With Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit now in theaters, I recently landed an exclusive interview with one of its stars: John Boyega. He talked about what it was like on set making such an intense film, how he likes to prepare for a role, what he was nervous to shoot prior to filming, his preference for the amount of takes he likes to do, how additional photography is part of the filmmaking process but that they didn’t do any on Detroit, and a lot more. In addition, with Boyega being one of the producers on Pacific Rim: Uprising, he talked about how he landed that role, what it was like working for Rian Johnson on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, if he’s going to work with Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) again, and what kinds of projects he wants to do in the future.
If you haven’t seen any of the Detroit trailers or read Matt Goldberg’s glowing review, the crime thriller is set against the backdrop of the Detroit riots of 1967, which were initiated by a police raid of an unlicensed bar in the city’s Near West Side. The confrontations turned violent, resulting in the deaths of 39 people and leaving hundreds wounded as the riots lasted for five days. Bigelow’s film, which was scripted by Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), zeroes in on one specific event that took place during the riots—a raid of a motel that blurred the lines between good cops and bad cops. The ensemble cast also includes Chris Chalk, Nathan Davis Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Austin Hébert, Joseph David-Jones, Malcolm David Kelley, John Krasinski, Jacob Latimore, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell, Hannah Murray, Ben O’Toole, Will Poulter, Jack Reynor, Algee Smith, Peyton Alex Smith, Jeremy Strong, Ephraim Sykes, and Leon Thomas III.
Collider: What’s more nerve wracking: trying not to reveal Star Wars spoilers or doing a play at the Old Vic?
BOYEGA: Doing a play at the Old Vic for sure.
I was going to say that must have been like one of the career highlights for doing something there.
BOYEGA: Yeah, doing a play at the Old Vic for me was one of the best things that ever happened to me and I needed it. I needed to go back on stage, I needed to refresh and get to know myself on … and get involved with my craft on a very raw level and the best way to do that was is when the audience is right in front of you. When there is no room for mistake. When people have paid a large sum to come and watch you live and I enjoyed doing that.
Let’s jump into Detroit. It’s such an intense film. Can you talk about how the shoot went and how Kathryn [Bigelow] ran the set?
BOYEGA: She was great. It was smooth. But it was definitely a challenge, even grueling at times, given the subject matter. Kathryn sets … well there was a mild intensity to it, given what it’s about race and we had actors on set that had to go to places emotionally that were quite uncomfortable. So there was a need for a form of intensity on set. But it ended up working out, you know? And we had a good fun, good laughs as well. Especially when you had Mr. Anthony Mackie on set sometimes, there’s always space for a laugh when he’s around. Yeah, we had a brilliant time.
I heard this story, and I don’t know if it’s true, that she supposedly withheld portions of the script so some actors would be surprised as they were filming to find out what exactly was going on. Did that happen to you in any of the scenes?
BOYEGA: Not true, I think that was mostly for Algee. That was mostly for Algee Smith, but everyone else was pre-clued up but him. So I don’t know what specifically she wanted from him but that was the best process I guess.
The film had so many scenes that looked tough to shoot. What was the one that maybe you were most nervous to get right, prior to the shoot?
BOYEGA: It would definitely be the interrogation scene. The scene in which Melvin discovers that he is now a suspect. And I didn’t know that that was … we didn’t know I was going to shoot that, that day. That scene was actually scheduled in to be shot much later in the schedule. And I ended up having to shoot it in the first week of filming. And I hadn’t shot the scenes that kind of warm me up to that moment. And that was a big moment for me in the whole film and that was challenging.
How do you typically like to prepare for a role and how did it differ getting ready for Detroit?
BOYEGA: With Detroit, it starts with research about the circumstance. About the time, the history. We all had to do that and we all had to research because a lot of us didn’t know about the particulars during the military operation that happened, at the Algiers [Motel]. I didn’t know about it, so I had to do that research. And then the second factor is obviously Melvin Dismukes is still alive so I to meet him and speak to him and get to know him as a man. And then as a person and obviously get to know him as it relates to the specific situation. And we did, we had a great time talking.
I can’t even imagine what that meeting was like.
BOYEGA: It was amazing and he was very transparent in how he felt and I was given a blueprint and I was given clarity on certain decisions. And just to get to know who I’m portraying and what kind of character I’m learning how to build. I kind of see a Lego sometimes, you just have to build a character around an emotional truth and he was there to facilitate that.