Critically, Detroit was a triumph. Most people who saw Kathryn Bigelow’s profound and pertinent drama were left enlightened and moved by what they had seen, yet the box office figures were a little disappointing. Will Poulter – who plays the violently racist cop Philip Krauss in Detroit – spoke exclusively to Yahoo Movies to explain why he believed this to have been the case.
The 24-year-old Brit discusses whether the film was too relevant and too challenging a watch, at a time when the real world had become so depressing that perhaps viewers were craving escapism. He also discusses just how difficult a role it was for him to embody, and whether he had any apprehensions about taking on a character of this nature.
He goes on to talk about an actor’s obligation to be vocal on current socio-political issues, and why he decided to turn down the role of Pennywise in recent horror sensation It.
Yahoo Movies: Though a critical triumph, it’s fair to say Detroit didn’t meet box office expectations. Why do you think that might be? Was it maybe too pertinent for some audience members?
I would echo that, and agree with it entirely. Critically people looked at the film very favourably, and it’s no secret that from a box office perspective it was slightly underwhelming. I think that was disappointing for us to some extent, but this movie was never made to make hundreds of millions of dollars, it was never that film. But it was certainly our intention for as many people to see it as possible, and people from all walks of life because there’s an opportunity here for education and empathy, for people who, at no fault of their own, may lack that. I know I did before going in to the process.
Our goal was to capture as many eyes and ears as possible and draw attention to the truths about an event that have never really been told in an honest light. It points a finger to the fact that this is still happening, these events of course happened in 1967 but they continue to happen today. Does its relevance explain why people maybe avoided it? Are audiences more hungry for escapism than ever as we witness what appears to be a social tragedy and civil rights regression on a daily basis? Maybe.
But I think the responsibility lies with filmmakers and creatives to make statements about social elements, as much as it lies with audience members to actually face up to reality. I think going to the cinema, or listening to a really wonderful album, or watching a brilliant documentary, these are arguably the best ways to consume critical information about the world around you and what’s going on.
I think potentially Detroit came at a time when it was arguably too much to bear for some people. And the hope is that those people who missed it in the first instance, or for whom it was maybe too much when it initially came out, might now revisit it and give it a second chance and really take something positive away from it. As tragic as the story is, and as much as it’s characterised by a loss of life, and it is an intense watch, there is positive social application with this film, that I think is the lasting note. It’s a lesson, it’s informative, it’s designed to improve us, not take us backwards. For that reason I would argue, why wouldn’t you see it?
Yahoo Movies: How did you go about getting into the mindset of a role like this? That can’t have been an easy place to take yourself?
Will Poulter: Yeah from an emotional, moral standpoint, it was a very uncomfortable place to be, it just conflicted so strongly with how I was inherently raised, and how I carry myself. But just to have to even for a moment believe in the mindset of a racist, the task is made particularly difficult because it’s such a wildly ignorant and misguided thought structure.
Anyone who is racist has built an opinion based on a bunch of mythology and lies about people of colour, and the supposed threat they pose to white people. And of course it doesn’t take a genius to work out through some very basic research, and a brief glance at the history books, that historically it’s always been the other way round. So one thing I had to come to terms with is that I wasn’t going to find any sound logic to Krauss’ way of thinking.
Some actors have claimed that in order to embody a role, they need to like, or find empathy with them in order to get into their head and portray them. Was that possible here?
No, not really. In most cases when you play an unlikeable character, we like to not judge them too much and identify something within them we can respect or identify with having ourselves. That’s important in order to gain an entry point into their psychology. With Krauss there was nothing, so it was about really committing to this make believe propaganda-full idea of people of colour being a threat, that many racist people believe in, and I took that in combination with a young kid who was power hungry and in a position of power.
It made for a really deadly combination that we can identify with in society today all too regularly. There are incredibly bigoted people who are in positions of power and unfortunately, bigotry and influence on any scale makes for very negative outcomes, but particularly when we talk about members of law enforcement or political figures, the effects can be deadly.
Were there any apprehensions in getting involved in this project, perhaps to protect your public image? Because there are people out there who struggle to find a distinction reality & fiction.
