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Interview: John Boyega on playing Melvin Dismukes in Detroit

John Boyega. Learn the name. He’s already known to fans of Star Wars as Finn, and we’ll be seeing him later this year in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but right now, we’re getting to see Boyega in the powerful, raw, emotional and brutal Detroit. “I was looking for something serious to do. I wanted to add some versatility to the work I’ve done. I heard about Kathyrn Bigelow doing this film and I told my agent I wanted to sign up because she has this brilliant track record for making amazing films with both great realism and great character,” Boyega told me by phone from New York where he’s been doing press for the film. “I flew to New York and auditioned for her and got the part the same day. It was a quick process given I was in between the Star Wars movies, and it all worked out.”

Born in London, Boyega said he wasn’t aware of  what had happened at the Algiers Motel when he signed on to do the film, “I knew nothing coming in so it was an education for me so there was a lot of research to be done.”

It’s been fifty years since the tragic events of July 1967, when Carl Cooper, 17, Fred Temple, 18, and Aubrey Pollard, 19, were fatally shot by police at the Algiers Motel. Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a security guard who witnessed the events of that fateful night. In Detroit, Bigelow uses her camera to act as the eyes of the audience, in much in much the same way that Melvin Dismukes anchors the point of view.

Boyega says two people were instrumental in helping him get to the heart of Dismukes’ experience. First, of course, was Dismukes himself. “It was a great opportunity and responsibility I felt fit for. I got the opportunity to speak to him before we filmed and we had a long discussion about what he felt and I got to know him as a person separate to the incident.” He adds, “I learned a lot about him and he gave me his blessing moving forward and that made it easy.”

“We had a lengthy conversation and he told me that he felt responsible for those boys to a certain extent as he was the only black person there with authority. He felt like his presence there was saving them more time. He felt his presence there, the police weren’t able to do as much if he wasn’t there.”

The second person crucial to helping Boyega find a way into his role was director Kathryn Bigelow, and he has deep admiration for Bigelow’s process. “The first half of the audition was scripted so I knew what was going on, and the second half was improv with Peyton ‘Alex’ Smith. We did the scene where my character is trying to find the gun upstairs while the torturing is going on downstairs.” Of the improvisation method, Boyega says, “I will always try as much as possible to work with directors who are open to improv because you can find gems. You can get stuck with the script and the rhythm, you lose that spontaneous magic. I’m comfortable in the realms of improv and I experienced that heavily. We were able to capture such moments of quality.”

Speaking about the on-set relationship and interaction, Boyega says, “There wasn’t that much of a discussion on that level. I was quite isolated on set, but I was the observer and left to float within the scene. I was reacting based on what I knew about Melvin and what I was watching. I didn’t know what Will Poulter was going to do or how Algee Smith was going to act, and Kathyrn didn’t even tell me when the camera was on me. It was all spontaneous and she captured that well.” He says, “We would interact and we were able to just trust each other, and the conversation was kept light.”

Boyega says he wasn’t in a lot of the scenes, so watching the film for the first time he was curious to see the finished product. More importantly, he was anxious to see how moviegoers would react to some of the brutality. The most poignant screening was last week when the film was screened in Detroit. It allowed Boyega to interact with the people of Detroit and hear their stories as well as speak at a local school while there. “I was exposed to the people. We went to a food bank and I got to meet the community and it was so heartfelt connecting with the people of Detroit.”

The conversation surrounding the circumstances that led to such turmoil in 1967 Detroit feels vital; the events carry enormous importance and their significance is more urgent than ever.  “I’m based in the UK and we have our own issues with race where the Grenfell towers tragedy overlaps the deaths of young black men in police custody.” He explains, “The main fixation is on change and how we can come together to make the change and to make things work. There seems to be more unity in the UK.” Boyega continues, “In the USA, it’s a difficult time, understandably. Your leader is pants,” Boyega says smacking Trump with the British slang for rubbish. “We are here at a point where unity is important and the only path that can lead us to change is some form of honest conversation. I don’t know what the specific answer is, or what that change may be, but I do know we are stronger together.  I hope this movie sparks that conversation that leads to some form of answer.”

Beyond his work on Detroit, Boyega recently got the chance to tread the boards in London, appearing at the Old Vic in Woyzeck, an unfinished play by Georg Büchner. “It was great and the first time I was a lead. It wasn’t the easiest thing, between the movies, I’m glad I got through the six weeks. I would love to do another. We had a great cast. Sarah Greene is my favorite, she’s a talented young lady.”

And then there’s his ongoing Star Wars adventure. In between, returning to the West End stage, filming Detroit, doing press, and juggling multiple projects, Boyega was seen at Comic Con last month. He loves it. “It was great showing the fans what we’re up to.” He says, “Creatively the directors get to have conversations about what they’re doing and talk about the choices they make. In the age of click bait and assumptions, it’s good to bring the fans in early. These things are really important.”

Detroit is released everywhere August 4.

Read Sasha’s review : http://www.awardsdaily.com/2017/07/23/living-hell-outskirts-detroit-bigelows-new-film-stunner/