Executive produced by film franchise creator James DeMonaco, Jason Blum and Platinum Dunes’ Brad Fuller and Andrew Form, the USA Network TV series The Purge revolves around a 12-hour period when all crime, including murder, is legal. In a country ruled by the totalitarian political party New Founding Fathers of America, or NFFA, class and wealth still rein supreme and keep the population divided, as each character is forced to reckon with their past, understand how that’s lead them to their present path, and decide just how far they will go to survive the night.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actress Fiona Dourif (who plays the much-adored, charismatic cult leader, Good Leader Tavis) talked about what drew her to The Purge and this character, in particular, the influence of having had a mother who was a professional psychic, playing someone who is a true believer, how Good Leader Tavis views the work that she’s doing, shooting scenes inside of a bus, whether we’ll learn more about who the Good Leader is outside of Purge night, working with pilot director Anthony Hemingway, and why she tends to play intense characters.
Collider: How did you come to be a part of The Purge TV series?
FIONA DOURIF: As years pass, I feel like the time they give you to audition just gets shorter and shorter. I was leaving a job in New York City and going to a convention the next day – this thing in Dallas, where all these genre fans get together – and they were like, “Put this self-tape in by tomorrow morning at 8am.” I was like, “I’ve gotta pack. I can’t do it.” And then, I read it and I was like, “Fuck, I really, really want to play a cult leader.” The writing flowed. Oftentimes, auditions are really difficult, if it’s not how you would imagine someone talking, but I thought (showrunner) Tom Kelly did a really good job. I taped it an hour after I got it, and then I was cast the next day, and on a plane a day later.
This is obviously a part of the same world that we’ve been introduced to in the films, but how much did you actually know about what this show would be and what the character would be?
DOURIF: I didn’t. I just played her as a true believer, which is the only aspect of it that I was interested in doing. I played her as somebody who absolutely means it. The show treats her like a charlatan, but the secret is that she’s not. I just had a feel for it. I can tell you this little funny tidbit of my family history – my mom was a professional psychic. Isn’t that crazy? She taught remote viewing, and there were a few people who worked for her that were really devoted to it. They believed in the end of the world, and they all ultimately moved to a place to prepare for it. There was this feeling of devotion and inclusiveness in my mom’s world. Just to be clear, I don’t think my mom was a cult leader. She was not a cult leader, but there was this thing that I recognized that was this feeling of being an outsider and feeling really devoted to something. So, when I read it, I was like, “I have a feeling for this,” and I got it.
How familiar were you with the Purge films? Had you seen them, or were you just aware of the general concept?
DOURIF: I had seen the first one, and I had seen most of the second one. I like the general concept and I thought they were really ambitious, in a cool way. I feel like the TV show also deals with all of the big issues of The Purge, with class, poverty, race, and all that, but is a little less didactic. I really liked that about it. I felt like it was ultimately just a fun, scary ride while it makes you think about these bigger issues, scurrying around them, which is cool.
This is clearly a frightening character because she reels these young people in under this guise of love, but she’s sending them out to die. How do you mentally approach that and figuring out how you wanted to play her?
DOURIF: I play her as someone who believes in the righteousness of what she’s doing. There may be some doubt sometimes, like there is with everything that people do. She’s like a painter, who is devoted to her art. She’s gonna make the world a better place. It was interesting. It’s the second time, recently, that I’ve been able to play a character that was written for a man and cast as a woman, in the last second. This is someone who is devoted to impacting the world, and that is it. The passion of that is really fun. I feel like women don’t get to play that very often. It’s a character that’s completely un-sexualized. I could have eaten whatever I wanted, and you would never be able to tell under the fucking robe. That’s how I looked at her. I look at her as a devoted artist.
From the outside, this character is clearly a cult leader, but I’m guessing that’s probably not a description she would use for herself.
DOURIF: God, no!
How would Good Leader Tavis describe what she’s doing?
DOURIF: She’s helping the faithful join eternal love. I don’t think it’s dying for her. It was a funny exercise because I don’t believe in anything, as a human faith, but the only way to get inside of this was to believe it. When these kids die, they’re not dying, so I watched 100,000 hours of preaching. I watched so much evangelical preaching, and also women preachers. That was really interesting. I was raised secular. The coolest part of this job is getting to explore things like this, sans any judgment. If you go into it with judgment, you’re not doing anything. I had to convince myself that maybe it’s happening. It didn’t stick, but it was interesting, for a time. I didn’t want to be presented as a villain, and I didn’t play her as a villain.
