A few months ago, this writer had the opportunity to head down to New Orleans for a set visit being held for the upcoming television event series centered on the world of The Purge, bringing the franchise’s relevant and thought-provoking socio-political themes to the small screen for a ten-episode run that begins on Tuesday, September 4th on the USA Network.
During our time there, we had the chance to tour several of the show’s sets (including one that we have to keep under wraps for a bit longer, but it is incredible) and spoke with The Purge executive producer and showrunner Thomas Kelly, production designer Sharon Lomofsky, costume and mask designer Lauren Bott, as well as numerous cast members, including Colin Woodell, Amanda Johnson, Lee Tergesen, Lili Simmons, and Hannah Emily Anderson.
In the first part of our report, we heard from Kelly, Bott, and Lomofsky about the grander opportunities to explore the world of The Purge in this new series, which includes being able to dig deeper into the characters who must contend with the heinous tradition of 12 hours of complete lawlessness, courtesy of the New Founding Fathers of America.
Before we had the opportunity to sit and chat with the aforementioned actors tasked with bringing this new iteration of The Purge to life, Kelly gave us a rundown of what we can expect from various characters and how they fit into this world. “One of the first characters you’ll see is Miguel [Gabriel Chavarria], who's a young Marine. What's great about Miguel is that he's the only character that doesn't give a shit about The Purge. He's committed violence before The Purge and it's almost meaningless to him. The Purge is just another obstacle to saving his sister Penelope. Their parents were killed in the first Purge, and they had a rough life coming out of that.”
“We'll see how they get separated pre-Purge, when his sister, in Miguel's absence, joins a suicide cult of people who go out that night and the idea is that they're going out to offer themselves up so others can Purge and get cleansed through their sacrifice. So, Miguel's all about saving his sister and we get into a really cool journey with Penelope, delving into issues like, what is a cult? Why do people get attracted to this? How is it like a quasi-stand-in for religion in general, and faith?”
In terms of characters that best represent the audience in The Purge, Kelly discussed how Amanda Warren’s role in the series anchors these ten episodes, and will hopefully provide viewers with yet another relatable anchor for the series’ narrative.
“Jane is probably the most direct stand-in for the audience,” said Kelly. “She's an African American woman who works in high finance, and she's been very successful on her own merits, but she's in a system that is not letting her rise to where she deserves to be. Jane is someone who has a strong moral center, too, but she feels very frustrated for very real reasons. So, in a reaction to what's been done to her for a very long time, both obviously and less obviously, she hires a Purge assassin. We find out pretty early that she realizes that's not who she is, and she sets out into the night to stop what she's set in motion. I think Jane is a very strong character and her journey in the show is great. We have an amazing actor, Amanda Warren, who's just killing it in the role.”
For Warren, who is no stranger to the world of compelling television, it didn’t take much convincing to come aboard The Purge. “When you get a phone call from someone like Tom Kelly, who's telling you that you're about to be in a major franchise that's transitioned to television, and you're going to be one of the main characters in a major storyline, that's amazing.”
“With that said, yeah, it was really exciting to know that the team really connected with this character across the board and that they believe that the audience will connect with a lot of what Jane goes through. As Americans, we are part of this workhorse society where it measures who you are, the company you keep, the opportunities you have, the money you have, and I think we can all relate to the pressures that brings. I think Jane has a moral compass that is really strong and she's just a beautifully good person, which makes the choices that she makes all the more difficult to watch, and even to play.
“Tom, James DeMonaco, and the rest of the writers’ room have done a brilliant, first-rate job of just putting all these things that are happening in our world currently to paper, and I could just tell that we’ve been making something special. Somebody was just asking me what's the best time I've had on set and for me as an artist, to play the top of episode three has been an incredible thing to experience, and that's all I have to say. I think fans will love it.”
Tom also filled us in on another trio of characters: married couple Rick (Colin Woodell) and Jenna (Hannah Emily Anderson), and Lila (Lili Simmons) Stanton, a socialite who has been intimately involved with both of them. “The Rick, Jenna, and Lila story works on a few levels. Rick and Jenna are a young couple, and we find out that Lila has had this threesome type of relationship with them and they all end up at the mansion of Lila’s parents on Purge night, and if you’re someone who gets invited to this party, you’ve made it.”
“With Lila, we examine the notion of, ‘If you grow up in a corrupt world, does that automatically make you corrupt? Can you rise above that? Can you separate yourself?’ That's her journey. Lila has spent a lot of time trying to separate herself from that world, and she's gone out and tried to use her family's wealth to accomplish good in the world. And Rick, for us, is a way to examine the American Dream. He's a guy that grew up in pretty lower middle class circumstances, he has had to struggle to get everything he has, he's very aspirational in a material sense, but he's also this guy who's married to a woman who's more middle class. Jenna's a talented architect and her thing is using those skills to do good things, build affordable housing, that kind of stuff. So, they decide to go out on the night of The Purge looking to get a big chunk of money, basically to make a deal with the devil and take that money to do positive things in the world.”
