Interview: Rotimi Paul on playing Skeletor in THE FIRST PURGE

The bold marketing campaign for The First Purge, the fourth installment in the Purge franchise, satirizes the political climate in America, and has made it one of the most highly anticipated horror films of the summer.

The First Purge is a prequel to the previous three films and tells the story of the origin of Purge night while introducing several new characters. One of those is the ominously named Skeletor, played by Rotimi Paul. Dread Central recently spoke with Rotimi Paul about bringing Skeletor to life, what it was like to be a part of the Purge, and more!

Behind every tradition lies a revolution. Next Independence Day, witness the rise of our country’s 12 hours of annual lawlessness. Welcome to the movement that began as a simple experiment: The First Purge. To push the crime rate below one percent for the rest of the year, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) test a sociological theory that vents aggression for one night in one isolated community. But when the violence of oppressors meets the rage of the marginalized, the contagion will explode from the trial-city borders and spread across the nation.

The film is directed by Gerard McMurray from a screenplay by James DeMonaco and stars Y’Lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Luna Lauren Velez and Marisa Tomei.

Dread Central: You play Skeletor in The First Purge. What can you tell me about the character?
Rotimi Paul: Skeletor is a character that I got into from the standpoint of opportunity. If we look at Staten Island, the people are like a marginalized population and he would be a marginalized individual in a marginalized population. I feel he’s someone on the outskirts who is presented the greatest opportunity, in his eyes, through Purge night. As soon as they extend the idea of what Purge night is going to be, he is interested, he’s intrigued. He sees an opportunity to better his circumstances and that’s kind of where we meet him.

DC: I know The First Purge is a prequel to the previous films. Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell me a little bit about the story?
RP: All of the other films have an established idea of what Purge night is. We have an opportunity to shed light on something that is unknown. This is presented as an experiment, by and large, which strengthens the plotline of where you choose to have the experiment happen and see if it’s something that can be applied to the nation at large.

With that knowledge you have high populations of brown and black people who are in an unknown idea. They’re in the midst of an unknown idea and from there you will see people who are intrigued. You will see people who are vehemently opposed, though you do have some symbolism there of real life groups and ideals. You might see some symbolism from Black Lives Matter, symbolism to grassroots activism, but then you will have people who think they need to do this, that this is what we need. People need a release, whether it’s for releasing pent up aggression or retribution on a personal level or whatever their motive is, they see it as an opportunity to kind of unleash that.

You basically have an unknown idea as far as what the first Purge is going to be. It’s not something that’s tried and true as in the other films where people know that on Purge night they are either going to hide or they will be out in the streets committing crime. Our film speaks to something that is completely unknown, so it’s catching people kind of off guard. They don’t know what this is and there’s also that little bit of incentivization for people to get involved. You have groups of people, I think, that will resemble real life groups. You have people who think “Hey, they’re going to allow me to commit crime. This is amazing. On a personal level, I have issues with these people and I have an outlet for that.”

You have people who are figuring out where they fall on an issue as it’s unfolding, not like twenty years later when they know what it is and they know to hide (laughs). That is the biggest plotline that sets us apart. It gives us so much room to create something new. We’re not building on a franchise, we’re adding something completely new to the franchise. I think that’s one of our biggest differentiating factors.

DC: How did you get the role of Skeletor?
RP: I’m old fashioned, so I just auditioned (laughs). I’m one of the few characters that are cast out of New York. I knew the character as soon as I read it and I said, “Okay, I know him. I need to dive in 120%.” So, my idea was just around commitment. I wanted to commit to who Skeletor was and show them a fully realized version of my character. Skeletor deserves better than a half commitment.

My preparation began way before I left the house. I was on the subway in full costume, fully mentally prepped. I didn’t lose that until I got back home. I rode the subway back from the audition in full character. Then when I heard about the callbacks, that was when I met Gerard, who was our director, and Sebastien, who was our producer. I met them at my callback and I did basically the same thing. I showed up in full costume, did my thing, and took whatever notes Gerard had for me. He said, “Hey, I want you to try this or see if you can do it this way.” I did that for him and it was one of those moments when I just saw the light in my reader’s eyes.

I knew that I did, at least, what I came to do and you don’t know if you’re going to book it or what that means, but I felt like I did a great job for myself and I felt like I presented myself well. I felt like I established the type of work I do, so that was kind of what I walked away from. I didn’t hear anything for maybe a week and a half and when I finally got the call I just screamed. I was so excited to be able to work with the team that they had assembled, so that was definitely one of the best calls of my career.

Photo by Dave Krugman

DC: Like the previous films, I’m expecting The First Purge to be pretty violent. Do you have any fight scenes you can tell me about?
RP: We worked with Hank Amos and Mike Massa, who are stunt coordinating on it. I think they developed some really great ideas, structural choreography, and then allowed us to play within that. My character is definitely active on Purge night; you’re running, you’re in contact with other people, so definitely you’ll find my character involved in altercations (laughs). I feel like visually, those altercations look really, really cool, even in stuff like some of the commercials that have been airing. I see little snippets and that choreography just looks really awesome on camera, so I’m excited for it.

DC: What was it like working with director Gerard McMurray?
RP: Gerard is amazing! I owe Gerard so much as far as creating a space for me to flourish. He had a lot of trust in what I brought to Skeletor, what I brought to my audition, what I brought to set, and was very supportive of me taking the chances I wanted to take and making the decisions I wanted to make and then guiding that once I’d made them. He created a set where we all felt safe to play and I think that will show when you see fully realized characters onscreen.

Even in rehearsals, he would allow us to talk through what we feel in the moment and what we would be getting at as far as motivation in this moment and he would listen. He would literally sit back and say “Okay, okay this works. We can do this, this maybe not so much.” He had a vision, but allowed us to kind of play within that vision and I’m forever thankful. For a lot of us, I think we’re going to be introduced, really in this film, and he had a lot of trust with people who are making kind of their big splash. He had a lot of trust in us.

DC: Are you working on any new projects that you can share with me?
RP: Definitely! I’m working on a documentary that’s called Surviving Jonestown, that’s about the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. That’s where my family is from and that’s where I grew up. I was born in the states, but I grew up in Guyana before moving to New York. My dad still lives in Guyana and he was a pilot for most of my life. He was the pilot that was on the runway when everything kind of hit the fan.

He was the pilot who was supposed to be flying that group out and he never has told his story. He’s never shared the ins and outs of his experiences and I would hear different pieces as a kid growing up, and then finally a couple of years ago he told me the whole thing. Basically I was like “I need to tell your story. I feel a responsibility to bring to light what you’ve experienced and how that fits the overall narrative of Jonestown.”

We’ve seen it from the American perspective. We’ve seen it from a group of Americans go to this place somewhere in the jungle and this thing happens, but we’ve never really seen it from the Guyanese perspective and what it meant to a country where people worldwide only knew Guyana for one thing. I wanted to speak to that a little bit and also speak to my dad’s story.

It’s called Surviving Jonestown because obviously if my dad didn’t survive Jonestown in 1978, I would not have been born a few years later. It’s something that really matters, in my family’s legacy, but also physically that’s what the story is. It’s surviving Jonestown, but also other people who survived Jonestown kind of speaking on what that event meant in their lives.

DC: That sounds fascinating and I’m really looking forward to the documentary as well as The First Purge! I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today, Rotimi!
RP: Thank you so much!



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