Will Poulter has three movie posters hanging in his house—Snatch, Zero Dark Thirty, and Goodfellas—a trinity that might very well chart the arc of the 24-year-old Londoner’s epic Hollywood ascent. Poulter appeared opposite Snatch star Brad Pitt in this year’s satirical military drama War Machine. But it’s his turn as a racist cop in Detroit, the new film from Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow, that is likely to get his idol Martin Scorsese, and every other film director, talking. In the raw, historical nail-biter, Poulter plays Krauss, a character based on a real-life officer who patrolled Motor City during the 1967 race riots.
Although this experience telling a story of racially motivated violence was certainly the most harrowing, it wasn’t the actor’s first foray into the psyche of American culture; in 2008, at the age of 12, he made his film debut in Son of Rambow, a cult comedy that centers on two boys who bond over a homemade action movie inspired by Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood. Poulter went on to appear in films such as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) and We’re the Millers (2013). His toughest assignment to date was playing the part of a young fur trapper alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in The Revenant (2015). It was a grueling eight-month shoot that, he says, almost broke him. In hindsight, he understands that the struggle clarified things. “It made me realize that I’m addicted to the difficulty that comes with acting.”
Enter Detroit. After accepting the project, Poulter dove into research mode, watching cop movies, films about the civil rights movement, and YouTube clips on policing. “I looked at the ignorant thought structures that inform racist behavior,” he says. “I looked at the dehumanization and criminalization of innocent people based on completely fictional information that seems to be entrenched in American culture.”
Poulter’s mesmerizing performance is grounded in vitriol and hatred, and is destined to enter the pantheon of legendary cinematic bad cops, alongside Denzel Washington in Training Day and Sean Penn in Colors. “There is no pride or relish in playing this kind of role,” says Poulter, who was nevertheless emboldened by the idea of bringing to light the flaws of the system. “I saw it as an opportunity to expose these racist characters. Krauss represents bad policing; he represents racially motivated police officers, of which there are too many. One is too many.”
DETROIT IS IN THEATERS NOW.