Described by Rolling Stone as having “the adrenaline punch of a thriller and the deep-seated sorrow that comes with watching history repeat itself,” Detroit is one of the most impactful pieces of cinema to command the screens this summer. Starring John Boyega, Will Poulter and Algee Smith, the film tackles one of the most horrific examples of racial injustice and police brutality in the history of the United States.
Based on the real-life Algiers Motel incident in Detroit, the film, directed by Academy Award-winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and written by Mark Boal, draws upon John Hersey’s 1968 book The Algiers Motel Incident as well as the testimony of those who experienced the incident firsthand. Both the book and the film focus on the 1967 12th Street Riot, in which three black men were killed and nine other people were brutally beaten by police – a horror that still feels devastatingly relevant today.
Below, we speak with one of the film’s star’s, 28-year-old actor Joseph David-Jones, about the highly anticipated project, Bigelow’s unorthodox methods, and why, if you ever lock your keys in the car, you should call Miguel (yes, that Miguel).
What was your first reaction to reading the script and learning about your character, Morris?
Well we never got a script for this film, so I didn’t really know who Morris was. I knew he was in The Dramatics, and I was asked to learn the more popular songs in their repertoire, but I had to kind of discern what the movie was about through the audition process.
What was the audition process like?
The screen test was at [producer] Megan Ellison’s house, and in the midst of performing one of the songs a cop ran in, jammed us against the wall and he went down the line asking each and every one of us where the gun was. Like, we already don’t know what’s going on so they really got our natural reactions to the situation. I think everyone in that room except for one guy ended up being in the movie. From that I looked up the Detroit riots, the Algiers Motel, and realized: that’s the scene. Kathryn told me bits and pieces of what she wanted from the character, but I had to wait until we started shooting to learn what his arc was. Which is crazy! But there was definitely a method to her madness–it got these shocking and very real performances out of everyone.
So if you weren’t getting a script every morning, what did that process look like day-to-day?
For things like a big music performance we would get the script the day before, but otherwise since we had already learned the repertoire we’d learn what song they wanted us to shoot day-of. Even if we did get a script the day before, you’d get to set and get new pages and it would be a completely different scene. I remember one four-page scene got cut down to one, and sometimes they would add pages. The only person who was equipped and had worked with Kathryn before was Anthony Mackie for Hurt Locker. So in the beginning we were all like, “hey man… is this normal?” She was all about capturing moments, as opposed to creating them. So we had sort of free license to do anything we wanted to do in the scene–hidden cameras would follow us as we were living out moments in the story. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
You mentioned in an interview for LAPALME Magazine that this role has been the most challenging for you. Was that because of the process?
That and you don’t get second chances to make first impressions. This is something that’s going to be seen by critics, and you don’t want to mess up. And at the same you don’t know what you’re doing. So it was hard to feel prepared for the unknown. Also, I’ve done true stories before but nothing on this scale–nothing with this level of relevance. If done right, this speaks volumes. Being on a film like this, where you have family members and people who have lived through it there with you hoping that you get it right and that their stories are told, there’s so much more weight to that. You want to do justice to the story.
And because you’re dealing with real events that might mirror the issues we face today, would you guys talk about the news on set?
Every day. People had heavy scenes that rang true then and now. Luckily we did have lighter music scenes, but other days people would be crying for seven, eight hours to get the shot right. It was tough. Going from shooting it to being back in the world, you get to see how far we’ve come. But then you see how far we have yet to go. We did a panel in Detroit, and we were talking about the fact that at the time of these riots the police force was 95 percent white. Now, they have one of the most diverse police forces in the nation. So that’s progress. But you see the headlines every day, you read news interviews today; we still have so much further to go.
Much like in real life, art finds its way in the midst of so much darkness. Was it nice to break from the heaviness of it all to focus on the musical aspect of the film?
Music does so much in this film. It shows something that’s so relatable, on any scale, of a dream. We see someone with a dream, who has hopes for their life, and you see how this tragedy robs him of that. Even though there’s a bit of redemption in the end, you feel it in the moments.
And speaking of the music scenes, you got to work with Miguel…
Funny story! Miguel was at the screen test at Megan Ellison’s house and I had locked my keys in my car, and he called AAA for me and waited by my car with me! He waited for an extra hour with me, everyone else had already left, and we just talked–super nice dude! Initially he was supposed to have a bigger role, but because of his tour schedule he couldn’t do it.
So new rule of thumb: if you ever lock your keys in a car, call Miguel.
Working with Miguel was amazing I’m sure, how was your experience working with the cast as a whole?
It was the heart of everything. Because so much of this was improv, we really needed to have that friendship with each other for those moments to ring true. The whole first week of camera testing, Kathryn encouraged us to hang out and spend time with each other. So we’d go and test, and then we’d be free the entire day to get to know each other. That ended up being kind of a saving grace during a lot of the heavier stuff, because we still had each other. We all still hangout and talk to one another! We still have this group text that’s going on constantly.
Who’s in the group text!
Everybody–Leon Thomas, Algee Smith, Jacob Latimore, Ephraim Sykes, Will Poulter, Peyton ‘Alex’ Smith, Nathan Davis Jr., Malcolm David Kelley–everybody has three names–and Tyler James Williams. It’s crazy.
I feel like that closeness might not always happen on set. Is that the case?
Most of the time you do something and you’re amicable on set, but the second that project is over everyone goes back to their lives. This is the first time for me where it’s been like everyone has stayed so close, even in between the film and doing press.
And now you have the premiere of Inner City (also starring Denzel Washington) coming up. What’s next after that?
I’ve been trying to take a little break from acting so I can finish this screenplay that I’m working on. It’s a true-crime drama that I’m adapting about kids that pull a heist. I’ve always wanted to create and produce my own films, and acting is my avenue to that because before, you know, I was a nobody kid from nowhere–from nowhere, Kentucky!
All Images: JSquared Photography
Grooming: Melissa Walsh