Will Poulter knows that sometimes it takes darkness to shed light. Such is the case with his most recent role in Detroit, the latest picture by Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. The film draws on historical records and personal accounts to portray the Algiers Motel Incident, when twelve people were brutalized by the police over the course of a harrowing night during the height of the 1967 Detroit Riots, resulting in the deaths of three young black men.
The leader of the whole sordid operation is Krauss, played by Poulter. He’s the kind of guy that you want bad things to happen to: a racist, sadistic cop who viciously terrorizes the victims in order to produce evidence that a gun, which was supposedly fired in the vicinity, was hidden in the motel. It was never found. Worse, he slithers away from all the charges leveled against him thanks to an infuriatingly prejudiced court system. There’s no justice here, just pain and rage.
It’s not a “fun” movie to watch. I left the screening sad and angry, wondering how to spin the experience into a nice piece on the rising talent who I just watched embody the most evil son of a bitch to recently grace the screen. But that’s one of the perpetual surprises of the art of acting. Will Poulter, when I meet him at a table in a sleepy hotel bar in Beverly Hills, is humble, thoughtful, and deeply considerate. He greets me warmly. Krauss’s malicious drawl replaced with a charming English accent. I’m slightly comforted, even though I ought to know better than to conflate actor with character.
Unenviably tasked with representing that old, poisonous, and specifically American strain of violent racism emboldened by government-issued authority that has seared the country repeatedly, up to the recent uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, he is extremely thoughtful about his position in all of it. Especially when you realize that he, as an Englishman, is possibly at a bit of a remove from the direct experience of the American legacy of this problem, which is the focus of the movie.
“I was just grateful to get the opportunity to play a part in a story that I think is important for everyone to know about,” he tells me after a moment of thought. “I think it’s very important also as a white male, regardless of where I’m from, to educate myself and learn more about this history – the African American history and the history of systemic racism: how the issues that we’re facing today in society came to be, how deep-rooted they are, and what the white role has been in the development of that history. There’s also this idea of undeserved privilege against unearned suffering. African American people have an unearned suffering from birth and white people have an undeserved privilege from birth.”
It’s clear from speaking with Poulter that filming a movie like this isn’t easy. The discomfort and the pain are part of the package. Viscerally confronting something as horrific as the Algiers Motel Incident is going to hurt, one way or the other. That’s what it takes to bring something like this to light, to make it real for audiences that may know about the incident (if at all) only as abstracted history. But he certainly doesn’t invite pity. As tough as it may have been for him to embody that darkness, he’s the first to say that it was harder for the other actors.
“Being on that set was phenomenally intense and very draining on everyone, but of course most draining for the African American actors who were subjected to an insane and quite horrific amount of abuse, even if it was staged. As horrific as it was for me to have to step into those shoes and perform that abuse, it can’t nearly have been as bad as it was for those guys to go through it because it’s rooted in real life experience for them. It’s a very real history for them. A personal history.”
Detroit is Poulter’s second film with an infamously intense director. Both Kathryn Bigelow and Alejandro González Iñárritu – the Academy Award-winning Mexican director of Birdman and The Revenant, in which Poulter starred alongside heavyweights Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy – are praised for the performances they elicit and for the tight and fiercely kinetic energy of their films, which often speak to larger societal themes. “I felt very lucky to work with two incredibly conscious filmmakers. They’re people who it’s very clear to me from the outset and the first instance of meeting them that their goals as filmmakers aren’t just to create a piece of entertainment, or let off a firework and have everyone “ooh” and “awe” at it,” he tells me when I ask about his experience working with the two.
“Their goal is to make things that will hopefully incite change and increase knowledge about important issues and moments in history. So for me, regardless of where I’m from, just as a young person hoping for a better future for everybody, I’m wanting to have my creative experience be more than just, you know, something that’s kind of aesthetic or surface-level. To be a part of things that will hopefully incite the change that the directors are striving for makes it really exciting.”
So, is this intensity and difficulty something he seeks out? Does he have a bit of the “Leo” impulse in him? “I think there’s a need to step outside of your comfort zone and feel challenged, to feel like it’s difficult. If you feel like it’s too easy or it’s something that you’re able to do all too naturally, then you’re not acting right. You’re not being given a beast to wrestle with. And that’s why I love what I do: because it’s difficult and I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the puzzle, and I enjoy being forced to decode something that’s very complex at times.”
This graciousness is natural to Poulter. He’s anything but the stereotypical seen-it-all, aren’t you blessed to have me, where’s the check kind of guy. The sense of magic and (he admits, despite his reputation for hard work and dedication to the craft) the luck of being able to do what he loves has not faded for him. Perhaps it comes from his unlikely actor’s bio – the son of a nurse raised in Kenya and a professor of cardiology who, in his own words, was “a crummy student,” and who came into acting not by hustling to auditions and shopping around headshots but through the encouragement of his drama teacher, who directed him in a few small school plays.
I ask him if there are any difficulties that come with rising to the top, especially as someone who was, in a sense, plucked out of everyday life and placed onto a global stage, as happened with his first film, Son of Rambow. After seemingly struggling to find a way to see the glass as half empty, he finally caves. “I mean, I don’t like people filming me and my mom eating at a restaurant without asking, but if that is the worst thing about my job, then I’m pretty lucky. I realize that I do something for a living that I love. I could be doing something far harder that is a lot more underappreciated. I’m grateful for that almost every day.”
He laughs, sizing up his personal troubles against the more monolithic issues that the world faces. It’s a sense of proportion he never fails to keep in mind. “I don’t think there’s a small enough violin in the world for my problems.” If Will Poulter represents a new mode of celebrity – thoughtful, deeply connected, eager to shed light and do meaningful work – then maybe the future of culture is brighter than we thought.
Written by Sid Feddema
Photographed by Jason Hetherington
Styled by Mark Anthony Bradley
Groomer: Victoria Bond
The Aftershock Issue: New America