Anyone who has worked with Kathryn Bigelow knows her vision, her ambition and her facts-first approach to epic American stories. The director’s oeuvre is filled with war stories of different shades, Detroit being the latest—and Algee Smith found himself amongst a batch of new recruits on the film, facing the horrors of race-related police brutality during the 1967 Algiers Motel incident in the titular Michigan city, a reality the actor had never himself experienced. Auditioning with sides from Jamie Foxx vehicle Ray, Smith landed the musically oriented role of Dramatics tenor Larry, with no idea of what he was in for—a war of his very own.
What were your first impressions when auditioning for Detroit?
When I got it, I didn’t really know much about it. They weren’t really saying what it was—it was just Untitled Kathryn Bigelow project. They didn’t really give any details, so when I went to the first audition, I had auditioned with some sides from the movie Ray. I was still kind of clueless, but then I went to the second audition and Kathyrn was there, and she was like, “Okay, I just want you guys to make up a song, and I’m going to have somebody bust into the room. He’s going to throw you up against the wall, and you have to respond to him.” It was that response that I feel solidified everyone’s character on that day.
Can you elaborate on the song component of your audition?
Yeah, it was just random. It wasn’t even a song that we had to have rehearsed. She had us make up a song on the spot. Thankfully, I had a little bit of musical background and was able to do that.
Once you found out what the project entailed, how did you prepare?
I went back and studied everything around that time—specifically in Detroit, and a couple different riots that were taking place in America at that time, as well. However, I didn’t really have a lot of info from Kathryn, because she didn’t want me to know a lot. She wanted me to come on set and really be living it, not trying to act it. She wanted me to be reacting, be saying some of those lines for the first time on the day of, so I didn’t really have a lot of preparation. I just had to trust her, as she trusted us as actors. But of course I was going online, searching anything about Detroit that I could, and anything about that time in 1967. About the riots, the tension that was going on in that time all across America.
What was it like to inhabit the film’s dark spaces for an extended period?
It was hard, man. It was tough. I was sitting in that emotion for about three months, trying to portray something that I really haven’t been through in my life. I had to do my best to give Larry some justice—to really tell his story, when that’s never happened to me. I had to go to dark places, and think about my family in certain ways that I didn’t want to, or think about certain things to just give a glimpse of what he actually went through. So, it was really tough, but like I said, Kathryn trusting me, helped me get through it. Because if she’s looking at me and saying that I can do it, then I must be doing something pretty all right, at least.
I imagine the visual experience on set must have been surreal as well, with tanks in the streets and massive disenfranchised crowds raising hell.
Yeah, that was crazy. Just to give you a really quick story, talking about how Kathryn likes to surprise us: One day when we were running through the riots, when the Dramatics had just got off the bus and were running down the street, all of the sudden there’s this huge explosion that goes off in the street, and the street shakes, and everybody is going crazy—and Kathryn never told us she was going to blow anything up. They were just like, “Keep going, keep going!”. And we were just like, “What the hell? She’s just blowing stuff up.”
That was my first time getting to be in that type of mayhem on set, so it was amazing, seeing how everything comes together, all the cars on fire. It was super crazy.
What was the tone on set?
I think every day was very serious, just because of what we were portraying. Even in times where we were doing scenes that weren’t that heavy, it was still serious, because we knew what we had to convey at the end of the day. I feel like that never really went away, even during some of the singing parts. I feel like the singing in the movie, and the music, it helps bring a little bit of tranquility to help you sit back for a second and ease off of everything that’s going crazy. But every day, man, that same energy was there.
I’m super thankful for Will [Poulter] and Ben [O’Toole] and Jack [Reynor], who played the cops, because every time that we finished a scene, they were checking up on us and making sure that we were good. They were going out of their way to make sure that they weren’t going over their boundaries. So even though it was tough, we had a support system in each other.
Was there an easy camaraderie amongst the actors on both sides of the police/citizen divide? Sometimes actors tend to separate themselves on set from the actors portraying their antagonists.
