Best known as alluring ex-boyfriend Daniel on Issa Rae’s lauded HBO comedy series “Insecure,” actor Y’lan Noel’s relatively slim resume — the NYU theatre alum has just five credits to his name, so far — boasts a new trademark role as villain-turned-hero Dmitri in Gerard McMurray’s “The First Purge.”
The fourth installment in the popular series goes back in time to introduce audiences to the earliest days of the Purge, when it was just a humble government experiment. Set in Staten Island, the film’s cast is primarily made up of people of color, including Dmitri the neighborhood drug dealer.
Noel had never seen “The Purge” before winning the role, although the rest of his family was wild about the series. “I only knew the concept,” he said. “Part of the reason why I was inspired actually commit to competing for the role was because I remember, maybe a year or two or ago, I was on vacation with my cousin and he couldn’t stop talking about the first ‘Purge’ movie, how crazy it was. … When I told [my family] that I auditioned for it, they lost their minds.”
Once cast, the actor caught up on the first film. “The cool thing about this one is the characters don’t have context of what a Purge would be like, so it’s interesting to see how they prepare and how it affects them going into it,” Noel said. “I kinda wanted to stay blind, sorta how my character actually would feel like.”
He did, however, bone up on action films. “My biggest preparation going into it, to be honest, was ‘Gladiator’ and Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus,” he said. “The arc that he takes and the physicality of that. I looked at a lot of behind-the-scenes footage and how he translated his acting into his physicality. That was probably my biggest thing. That and like, Mike Tyson. … If you see Mike Tyson walk into the ring, he doesn’t need to say much. You know exactly why he’s there, his whole existence is like, ‘I’m going to finish you,’ and I feel like Dmitri needed that kind of quality to him.”
While the film marks Noel’s first foray into action filmmaking, the actor impresses, especially when it comes to physically demanding sequences that echo “Die Hard” and “Atomic Blonde.” (If you were impressed with Charlize Theron’s recent stairwell ass-kicking extravaganza, “The First Purge” will not disappoint.)
“Before I was acting, I was extremely athletic and for a lot of time in my life, I didn’t know how to deal with the energy that I had to move and use my body in ways,” he said. “It’s funny how that I can sort of marry the two things I like the most, which is acting and [also] psychically progress into being an action hero. It’s a revelation with me. … It was a cathartic process for me being able to have those moments of just pure physicality.”
The Brooklyn-born actor was also excited about the wide range of roles offered to POC in the film, the first to be directed by McMurray, who made his debut with “Burning Sands,” a drama about the inner workings of an African-American fraternity.
“I think what’s really cool about this movie [and] with a lot of the trends we’re seeing, we get to see instead of one black or brown character having to play stereotype, we get to see how complicated black people are, because there are so many different characters in the movie,” he said. “Now we are allowed to be all of ourselves instead of having to capture everything, contained in one individual.”
While Dmitri is first introduced to the film’s audience as a high-powered local drug lord, over the course of the film, he moves beyond that stereotype to become a hero who is dedicated to helping the rest of his community. It’s a big arc, and a rare one.
“I don’t wanna be like somebody that just depicts black characters where drugs and guns are just a majority of what they have to do,” the actor said. “I felt like it was cool because you got to see the whole picture of Dmitri and why he was doing these things, and you also got to see how he responded when he was directly confronted about his hypocrisy. If that part of the arc wasn’t in the movie, I doubt I would’ve did the thing.”
Noel thinks that the kind of characters that kit out “The First Purge” are indicative of a bigger groundswell in Hollywood, one aided by the widespread popularity of films like “Black Panther” and “Girls Trip,” which similarly offer multi-facteted characters of color.
“You know, the proof is in the pudding,” Noel said. “And you know, ‘Black Panther’ is doing what it’s doing. … I think people just ultimately want to see humanity, and if you’re seeing humanity you’re seeing our authenticity, you’re seeing life portrayed in a truthful way, that’s just what we need to focus on. … We are now being allowed an opportunity to be painted with the full spectrum of the picture.”
“The First Purge” is currently in theaters. “Insecure” will return for its third season on August 12 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.