­tion. It was ob­vi­ously a big shock for him, try­ing to keep the peace. He wasn’t on work­ing hours and the (gro­cery) store (where Dis­mukes worked) wasn’t his re­spon­si­bil­ity. He went out to the sol­diers, of­fered them cof­fee and made sure he knew the de­tails of the sit­u­a­tion. So by the time he ended up at the Al­giers Mo­tel, he was the only (black man) who stood as an im­age of au­thor­ity. He had a badge, he had a gun, and he was able to be a li­ai­son.

Q: The ten­sion through­out those scenes is al­most un­bear­able, like watch­ing a hor­ror movie or a war movie.

A: For me that’s what’s in­ter­est­ing about him — that he has no in­ten­tion of be­ing in the mid­dle of this, but he’s the only per­son who stands as a bea­con of hope for the safety of the others. He would tell me that the one time he was scared was when the po­lice of­fi­cers asked him to leave the ho­tel, and he felt like when he was there those guys (the civil­ians) were much more safe. (Dis­mukes) could slightly in­flu­ence the way in which they were treated. He would go up­stairs and say, “Let’s just give them some­thing, even if it’s a fake gun.” He tried to be strate­gic and had to ma­neu­ver just this bla­tant ig­no­rance. And I’m the only one in the cast who gets the chance to re­ally talk to the man who was in that real sit­u­a­tion. It gives you more of a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. I’ve never prepped like that be­fore with a re­al­life per­son.

Q: Had you ever been to Detroit prior to film­ing there last sum­mer?

A: Well, I’ve just been to and from the air­port and stay­ing in a nice ho­tel, so I can’t com­plain about Detroit. I haven’t had time to go out, but I’ve been meet­ing with sev­eral dif­fer­ent peo­ple in the com­mu­nity and every­one seems re­ally, re­ally great.

Q: What kinds of dis­cus­sions did you have with Kathryn Bigelow about how to play your char­ac­ter, and what kind of tone to set?

A: It was bla­tant what the tone was from read­ing the script. Ob­vi­ously it’s based on a true story. I’ve al­ways been a big fan of Kathryn’s shoot­ing style, be­cause the cam­era is lit­er­ally the eyes of the au­di­ence. It isn’t set in a dance. It sees some­thing crazy hap­pen­ing in the back­ground and quickly pans in and it’s us. So I knew that there was real sense of just be­ing nat­u­ral. That was very piv­otal to the per­for­mance be­cause she would leave the scenes open for two to three min­utes longer than the script. We would go through the di­a­logue and we all knew, just from know­ing her, to keep it go­ing and get some re­ally good parts in the scene that are dy­namic and dra­matic.

Q: Was that nerve-wrack­ing as an ac­tor — be­ing ex­pected to im­pro­vise in a his­tor­i­cal drama?

A: That’s the great thing about know­ing when you sign up into a project: You know who you’re work­ing with. You go back and watch their films and see the way in which they cap­ture sto­ries. I was a big fan of that, and I was hop­ing she would do that. It’s ar­tis­ti­cally bril­liant as an ac­tor to have that, that chance to im­prov and fit into your char­ac­ters a bit more with­out rules.

Q: Your char­ac­ter is of­ten sep­a­rated from the others

in the film. Did you main­tain that off-screen with the cast? A: I did be­cause there’s a cer­tain unique level of em­pa­thy that you feel when a stranger is go­ing through some­thing, and you’re try­ing as much as pos­si­ble to help. There’s a dif­fer­ent vibe to it, rather than if you know every­body and are al­ways around every­one. You’re just fa­mil­iar with them. I de­cided to keep sep­a­rate be­cause it helped me in un­der­stand­ing him and his po­si­tion. When the di­a­logue would hap­pen it just felt fresh. It felt like Dis­mukes was just in the sit­u­a­tion for the first time in his life. There was loads of stuff I was notic­ing while the cam­eras were rolling and it was nice not get­ting to know the boys too much. It would show in your eyes on screen, so I made sure I kept my­self sep­a­rate, and that helped me con­vey a truth that Dis­mukes talked to me about.

Q: And I’m sure you felt a great re­spon­si­bil­ity to the per­son you were play­ing on screen.

A: This is se­ri­ous sub­ject mat­ter, with some­body who is still alive and has a beat­ing heart. I felt I would breathe eas­ier speak­ing to him, be­cause the guy’s go­ing to watch this per­for­mance of some­one por­tray­ing a very sen­si­tive part of his life. Stay­ing dis­ci­plined and be­ing a tad bit iso­lated re­ally helped me stay on the board. It doesn’t mean I didn’t say hi to every­one once in awhile, but the role is sig­nif­i­cant in that he does feel alone in this. I was re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing sure that came through.

Q: There are ob­vi­ous lessons in this film and par­al­lels to to­day’s so­ci­ety. But it’s a bru­tal ride, re­gard­less. Is there op­ti­mism? Hope?

A: I see it in the var­i­ous scenes that show a sense of com­mu­nity, or a sense of care, par­tic­u­larly be­tween our young guys and fam­ily mem­bers. The dark tone is re­quired, but it sup­ports some­thing that will end up be­ing a pos­i­tive con­ver­sa­tion that could help move things for­ward, rather than ar­gu­ing or bick­er­ing or in­fus­ing a con­flict. It’s based on a true story, so I would have loved for the guys to have made it out alive and every­body be fine. But the re­al­ity is not that. And yes, you do feel drained af­ter watch­ing it. But it’s im­por­tant to learn about our world. We’re here. We’re all in this to­gether. Every­body knows that race is still an is­sue, so I per­son­ally think it’s pos­i­tive for peo­ple to watch this. We can’t al­ways think that pos­i­tiv­ity ex­ists in a world in which we’re com­fort­able. There is also pos­i­tiv­ity in fac­ing the is­sues.

Q: You just did Comic-Con In­ter­na­tional in the midst of do­ing press for “Detroit.” Will there be much breath­ing room be­tween pub­lic­ity for this and the run-up to the new “Star Wars” in De­cem­ber?

A: Yeah, there is and this is ob­vi­ously very, very im­por­tant. “Star Wars” is its own ma­chine so it all co­ex­ists, and every­one at Dis­ney has been very sup­port­ive. Also, it’s a given with “Star Wars” that it’s lucky enough that it doesn’t need to con­vince peo­ple to watch it. They’ve got that all fig­ured out. So I’m able to pri­or­i­tize and fo­cus on this im­por­tant film.

Pho­gos by Fran­cois Duhamel, Annapurna Pic­tures

John Boyega por­trays real-life se­cu­rity guard Melvin Dis­mukes in di­rec­tor Kathryn Bigelow’s drama “Detroit.”

A scene of vi­o­lence and frus­tra­tion is re­vis­ited on the streets in “Detroit.”

Pro­vided by Lu­cas­film

John Boyega in “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awak­ens.”

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