In between takes on The First Purge, Y’lan Noel sometimes found himself in a strange position: spending downtime with men in Ku Klux Klan hoods and blackface masks. “We were talking to people who we were fond of, but who were wearing these masks, so we definitely had to set some very strong barriers,” Noel says of filming the franchise’s fourth movie, which hit theaters on Independence Day. “When you’re doing that, I’m not going to converse with you.”
The First Purge is a prequel to the series started in 2013 by writer and director James DeMonaco, who penned the script for this newest entry but ceded the director’s chair to Gerard McMurray. The story is set in DeMonaco’s native Staten Island, the site of the first experimental Purge, where low-income residents are financially incentivized to stay in their borough for the night — and incentivized even further to participate in the legal crime spree.
Noel plays Dimitri, a community strongman who runs drugs and heads a gang. Perhaps best known for his role as Daniel King in HBO’s Insecure, Noel brings his familiar abundance of cool and charisma to the role of criminal with a code. Dimitri wants no part of purging, and throughout the the rapid, relentless assault of the movie, he becomes the unlikely (but of course inevitable) hero of his community in the face of infiltration by every manner of white-supremacist mercenary. Noel talked to Vulture about what it was like to be on a set where neo-Nazis are part of the scenery, the Pavlovian anxiety response he developed to the sun going down, and how imposter syndrome was his biggest adversary while working on his first major studio film.
Why did you want to be part of The First Purge?
I’m originally from New York, and I just have a love affair with that place. So the idea that I could exist in a world that is dedicated to New York, that sold me. But also Dimitri. I enjoy playing people who are complicated, and being able to unpack him and bring him to life was a challenge, and I was really looking forward to that. He’s a walking contradiction, and a black man at that, and he is called out for his hypocrisy. He is made to come to terms with who he is versus who he thought he was.
Horror is a genre particularly well-suited to calling out hypocrisy and critiquing the cultural landscape with the absolute minimum amount of subtlety.
Yeah. I definitely feel like, because of the things going around in the movie, horror innately allows for rage to be expressed in a cathartic way. The movie deals with some of the latent fears we have as a society today, and I feel like that is the biggest scare factor in my opinion. That’s what is most frightening about this particular movie, how grounded it is in reality.
This is a franchise that’s gone from strangely predictive to eerily current in how it presents the state of the union, even if it’s still an over-the-top satire. But your co-star Lex Scott Davis also said The First Purge could have been made at any time and still been relevant, given the institutionalized racism and class tensions that have been present in this country since forever. Did the topical nature of the story appeal to you as well?
Yeah. I was talking with one of my friends after the movie about how ever-present racism is, how that is like being in a horror movie, and I feel the movie as a whole speaks to living the complicated life of a black person, who always has to keep their head on a swivel and make sure they protect themselves and their loved ones from all the psychological and physical horrors of racism and injustice. Typically, I’m very happy-go-lucky. I’ve always got a smile on my face, and I’m very careful as to what news I listen to, but what I found myself doing a lot more in preparation for the role was turning on the news in order to inspire the rage at injustice I was seeing. I was watching documentaries about slavery and about genocide and about so many things that trace back to racism — not even just towards black people, but about any group of people who were marginalized by those who were in power. I think all of these things plus the fact that it’s really entrenched in what we’re dealing with today sort of makes it the scariest one yet in my opinion.
In my theater, the biggest crowd reaction came when you choke the mercenary to death who’s wearing a blackface mask. Everybody started cheering. In these scenes when you’re dispatching adversary after adversary and they’re in blackface and wearing Klan masks, what are those shooting days like? How is it slipping into character when you know that’s what will be looking back at you?
I mean, it made it kind of easy, to be honest. To go into character was easy when those are the people that are literally running after you. Between action and cut, psychologically, that is something that affected me. This is my first major motion picture, first action film, first franchise film, first time being at the top of the call sheet. So the horror element was just naturally ingrained, and really easy for me to tap into with or without KKK masks. I was just scared when we got to Buffalo before we started shooting that they were going to sober up and be like, “Who is this guy?” The first scenes that we shot in the first couple of days, I was just happy to get those things in the can, and once we got them in I said, “Well, we probably spent a lot of money so I’m sure you can’t fire me now.”
When the Charlottesville-style khaki-and-polo neo-Nazis came out of a church they just got done shooting up while holding torches, the crowd took a collective breathe. I read an interview where you talked about getting conditioned to feel tense and nervous when it started to get dark — when the nightly Purge was approaching. How did you deal with checking back into that anxiety every day?
It got to a point where even if I wasn’t shooting, I couldn’t bring myself to stay in the hotel and prepare for the next day. I had to go out there. That church scene in particular, I was on the opposite side of the camera just witnessing that, and it is a real eerie feeling. Part of being an actor is being susceptible to imaginary circumstances, so as soon as I’m on the set I feel like I’m actually there. That nervous, empty feeling was something that helped me metabolize the character, but it also helped me want to be somebody who could save other people who I knew were feeling that same thing, whether it be the other characters or even just the actors. It inspired me to show up the next day with a renewed sense of zeal and vigilance to do my part.
You said you’re a sensitive person, and in the world of The First Purge there are trucks rolling down the street filled with Klansman and torch-carrying white-supremacist mercenaries. Did you have to take extra care at the end of a shooting day to make sure you weren’t letting it stay with you?
All of my attention and energy went into making Dimitri come alive. So I did definitely stay in character sometimes when it might not have been healthy. I probably just sort of sat there in the dark playing with my little training pistol on some nights, because I knew that once the camera stopped rolling there are people somewhere in this world where the nightmare never ends. So I felt like the least I could do was hold the energy for what was relatively a very small amount of time. But then fortunately right after everything was done I went to like a meditation retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I got my therapy in, taking yoga classes, things I’ve never really done before. I did a romantic comedy. I was picking persimmon in an orchard. There were a lot of self-help things that I did afterwards, but while I was there, part of the enjoyment is to breathe air of the character. I wanted to learn as much from the experience as possible without having to detach out of fear of going too far.
You get to go full action hero in the second half of this movie, but you’re not fighting monsters from outer space. You’re fighting avatars of very real villains that live and breathe in this country. Did you get any kind of catharsis out of these scenes where you’re cutting down fascists like Staten Island’s John Wick?
It’s helpful. [Laughs.] I don’t even know what to say. It is extremely helpful for sure, but to be completely honest with you, Jordan, I spent a lot of the movie sort of blacked out. I would sort of go into another place. I’d be going past dead bodies and blood would be splattered, and then at the end of the take Gerard would walk up to me and be like, “How’d that feel?” And I’d be like, “What? I don’t know.” So every time I watch the movie I see more now how it felt versus when I was doing it. I was in a warped fugue state. I think that might have been my own body having its survival response, because I couldn’t leave. I had to participate in it, and like I said, I’m very sensitive. So I think part of that blackout was my body deciding to stay and fight. It was so physical that it really requires all of you, all of your spirit, all of your body, but now that I see it in the movie I can remember how it felt, and it felt great.
This interview has been edited and condensed.