Obviously, she’s this much adored leader to her followers, but does she have something outside of that, or is this her entire life?
DOURIF: It’s her entire life. There are aspects of her life that have to do with this accumulating power that she’s devoted to, but her family is her children. It was funny, it helped me in the scenes to really develop relationships with the kids on the bus. I got to know these kids so well. They were really great kids, and they were really hard-working. With the energy on the bus, it became really clear that it was about all of us, to make those sermons feel real. It was really fucking fun. It was maybe the most fun I’ve had on a job, ever.
The Purge is only 12 hours, on one night out of the year, so what does Good Leader Tavis do when it’s not Purge night? Does she hang out at home and watch Netflix, or is she slaughtering small fluffy bunnies?
DOURIF: She runs a home and watches a lot of Netflix. Is she celibate? I don’t think so. But it’s funny that you say that because rabbit are actually the animal that I dislike the most. If I were to kill an animal, it would definitely be a rabbit.
This series also uses flashbacks to explore the characters’ lives before the Purge, so will we get to see who your character was before becoming the Good Leader, and will we see why and how she got to this place?
DOURIF: You will find out a lot of information, yeah. It goes into it, for sure.
Do you think that she internally struggles over everyone that she sends out to die, or do you think she’s just grateful, each time, that it’s not her?
DOURIF: No, it’s just fun. I think it’s celebratory for her. It’s the time of her life. Of the two jobs, you’d rather be Good Leader. I think she really enjoys her job, and she believes in it. Who’s to say that it’s not the better thing to do? Maybe death is more fun. I don’t know yet.
Until a bunch of people come running at you with axes, and then it’s not. What’s it like to do the scenes inside of that bus, out on the road?
DOURIF: It was wildly fun. I was so surprised at how powerful and free the whole thing felt. Every experience, acting is always so different. It’s what makes this job endlessly interesting. I never really know what to expect, until I’m doing it. I was scared. It’s scary walking into something that was cast as a woman, at the last second. They kept using the word “charismatic,” over and over. It was like, “Great, she’s a charismatic leader. Her charisma just takes everybody over. I don’t know, man, this is all the charisma I’ve got. I hope this is enough. I have no idea.” So, I was scared at first, but then, you do it once or twice and that falls away. It just became this experiment of, what it would be like to be so fully convinced of something, and so passionate and righteous that I can command attention like she does? It was just so fun. I wish that I believed in anything like that, that passionately, and I do not. My brain is too analytical. But, it was fun. I hope everybody gets to deliver sermons to a bus full of people, at some point in their life. I highly recommend it.
It seems that, on a series like this, the director of the pilot would be very important because they’re the one who’s setting up the tone and the mood for the whole series. How did you find the experience of working with Anthony Hemingway?
DOURIF: He was awesome. He totally respects actors. Sometimes in genre, they’re not concerned with it, at all. It becomes very technical for the directors. But Anthony definitely had his vision for the character. We found it together, and then he just let me go and let me do it. He knew all the tricks to help somebody get into a flow. He was great to work with. I felt really protected. He’s awesome, and really fashionable. I was very interested in what he was gonna wear, the little fucker. I loved working with him.
You’ve played some very memorable characters, in a wide array of projects. Is there a type of character that you’d love the opportunity to do, that would really surprise people?
DOURIF: God, I’ve been so lucky. Recently, I’ve been getting cast in these extreme, intense roles, and I’m enjoying it. A character like Good Leader Tavis was on my bucket list, for sure. I would love to play a politician. I’d love to play a strategic-driven person, who’s out for power and influence. I tend to not play people who are put together, and I think I have a put-together aspect of myself. It’s something to do with the construction of my face, or that my dad is a strange, wonderful, intense actor. There’s something about our faces that gets me cast in these roles that are really wild, really intense people. I think that I could also do other things. I’m in New York right now, shooting The Blacklist, and I’m playing somebody who’s a rather normal person. She wakes up in the morning, brushes her teeth, and goes to work. She’s a normal human. But of the little niches to occupy, as a 30-something-year-old woman, I really got lucky. It’s endlessly more interesting to play people who occupy the fringes a bit more. At least, that’s more interesting to me.
The Purge airs on Tuesday nights on the USA Network.