It's rare to meet a character as truly despicable as Philip Krauss in Detroit, the young white police officer and maniacal perpetrator of the Algiers Motel killings in the midst of the 1967 Detroit riot. After a starter pistol shot is mistaken for a sniper from one motel window, Krauss forces the six black men and two white women in the motel's back annex against the wall in a small hallway. He yells at them to pray as he interrogates them about the nonexistent sniper's whereabouts while tears roll down their cheeks. One by one, he takes them into a room, questions them, and when he doesn't get the answers he wants, he fires a shot and whispers in their ear to be quiet "or the next one's for real," leading those left standing to believe their friends are bleeding out in various motel rooms. The film spends at least an hour showing Krauss harassing, beating, and brutalizing these people in a wicked death game that ends in the murder of three of the young men, next to whom the police place their own knives to falsify evidence that their black victims were armed.
After watching the brutality of Detroit, it's hard to understand why anyone would want to play Krauss — a composite character based on the real officers in the motel that night who were never found guilty of any crimes. But 24-year-old British actor Will Poulter, who took on the role, felt that the story was more important than any backlash he could face for playing an intolerable racist. “I think to turn down this responsibility would have done a disservice to the overall message of this movie, which could really impact social change," he told BuzzFeed News in New York the Tuesday morning before Detroit’s wide release. "As a young artist, the opportunity to be part of a film that actually is a reflection of reality, which sheds light on a true story, which, you know, could contribute towards critical awareness and empathy and understanding — it's such a massive, massive, massive opportunity.”
He took a breath before adding, “There’s a good chance that this might be the most socially impactful film I'm ever a part of.”
Poulter has a careful, thoughtful, pause-filled delivery, indicating he’s already been through the gauntlet of questions that come with Detroit. When discussing his reaction to seeing the film versus the reactions of his black castmates, for example, he said, “I certainly haven't been treated unfairly by the police, and that's something that I recognize, and that's another thing about being part of this film is that I've learned a lot about my own white privilege and what that is.
“I am shameful about the fact that it took this movie for me to truly understand, like a lot of white people,” he added. “The conversation about race was awkward and I was interested to learn, but I didn't do the research myself really until I came to be a part of this project.”
Audiences are introduced to Krauss — who shares similarities with real-life Officer David Senak, as well as the late former DPD patrolmen Ronald August and Robert Paille — when he unremorsefully fires shotgun shells into the back of a looter played by Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris). It's a scene Poulter noted closely mirrors the recent shootings of unarmed black men like Walter Scott — but unlike Williams’ character, the closest Scott came to committing a crime when police stopped him was having a broken taillight. “In a lot of these cases where African-American people are killed by the police, there's no robbery whatsoever," Poulter said. "In fact, there's no crime to be spoken of, and that's the scariest thing.”
When asked why he thought Krauss decided to be a police officer in the first place, considering it's a profession with a motto to protect and to serve, Poulter said, "because he actively wanted to impose his racist rhetoric." "Krauss was one of those racist, ignorant, bigoted white individuals who saw any nonwhite person, any person of color, as being part of an invasion on the city that he loved and wanted to protect and keep white," he said. “Any racist is ignorant and misguided, and it's just very, very, very tragic when someone of that psychology is put in a position of power, and that's exactly what he is as a police officer.”
Prior to working on Detroit, Poulter was attached to the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King's It as the murderous clown Pennywise, when Cary Fukunaga was still helming the project. Poulter ended up leaving the project shortly after Fukunaga did, but his early conversations with the director contributed to how he played Krauss. “We were talking about this idea of cosmic evil versus human evil, and I think through those conversations, I learned that it was important to humanize my characters," Poulter said. "Krauss was important to make human because if he was this sort of vessel for this kind of supernatural hatred that he possesses, then I wouldn't be making an accurate comment on the fact that there are individuals operating in our society who really do feel this way about their fellow human beings based on something as arbitrary as the color of someone's skin.”
But, to be clear, Poulter's intention wasn't to make audiences feel compassion for Krauss. "I didn't want anybody to empathize with him — and to be honest, I'd be concerned if anyone did," he said. "But it was important to make him human so that it was transferable to real life and people's own microenvironments.”
Early screenings for Detroit have elicited strong reactions from black critics, some of whom walked out of the movie, deeming it “the equivalent of watching the Facebook Live video of Philando Castile taking his final breath ... for two hours.” Some of those who've seen it have wondered, “Who is this film for?” and “Did the right people tell this story?” seeing as director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are white. Coming to Bigelow’s defense, Poulter said, “I think she's used her white privilege and her platform as an artist to tell a story that will hopefully draw in the widest audience possible, and I really respect her for that.” (Bigelow and Boal were not available to be interviewed by BuzzFeed News.)
The actor also stressed that Detroit is a film for everybody. “I think we need to all develop our sense of understanding and empathy. It's important that we all come to terms on history and our individual roles within history — and is there anything more important than race relations on planet Earth?”
In screenings of Detroit, Poulter said he's seen that after audiences get past their initial shock and silence, the floodgates seem to open for conversations about the incident and how it reflects present-day racial tensions. “All the way through preproduction, all the way through shooting, all the way through post, and up until now, we've just had discussion after discussion after discussion. Even in between interviews, when I take a lunch break or have a coffee, or I'm in a car on the way to whatever... we're talking about the movie," Poulter said. "It's amazing to be part of something that, you know, as painful as it is for some people, as shameful as it is for others, it's encouraging conversation, and it's engaging people in the dialogue that we have to all partake in.”
As he's traveled the world to talk about Detroit, Poulter said he’s seen people from Brazil, Australia, and other countries engage in similarly complex conversations about the film. “[Detroit] is an American tragedy," he said. "But I think the relevance is not solely American ... It's global.”