Oscar-winning director (“The Hurt Locker “) Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film “Detroit” is the very definition of an ensemble drama. Strong characters highlight this highly-charged and already controversial film about an incident that took place during the Detroit Uprising of 1967.
Laz Alonso portrays Michigan Congressman John Conyers in the upcoming film “Detroit.” (Courtesy photo)
During the hot, violence-filled days of July 23 to July 28, 1967, amid protests, fires and looting, a number of Detroit residents holed up in the Algiers Motel, a low-budget lodging of questionable repute. The motel was also about one block away from the Great Lakes Mutual Life Insurance Company, under the protection of the National Guard and local police. When shots rang out, the soldiers and police stormed the motel, resulting in the deaths of three men.
The film stars Jacob Latimore (“The Maze Runner”), Nathan Davis Jr. (“Chase Champion”), Laz Alonso (“Avatar”), Algee Smith (“The New Edition Story”) and Joseph David Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton”). The actors recently participated in a Los Angeles press junket and discussed the production of a work that may bring Bigelow another Oscar nod.
Bigelow is known for gritty, gut-wrenching dramas, and “Detroit” is no different. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the production itself would be just as intense.
The most striking fact about the making of “Detroit” was the script—or lack thereof, depending on which cast member you ask. Though actresses Hannah Murray (“Game of Thrones”) and Kaitlyn Dever (“Bad Teacher”) revealed they received scripts a few days before filming started, this wasn’t the case for the majority of the cast.
Latimore recalls his agent calling to check up on him several times during the production, and asking about the script. He chuckles at the memory that each time, the answer was an exasperated, “I don’t know!” Smith explains that, “Kathryn wanted us to be in a vulnerable state of mind.” Much of the actors’ dialogue was improvised on the spot, with the exception of the barest outline of dialogue Bigelow wanted included in a scene. The takes often seemed open-ended, without the traditional cry of “cut” once scripted lines were completed.
Bigelow also encouraged the actors to engage in physical exercise to increase the verisimilitude of the adrenaline-filled situation. “We had to do push-ups between scenes,” Latimore and Smith remember, speaking almost in unison. Latimore said they were instructed to take a lot of deep breaths, almost to the point of light-headedness.
At one point, Smith said, co-star Will Poulter (“The Revenant”), playing the main antagonist Officer Krauss, broke down from the emotion of portraying the character. Latimore describes Poulter at that point: “He couldn’t take it anymore, he literally broke down. He ran out of the building. Algee went after him and was just out there embracing him. I’m glad we got those two weeks out of the way first off. That was a rough time.”
As a film based on actual events, research played a crucial part for the actors in preparing for their roles. Memphis-born Davis, who describes himself as being very sheltered about the world before the movie, went to Google to see what Aubrey Pollard looked like. The results shocked him—unbeknownst to him, his character was one of the men who died at the motel. “Reading about what happened to Pollard,” he says, “shut me down. My grandmother recently died and reading about all of that made me like, ‘Damn, Grandma, you went through all of this?”
Smith, who played Cleveland Larry Reed, met the man in person. He says, “I didn’t get to see Larry until the last week of shooting. I went to Detroit and I met him. He just busted out laughing when he opened the door. We talked for three hours. He made me feel the crack in his skull which he still has to this day.”
Laz Alonso plays a young Congressional Representative, John Conyers. Playing someone who has been a well-known public figure for decades posed its own challenges. “I did as much research as possible to get his voice down, to get his diction, his cadence, his rhythm, as close as I could, but more than anything it was working backwards,” he says. “Most of the material that I found was him in today’s times and just tried to work my way back to fifty years ago.”
“Detroit” opens in theaters nationwide on Aug. 4.