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Interview: Detroit’s Joseph David-Jones on working with Kathryn Bigelow

In Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Joseph David-Jones plays Morris, a singer in the soul group The Dramatics. The band were on the brink of success when the Detroit rebellion of July 1967 interrupted their first performance at the Fox Theatre. David-Jones stars alongside Algee Smith, John Boyega, Anthony Mackie, Jacob Latimore, and Will Poulter in a film that vividly reconstructs the events of that tragic evening.

I talked with David-Jones about working with Bigelow and what he learned from her process. David-Jones told me about the audition at Megan Ellison’s house, and how being kept in the dark about details helped create the spontaneous organic performances we see in this harrowing film.

What’s the Detroit journey been like?

Going from shooting it. We didn’t really know the story. We only got the bits and pieces of the script that we were in. When we got to see it for the first time, we had that same shocked feeling as everyone else. Most of us didn’t know the full arc and hadn’t seen the other performances until then.

There was so much anticipation leading up to the release as to what the film was going to be and how powerful it was going to be. I was at a lost for words.

When you’re only being given a few lines, how does that challenge your work as an actor, especially as it’s a true story?

Working with the caliber, you really want to bring your A-game. You don’t have the full script to work with, and it was terrifying in a sense. No one wanted to be the weak link in this chain with this cast and crew. There was that pressure, but working with Kathryn who is a genius, with any project you do there has to be that element of trust between the actors, the directors, and the writer just to know that what they’re putting out is something great.

With Kathryn, there was total faith with what she was doing and no one questioned it at all. All the performances were so real, you had to live it and it made us better actors when you’re living in that moment as opposed to trying to find what a scene is supposed to be and how you’re supposed to be?

How do you audition when there’s no script?

I’ve never done an audition like this. I got scenes that weren’t in the movie, they were scenes that were in line with the tone of what they were looking for with each character. When they like those scenes, we were brought in for a camera test. I think everyone at my test ended up being in the film in some shape or form. We went into this test with no lines or dialogue and they gave us the gist of what they wanted us to do. They told us we were hanging out in the hotel room, singing and just chilling and that something was going to happen.

It was actually at Megan Ellison’s house and we came up with a song — and all of a sudden these police officers burst in through the door and threw us up against the wall, yelling, “Where’s the gun?” and everyone is as disoriented in the film but we had no clue and had to stay in the moment. That was the audition process.

The cop went down the line, Ben O’ Toole actually ended up in the movie [as Detroit cop Flynn]. We were kept in the dark and I was told I was in The Dramatics. I had to learn their repertoire because we didn’t know the songs we were going to film.

Did you know who they were?

I hadn’t heard of them, but they were really popular and toured heavily in the ’70s. My grandparents and parents heard.

You talked about the scene where everyone is up against the wall. It’s so intense. You feel you are in that moment. How do you keep that intensity going over several days in multiple takes?

For people who are on the wall, it was hard. It’s the longest portion of the film and it was shot over two weeks. A lot of these takes were long. We had to be there every day, in that hallway and it was hot. We were shooting in Boston in the Summer and you felt hot. The cops were having a hard time being so cruel. I know there were a few times when Will Poulter broke down because it was so intense.

Going back to the trust, was there a particular point where you put all your trust in Kathryn’s eye and process to guide you?

It’s funny, it happened on the first day. We started shooting and that first scene I’m in, we’re running off the bus and into the chaos. We got our dialogue when we got there. I wasn’t sure if I was going to give that great a performance. Then the camera operator had me look at the playback and it looked amazing. I was blown away and I knew it was going to be great and that’s when I stopped worrying.

When we got off the bus, we didn’t know what was going to happen. The cars were on fire, people were throwing bricks through windows and it was all organic, so our reactions are spot on impulsive.

What are you hoping people take away after seeing the film?

I read The Algiers Motel Incident. This is the 50th anniversary of what happened. It’s crazy going from filming it and being fifty years in the past and we’re still seeing the same parallels of what’s going on today. We didn’t have to look too far to understand the motivations and feelings. It’s on the news and on Facebook every day.

Going from doing this, and seeing how far we’ve come? We still have so far to go. I hope it educates, so people can hear these stories that get swept under the rug. We want the story heard. It’s also gaining an understanding and empathy for what they’ve gone through and what we as a community continue to go through.

It’s not just a black film, it’s not an anti-police film, it’s all-inclusive for everyone in the hope that we can come together as a community regardless of race and come up with a solution.

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Detroit is on general release.