When most people think of Marisa Tomei, they picture her as Mona Lisa Vito in “My Cousin Vinny.” Or more recently, many imagine her as Aunt May in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” or the upcoming “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” Yet this summer, she appeared in Gerard McMurray’s “The First Purge” as Dr. May Updale. In an interview with The Daily, Tomei spoke about her experiences working on the film and her decision to appear in it.
“The First Purge” is a prequel to the other films in the Purge series. It depicts the original Purge, an annual 12-hour period in which crime is entirely legal. The government begins the experiment on Staten Island, offering $5,000 to those willing to stay during the Purge. This seemingly archetypal horror film premise is almost immediately tinged with larger themes of racial inequality as Staten Island’s black residents are revealed to be the overwhelming victims of the Purge.
“Yes, it's a genre movie,” Tomei said, “but there's all these undertones about economic and racial oppression by the government.”
For someone whose career has mostly revolved around comedies, Tomei describes this as a chance to break into both the horror genre and the realm of more politically and socially conscious artwork. She sees the realm of entertainment as dividing into socially/politically conscious works and lighter material.
“Movies can be pure entertainment, which we still need to have,” said Tomei, “but every movie now has to respond in some way, subtly or not.”
From its very first ad campaign involving MAGA-esque red hats with “The First Purge” written on them, the movie has not shied away from political relevance and political controversy. Later in the film, as torch-wielding citizens dressed in hooded outfits reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan are shown murdering as many black residents as possible, the culturally responsive aspects of the movie quickly come into light. It’s an imagined world in which the government has adopted a strikingly naked policy of harming citizens of color. And in a country with “blame on both sides,” these policies are no longer a disposable hypothetical.
“There is this undertone that can be got at easily in a genre movie in which you're fighting for your rights, in your life, and finding suppression and violence,” Tomei said. “Other genre movies are coming out with these kinds of undertones. ‘Get Out,’ for example.”
And for someone who has done relatively little overtly politically work her movie career, Tomei is still quite politically active. She spoke at Obama’s 2008 inaugural concert. She has participated in Get Out the Vote campaigns for websites like MoveOn.org. She went to Washington, D.C., in 2013 to show her support for the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. And her Twitter feed is currently full of political content, from posts about the Time’s Up movement to those about the Trump administration’s child separation policies.
“This was a way for me to dip my toe into genre stuff while still being connected thematically and doing something of meaning,” said Tomei. “It’s about systems and systematic repression. It’s mostly about wanting to dominate and exterminate. We have that big figure head of this government guy. He's all behind it all. He thinks he has the proper political reasons for doing this and the economic reasons to keep the country afloat. But the unconscious part is that it’s racist.”
The movie also features Van Jones as a skeptical television reporter working to uncover the larger motives behind the Purge.
“I had already been following his show where he talks about trying to get to the the truth with all different kinds of people across the country,” said Tomei. “He was just really funny, he’s easy and speaks from his heart and it lent so much authenticity to the scenes he was doing.”
Tomei’s character is the scientist behind the Purge, the unwitting accomplice to this “experiment” that quickly takes on a racial dimension at the hands of the government. In her scenes with Jones, she justifies the Purge prior to its start as a means of helping to release societal anger. As the film progresses, however, Tomei’s character slowly becomes aware of how the government has taken advantage of her ideas and used them as a vehicle to harm so many.
“Her ego is a blind spot for her. Is she doing it for the right reasons, like those guys who created the atomic bomb?” said Tomei. “There are lots of regrets, you come to live with later, but really in the moment, what were you doing? You are into your own wormhole; you dive into your area, and you're getting funded for it, and you're getting off on it.”
This is the central crux of the movie, the concept of those in power acting in what they believe to be society’s best interest. Everyone believes they have correctly analyzed the Purge. It’s a hypothetical world in which opposing sides of the political spectrum fail to share any common ground, a radically polarized hypothetical towards which we seem to be moving.
“People in general don't think that they’re bad people. They always thinks that they’re a good person and they don’t mean to harm people or they do but they have a good reason for it. They’re not operating from wringing their hands and twirling their mustaches and thinking, How can I do more evil? They think their justified in some way,” said Tomei. “I just think things right now are so charged. I don't know that I would be able to play someone as if they don’t actually believe in what they’re saying. But the story is greater than the individual factor. I know that I’m part of a story that’s highlighting certain issues. But it's speaking to something that I can get behind thematically.”
Besides the serious subject matter of the film, Tomei found it to be an enjoyable project for more personal reasons.
“It’s also really fun for me,” Tomei added. “I hardly ever get to be the really nasty person.”