“I immediately thought Rick was an interesting guy because he has grown up with very little,” Woodell said in reference to his character. “He's been bootstrapping his entire life and he's finally beginning to climb this social ladder that he's been dying to climb for many, many years of his life. He's been invited, with Jenna, his wife, to this incredible party, and they know that there's potential success in going to this party. The catch is they're also aware that they might have to join or be asked to join the NFFA, which would go completely against their morals.”
“On top of that, their marriage is pretty stagnant; there's a lack of passion. There's something off. We don't really know what it is, but we know that something is not right. In their eyes, that money could potentially help their marriage in some way or another. So, there are a bunch of corners that we're turning without knowing where it's going to lead to. It's been an interesting process because we have to just trust what the writers are going to give us, because we don’t really get any extra information ahead of time. So, there's a huge sense of unknowing in television that doesn't exist in film, but that works perfectly for this story.”
When she came aboard The Purge, Anderson (who recently co-starred in last year’s Jigsaw), was relieved that she was finally getting an opportunity to mix up her roles a bit. “Even though I had a great time playing villains and psychopaths in the last couple projects that I did, I was ready for a character that was closer to me—someone who is really vulnerable, and I saw that in Jenna. And playing somebody who is a bit closer to me really does come with its own set of challenges. It's revealing at times, and it has made me do a lot of investigating into who I am as a person, too.”
“When you first meet Jenna and Rick in this, there is an underlying tension there. We don't quite know what it is and why it's there, but that means we start the series with a bit of a divide between us. You can’t tell if The Purge is going to bring us closer together or if it's going to tear us apart. But it has been fun to get to go through this night as a team with Colin, having to rely on each other’s characters. There's a lot of subtext and a lot of inner turmoil just below the surface, where both of us are having to hide what's really going on underneath. So, it should be fun to see how that unfolds over the course of Purge night.”
For Simmons, she relished the opportunity to dive into a character in The Purge who has such an intriguing duality to her nature. “I just fell in love with Lila. She's cool. She's charming. She's confident. She has this dual personality thing going on, which is always fun for an actor to play. She would have been about 14 years old when the first Purge happened. And her parents are huge supporters of the NFFA, so they obviously participated in it. So, she has grown up in this household where murder was happening all around her, and that will definitely have an effect on a person. In my head, when I think about this character, I imagine the first time she saw her father killing somebody, she ran away to her room, and said, ‘I will do good. I will not murder anyone.’ She has to have her relationship with her parents be copacetic because she uses their money to go do good, so she's trying to balance out everything her parents have done by trying to do as much good as possible. There are a lot of complications in Lila’s life, though, and we’re going to see how that all unfolds throughout these episodes.”
The final character Purge showrunner Thomas Kelly provided some insight on is Joe, played by Lee Tergesen. “Joe symbolizes in a way this notion of those who have become disenfranchised with America. We live in a country where we've had decades of de-industrialization and we've done nothing about it. There are swaths of this country that have these abandoned factories, and people literally show up to work every day and the gates are shut in their face. We are the only industrialized democracy that hasn't addressed that in a rational manner. So, Joe is a guy who used to get out of bed every day, he showed up on time, he did his job, he rose to foreman of the plant, he did everything right, and he still got screwed. And that’s when he sets out to change the status quo.”
“He believed in the system, because it is the all-American thing to do, and then it all turned on him. So, for us, Joe is a way to examine that alienation in society and how it comes in many forms and affects many communities. What would you do if you were in this system where you've been mistreated and you want to make things right? He's a fascinating character who's having to do right, but he’s still conflicted about his heroic nature.”
“I think the most interesting thing that the Purge films have done is present audiences with all these relatable scenarios,” Tergesen explained. “You leave those movies wondering ‘What would I do?’ I had worked with Tom Kelly on a couple other things before this, and when he called me about doing The Purge, I was very excited. I have been fortunate to play a lot of characters that have all these layers to them, and Joe has layers. I do have to be careful of what I say here. What I can say is that this series really provides an opportunity to dive into just why people would do these horrific things, or maybe why they wouldn’t, and with everything that's going on in the world right now, this feels like a very timely story to tell.”
“The one thing I can say is that Joe seems to come along at the right time for different people, and I think in some ways he represents a little bit of hope. The truth is, I don't know certain things that happen later, because of how they share information with us. I'll know more as it goes on. I do like that we are filming it this way, though, because I feel like I’m learning things at the same time as my character, and it feels much more organic that way. It gives you a lot more freedom, and I’ve been enjoying the whole process.”
In case you missed it, check here to read part 1 of Heather's set visit for The Purge TV series!