“This is the kind of movie I dreamed of being in when I first wanted to become an actor,” says Dennis Staroselsky.
He is referring to Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit, a crime drama based on the murder of three black teenagers who were fatally shot by police during the city’s 1967 12th Street riot. In the movie, which opens nationwide on Friday, Staroselsky plays Detective Jones, a short-tempered cop with a penchant for racial profiling and intimidation.
“It’s painful to watch and it’s important to watch,” says Staroselsky, a part-time lecturer in Northeastern’s Department of Theatre who landed his first acting gig in 1993 at the age of 13. “It’s the kind of film that will make people uncomfortable and hopefully spark a dialogue.”
In one particularly gripping scene, Detective Jones and his partner interrogate a young black man named Dismukes who is played by up-and-coming star John Boyega. “When we have these conversations, we do them in stages,” Jones tells Dismukes, while flicking the burnt ash of his cigarette. “Stage one—witnesses. Stage two—suspects.”
His partner pipes up, mocking the process to rattle their potential collar. “What stage are we in?” he asks Jones.
“You don’t know what stage we’re in?” Jones says, in on the joke.
“No, could you specify for me?”
“Yeah,” he tells his partner, “we’re in stage two.” Then he addresses Dismukes, whose furrowed brow betrays his mounting anxiety. “You’re a suspect,” he tells him.
‘Kathryn Bigelow’s genius’
Staroselsky—who’s acted in more than a dozen films and TV shows over the past 23 years, including It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Nurse Jackie, and Madame Secretary—says that filming Detroit was “the most fulfilling on-set experience I’ve ever had.” But he was initially skeptical, beginning with the audition process, during which he was asked to read from scripts for other films. “All we knew as actors was that this was a new Kathryn Bigelow movie and that it was referred to as the ‘untitled Detroit project,’” he recalls.
It got stranger. After he was informed that he had earned the part of Detective Jones, he received a copy of the script for the interrogation scene. At the end of the script was a cryptic message, informing him that the filmmakers had the capability to tell if a screen shot of the document had been taken. “I didn’t like the secrecy,” he says, “and I went into the project pretty disenchanted.”
All that changed on his first day on set. He was in Malden, Massachusetts, in a police station, smoking fake cigarettes and interacting with his fellow actors in character. One hundred extras milled around, covered in fake blood and bruises, looking like they had just come from a riot. “It was at that point that I really started to understand Kathryn Bigelow’s genius,” he says, noting that he attended a screening of the film in New York City with Bigelow and a few of the movie’s big-name stars. “She had created a world that we could live in.”
According to Staroselsky, Bigelow treated every actor equally, regardless of his or her fame and notoriety. After shooting the interrogation scene—one of four or five scenes in which Staroselsky appears—she offered him “effusive praise.” “You have to bring it,” he says, “and if you’re skilled enough to play, she lets you play.”
‘I’ll show them’
Staroselsky’s acting career took flight nearly 30 years ago. His primary influence was his mother, a dramaturge whom Staroselsky described as a “supporter of the arts.” “She was well-versed in theater and film,” he says, “and told me I should be an actor.”
Staroselsky heeded his mother advice, but his first foray into acting did not go well. After auditioning for the role of Tom Sawyer for a performance at his elementary school in Brookline, Massachusetts, he was informed that he did not get the part. “What sparked my acting career was jealousy,” he recalls. “I wanted to be Tom and I thought the role should be mine and I was very upset.”
He resolved to prove his doubters wrong. He auditioned for the role of Pinocchio for the Boston Children’s Theatre—and got the part. Over the next year, he ended up performing in 11 plays at the theater, “finding a community of kids that liked the same things I liked.” “It was an ‘I’ll show them,’ moment,” he says of his drive to break into the acting industry.
Staroselsky went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Boston University and his master’s in theater education from New York University. His on-stage credits include the Off-Broadway run of An Early History of Fire, the world premiere of one of Tony Award winner David Rabe’s most recent plays, as well as appearances at regional theaters like the American Repertory Theatre, the Dallas Theater Center, and The Paper Mill Playhouse. But booking steady work hasn’t always been easy. He lived in Los Angeles for three years and New York for six years, hoping that his proximity to the stars would lead to more gigs. And yet, he says, referring to his part in Detroit, “the biggest film role I got was when I was living in Boston.”
After graduating from BU in 2000, he landed a part in a play at the Boston-based Huntington Theatre Company. It was called Dead End, and it afforded him the opportunity to work alongside Charlie Day, who went on to star in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. “It got a lot of attention,” he recalls, “and I wondered why people stress out about being working actors.” Then he didn’t land a gig for the next 18 months. “I was jealous of all the ‘Tom Sawyers’ out there who were working when I was not,” he explains. “I had an agent and I thought he would do all the work for me and the phone would ring.”
‘My Michael Jordan’
Over the past 25 or 30 years, Staroselsky’s taste in actors has changed. As a kid, he admired Dustin Hoffman, a two-time Oscar winner whose most notable films include Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, and Rain Man. “I thought he was brilliant,” he says. “He was a huge influence on me.” Every year, on his own birthday, Staroselsky will watch Tootsie, the 1982 Sydney Pollack comedy starring Hoffman as a talented but volatile actor who is forced to adopt a female identity in order to land a job. “There’s a montage showing Hoffman’s character going from audition to audition,” Staroselsky explains, “and I don’t think there’s anything on film closer to the bible for me than that montage.”
In college, Staroselsky developed a “man crush” on Sean Penn, who won his first of two Academy Awards in 2003, nearly 30 years after his acting career began. “What I love about him,” he says, “is that he’s grown as an actor as he gotten older.” These days, Staroselsky’s favorite actor is Bill Camp, whom he first met while both were performing in the American Repertory Theatre’s 1995 run of William Shakespeare’s Henry V. “If you see him on stage, he’s raw and fearless,” Staroselsky says of Camp, who recently played Detective Box in HBO’s eight-part crime drama The Night Of. “He’s my Michael Jordan.”
At this stage in his career, Staroselsky seeks out “meaningful roles in meaningful projects” that inspire him. He wants to work with award-winning show runners, like Jill Soloway of Transparent and Aziz Ansari of Master of None. As he puts it, “I don’t want to be a cop on NCIS. With Detroit in the rearview, I can see how good it can be.”
This fall, he’ll be teaching two courses—“Acting for the Camera” and “The Eloquent Presenter.” His advice to aspiring actors is stuff that he would have loved to hear when he was in college. “Surround yourself with actors you enjoy working with and create your own work,” he advises. “If you want to do comedy, take an improv class, find other comedians, and start shooting shorts. If you want to do moving, epic films, go write something, share your script, and participate in readings.”