Any hesitancy was removed pretty quickly by a number of things. Kathryn Bigelow was at the helm, it was an insanely talented cast and crew were being assembled, and so from a creative standpoint it was too good to turn down. Films with the potential to affect social change and make such an astute socio-political comment that Detroit makes, come around so rarely, that I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity in being a part of a really special movie because of it has potential beyond just being a piece of entertainment.
At the end of the day, we are trying to do justice to the facts of a story that resulted in the death and brutalisation of a number of victims who never got any justice, or their day in court. So if I was to turn down the opportunity of being part of this film, and the responsibility of playing this role because I was scared of how I might be perceived, or that it might be too psychologically uncomfortable, I see that as denying a responsibility that really I felt that I had to take on.
It’s the least we owe to the memory of the people that were killed and affected by this event, and as actors sure we face some emotional difficulties playing roles but whatever difficulty we faced would have paled in comparison to what the real individuals faced. It’s just enduring a little bit of stress, and minor trauma for the purpose of serving this really important story that was always swept under the rug and never really reached the just end.
On Twitter of late you have been vocal about the whitewashing in Hollywood, and on Trump’s plans to allow the import of animal trophies. Do you think you have an obligation as a public figure to discuss these issues and use whatever influence you have?
100%. I feel like it would be neglectful not to. I am very mindful of the fact I come from a family of medics and one thing I’ve always been very aware of is that my job is very well-celebrated and I’m very lucky to do what I do for a living, but I’m not saving lives. I think the least I can do as an actor is make sure that what I do create does more than just entertain, there’s always going to be room for escapism and entertainment, some of my favourite artists and creatives offer me great escapism from the mundane realities of life.
The Trump administration is attempting to repeal #NetNeutrality The internet will become less accessible & more expensive for everybody BUT an elite and already rich group. This could be devastating to the livelihoods of people who rely on the internet
Free text RESIST to 50409
— Will Poulter (@PoulterWill) December 14, 2017
But as creatives, now more than ever, there is a call to action and with the films we engage in and the art we create, I think we have to seen to do more than just entertain. As I said, there’s room for all of it, but I think to just confine any creatives to one thing and not allow them to be active and be sociopolitically conscious and try and affect change with their work, kind of goes against the origins of what it is to be a creative. Historically speaking, it was the artist’s job to reflect on the realities of everyday life and use their work to try and better society. And this idea that actors should stick to acting, they shouldn’t be so political, to stay in their line, which is the sort of sentiment which has been echoed by Trump and lots of other people in the past, is actually a really misinformed perspective on what it is to be an actor, or any creative in my view.
So yes, I feel the responsibility and I definitely don’t shy away from harnessing it.
I noticed on Halloween you dressed up as Sid from Toy Story for anti-bullying?
Yeah, truth be told I’m not a huge Halloween fan, I have enough social anxiety as it is to dress up as anything and draw attention to myself, but it’s an organisation I’ve been involved with for a very long time. I was well aware of the comparisons being made between myself and Sid on the internet and I’d seen it so many times, I thought it was about time I properly acknowledged it and hopefully in turn, drew some attention to a really fantastic cause who I’m lucky to be associated with.
At Halloween this year a very popular choice of fancy dress was Pennywise. Now obviously that’s a role you turned down. What were the reasons behind that? And looking back is it a decision you’re still pleased you made?
I’m genuinely pleased to see how well the film has done, and I’m really happy for Andy Muschietti who I met with and spoke very seriously with about working on the project. But after various discussions we parted in different directions in a really civil manner, with our relationships in tact. We just had different visions for the character and for what the film was, but I’m really pleased to see how well it has done, and I watched it and had a great time while doing so.
Was the project quite close to Detroit? Because I imagine emotionally doing those two back-to-back wouldn’t have been easy either…
Yeah there wasn’t any way I could’ve done Pennywise and Detroit back-to-back anyway, but to be honest I don’t recollect where those two things fell on the timeline exactly, but I was very lucky to even be associated to the It project for the length of time that I was, and obviously I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of Detroit too.
Detroit is available on Digital Download from today and Blu-ray & DVD from 8 January 2018.