Purge: Casting the Thriller

Ethan Hawke has a history with James DeMonaco that goes back to the director’s first project. Offers DeMonaco: “Based on Ethan’s work on our last film together, there was no question that we wanted him to be our James Sandin. We have great shorthand, and we were very collaborative on both movies.”

The performer explains his rationale for joining this thriller: “I had worked with James on Staten Island, New York, and I’ve known Jason for many years. When I heard they were making this film, I wanted to be a part of it. Jason has a real old-school independent spirit, and that’s what I loved about working with him again. The restrictions of independent film, in terms of budgeting, often breed real creativity. That was the case with The Purge.”

Fortunately for the production, Hawke had known Blum for more than 20 years, as they had started the Malaparte Theater Company together in the ’90s. Notes the producer: “Ethan has a unique ability to transform himself into the characters he plays, and while he portrays an initially one-dimensional character in this film, he ends up being both a hero and a villain. That requires a skill set that can be very difficult to navigate, but he does so incredibly well.”

This was Fuller’s first experience with Hawke, and he was as impressed as his fellow filmmakers. Shares Fuller: “What’s wonderful about Ethan is that he’s truly an artist. When you talk to him about the choices that he makes, they’re not dependent on commerce; they’re dependent on where he feels that he gets an opportunity to stretch.”

Although James starts out as a deliberately flat protagonist, as the film progresses, he becomes much more complex. Because his life is put into grave danger, not to mention the safety of his family, he goes to a very territorial, aggressive place. DeMonaco reflects: “James represents the apathy of the New America. He sells The Purge security systems to the rich, so he’s completely bought into The Purge propaganda; it’s served him well and made him very rich. But this attack on his home and family has made him rethink everything.”

Hawke was enthused to tackle the role: “What James does that’s subversive and interesting is that he sets the movie in a near future that’s readily identifiable. At its core it’s about how, in the name of providing for your family, you can turn a blind eye to your ethics. James Sandin sees himself as the perfect guy. Then, slowly, he finds out that he’s actually out of touch with everything; things are much more complicated than he was envisioning them.”

DeMonaco was equally as thrilled about Lena Headey accepting the role of Mary Sandin, a woman who has lost her connection to her husband and has begun to feel dead inside. As her family’s horrific night wears on, Mary is pushed to a breaking point and fights to protect her home, husband and children from the violent intruders. Known for star-making roles in such work as 300 and television’s Game of Thrones, the British actress commands the screen. Of her performance, the director commends: “We were lucky to get someone of Lena’s caliber. I saw her as Sarah Connor on the Terminator TV series, so I knew she could be tough. She’s a very subtle actress, and she just knocked it out of the park.”

Headey enjoyed the challenges her character afforded her. The actress reflects: “Mary starts out as this Stepford-esque wife, and she’s numb to her life. She has become apathetic with how the nation has changed and how she has or has not contributed to that. She is morally opposed to The Purge and does not participate, but recognizes it as a necessary evil and has tried to accept it because it’s her family’s reality.”

The performer speaks to what the entire cast and crew wondered about over the course of production: What would happen if we really lived in this world? Headey offers: “That’s what frightens me the most. Who knows what we would do if someone went to us and said, ‘There’s going to be no consequence for your actions.’ I think we most definitely need consequences!”
DeMonaco was familiar with young performer Max Burkholder’s work on NBC’s Parenthood and when Burkholder came in for an audition, the director felt he was ideal for the role of Charlie, James and Mary’s 14-year-old son. Charlie serves as the moral compass of the film, and while he does bring in trouble, he tries to steer his family onto a moral path. Offers DeMonaco: “Charlie’s humanistic and relatable. At such a young age, he questions The Purge. He’s so against it, which is why he ultimately disables the security system and lets the desperate stranger inside their home.”

Burkholder was excited to be a part of such a challenging film. “Charlie doesn’t judge a book by its cover, so to speak,” he says. “He sees this homeless man and takes him in, and he’s not sure if he’s dangerous or not. He just saw someone who needed his help.”
Adelaide Kane was brought on board the production to play Zoey, James and Mary’s 16-year-old daughter, who is very much a rebellious teenager. She’s a straight-A student but can never seem to truly impress her overly driven father, who is furious she’s dating a young man several years older than she is. On the night of The Purge, Zoey excuses herself from the dinner table after talk of the coming evening grows disturbing. Provides the actress: “Zoey has known about The Purge her entire life; she’s very uncomfortable with it. But, of course, she lives in that safe bubble that all teenagers do where they think nothing bad will ever happen… that bad things only happen to other people.”

The night takes a terrifying turn with the arrival of the stranger, a role that went to actor Edwin Hodge. The character, a homeless man, comes into the Sandin family’s life while being chased by the band of Freaks and serves as the catalyst for the Sandins’ deep
involvement in The Purge. To save himself, the stranger climbs the fence into the gated community where the Sandin family resides.
DeMonaco provides that the stranger’s entrance into the Sandins’ lives drives a wedge among the family: “After Charlie opens the security barricades and lets the stranger inside their home to help him, then that draws the people chasing him to their home and sets off the evening of mayhem. The family is given an ultimatum by the group’s polite leader to return the stranger to him. If they deny the psychotic request, the leader promises that his gang will break through the barricaded security system and kill them all.”
Hodge walks us through his character’s night: “Through the chaos, my character ends up hiding, and Charlie utilizes his remote-controlled robot toy to guide me to his secret space inside his closet. That’s where I take sanctuary for a while.” Hodge echoes the cast’s initial trepidation about going to very dark places. “During production, I was able to truly understand what my character is going through in terms of the hostility against him. It is going to be a fascinating experience for the audience to watch all this play out.”

As the Sandins run into a night full of moral dilemmas and try to navigate their way through the attack, the eerily polite leader, played by Rhys Wakefield, makes their lives a waking nightmare. Truly, this character represents the upper class in a different manner than James. While the head of household has become rich off of The Purge by selling security systems to the very wealthy, the leader feels that it’s his right as a member of the elite to participate in the night’s mayhem. He feels that it makes him a better person and keeps the poor off the streets for good.

What sets the leader apart from the other killers in the film is that he is simultaneously articulate, charismatic and creepy. Producer Blum enjoyed the turn that this part provides, noting: “James came up with something very different for Rhys’ character. He wanted him and his group to be dressed like they just came from a prestigious fraternity at an Ivy League school. Rhys is the leader, and he feels it’s his right to purge; it’s his right to kill people that night, and he’s very adamant about it.”

The supporting cast of The Purge was tasked with their own set of challenging roles. They were brought along to play characters that circle the Sandin family home and either draw them out or kill them where they hide. Cast as the band of Freaks who accompany the polite stranger with an arsenal of weapons were BOIMA BLAKE, CHESTER LOCKHART, ALICIA VELA-BAILEY, TYLER JAYE, NATHAN CLARKSON and

For DeMonaco, these affectless killers are the scariest characters in his story. He notes: “The Freaks, like their leader, feel that The Purge is their God-given right and they treat it like a freakish Halloween, donning masks and costumes. They’re terrifying.”