When we first started, that’s kind of where we were. No one was really connecting with each other. Some of us had already known each other, but for the sake of the material we were keeping our distance. And we quickly realized that we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t do this whole process without really trusting each other and talking and having conversations.
We realized that keeping our distance wouldn’t allow us to know that when I’m hearing these words being said to me 12 hours a day, although this is really hurting my soul, I know that that’s Will, and he doesn’t mean that as a person. Because those words still hurt, man. We’re acting, but to hear those things being said, see those things being done, it still hurts.
Is the weight of the film’s history something you could walk away from at the end of the day?
It was hard to step away from that. I think about a month after shooting I was still feeling it, or sitting in that kind of emotion. Hearing that 12 hours a day for months, and going through those emotions, it’s kind of hard to break away from that. But we gave our all, we told a story that needs to be told, and we put a mirror on society and said, “Look, what happened fifty years ago is still happening.” I think at the end of the day, I learned how to let it go.
What was the process when it came to the scenes in which you sing?
The music was super fun. That whole piece of it was the little ease off of it. That’s what helped me stay in my peace of mind during the whole thing, knowing that we had some singing coming up. Before we had to shoot the scenes , we had to do pre-records, so we were all learning each other’s voices in the studio. We were all getting a history lesson on music. At the same time, we went into the actual Motown and stood in the same spot that Michael Jackson stood in. We stood in the same spot Stevie Wonder stood in.
We got to actually sing in those spots, so the fact that Kathryn cared to have the music at such a high value in the movie was a precious jewel.
What separates Kathryn Bigelow from other directors you’ve worked with?
I took away a leader that’s not afraid to trust. That’s the first time I’ve seen a director, in my experience, not give so much to the actor—not to say that any director that does is wrong, but she really allowed us to find it ourselves. She didn’t say, “I need you to do this,” or, “I want you to try it this way.” She allowed us to be in a room, and she’d say, “Okay, this whole room is yours. Anywhere you want to go in this room, I’ll catch you on the camera, so don’t be afraid to do what you want to do.”
She knows how to step out the way to get what she needs to get, and I appreciate her for that.
The Algiers Motel scenes were shot chronologically. Was that helpful for you?
Yeah, it actually was. Even the fact that we shot that completely first, that helped me know where we were starting at. Because like I said, I was completely clueless. I didn’t have the script when I went on, so that’s the first thing that I got to do on set, is go into the motel with my hands up on the wall. So, that prepared me to be able to take the journey throughout the whole movie and understand, Okay, this may be the craziest that it can get, but I know that I still have levels to go through. I appreciate her for starting us at such a high point, and putting us there so that the rest of it wouldn’t be so bad.
What were the greatest challenges you faced on this project? Were there any lessons you’ve taken forward to other projects?
When you’re doing a job like this when you’re telling someone else’s story, or when you’re telling something of such power, of such social consciousness, you want it to be right. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to know what I was doing, but I didn’t fully know the character I was playing. I didn’t really know about what he had to get into. I was completely clueless, and I was thinking to myself some of the time, “Well, how can I really do a good job if I don’t know what I’m doing?” So,the biggest challenge was trusting [Bigelow] as she trusted me.
To be honest, I learned a lot from this movie, and I think I took away a lot of knowledge. I learned that within a five- or 10-year time span after ’67, there were over 300 riots that took place within the United States, and I never knew that. So, this role forced me to have to go back and do a history lesson, honestly, that I didn’t have. I’m just super thankful for that.
What do you think about the relevance of this film in today’s world?
Anytime that you can get truth, I feel like that’s the right time. No matter what time it comes. Anytime you can get something that’s what’s going on in society, and that can maybe break barriers or maybe warm the heart of those individuals that are cold-hearted, or at least help someone understand a little better. I think that’s the importance of what we’re doing. We’re just trying to get people to empathize and also to understand.