The first time many viewers were introduced to Y’lan Noel was on HBO’s Insecure, in which he played a significant part in one of the most polarising storylines from season one. His character Daniel, an old flame of Issa’s (Issa Rae), helps set in motion the inevitable demise of her long-term relationship with Lawrence when she cheats on him with Daniel. In season two, Daniel briefly resurfaced in Issa’s life, but mostly remained on the periphery.
In season three, currently in the middle of its run, Noel has had the opportunity to expand the dimensions of his character with more prominent storylines, which involve sharing his apartment with Issa, who is having financial troubles, and struggling with his music career.
“There was this void where we didn’t really understand how Issa and Daniel’s situation works or does not work,” he said. “So, the writers just wanted to give it its due.”
In a phone conversation, Noel discussed Daniel’s fraught relationship with a peer in season three, how the show is examining black masculinity and his very different role as an action hero earlier this summer in The First Purge. These are edited excerpts from the interview.
Daniel’s pride gets in the way often, as in episode three when he plays his own beat for Spyder instead of the one Khalil tweaked. He resents Khalil, someone he once mentored, and who is now further along in the industry than he is. Where do you think those feelings are coming from?
I get what it feels like to watch some of your peers pass you in a field that you’re in. I think his pride and ego are getting the best of him, but at the end of the day, Daniel is coming into himself as an artist, and he feels that he brings a very fresh perspective that he doesn’t want anybody diluting, especially not at this stage of the game. I also think that’s something that a young Pharrell or a young Kanye West would’ve definitely done.
It shows artistic integrity. It would be different if him and Khalil were actual boys. I think he does it because it’s a better representation of him as an artist. I don’t know if I would do the same thing, but at the end of the day, fortune favours the brave.
I see your point, but I can also see Issa’s point of there possibly being a compromise. You can put yourself first, but then what if you blow your chances for success?
That particular conversation with Issa [in episode three], I think he wasn’t seeing clear. He was already seeing red, given what had just happened with Khalil. And she was extremely objective, but he had this sense of betrayal, and he wanted her to have his back in the same way that he had hers. It was a rejection compounded by the fact that she just told him that she was moving (out of his apartment).
I see Daniel and Lawrence as similar characters, in that they both rely on Issa for support, though they don’t always appreciate how she expresses that encouragement. Even though she doesn’t have her own stuff together, she is very supportive in that way toward the men in her life.
Yeah. That’s what Daniel likes about her, is that he can trust her; they can be a sounding board for one another. He doesn’t have another person like that in his life and that’s why he wants to nurture that relationship.
Your role in The First Purge is a different examination of black masculinity. At the screening I went to, the person sitting next to me at one point called you Black Rambo.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I’ve heard people saying Rambro, which is funny. What’s cool about Insecure is it’s very realistic and nuanced. Whereas The Purge [series] is like Greek theatre. It goes to the max and stays there. So as an actor, that was really fun because it allowed me to tap into this urge to be physical in a way that I don’t normally get to explore.
What was it like for you to be on set among all of this jarring real-life imagery: Klansmen, Nazis, militant police officers?
The part about it that I enjoyed the most was the fact that ultimately it was about people overcoming and transcending those situations and finding a way to survive. I mean, the purge in this case is a symbol of the negativity and the marginalisation of black and brown people, what we’ve experienced for a long time. So being able to portray someone that fights back and encourages people, that’s an exciting thing.
We’re seeing more representation and challenges of what black masculinity is and can be on screen. Have you noticed any difference lately in the types of roles you’re going out for as a black actor?
I’ve noticed a difference in the types of roles I’m seeing black actors cast in. So I see Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You. I see Get Out. You’re also seeing The First Purge. As a black actor and as black creators, we are now being able to contribute our individual slices to the entire pie, so that we can be reflected as who we actually are: an extremely complicated group of individuals.
I’m new to this. I don’t have 10 years of experience as a professional actor to say how it was before, but I do know what I’ve seen now as far as material is concerned, it definitely better reflects who we really are.
Is there a facet of blackness you haven’t seen on screen that you hope to see or play someday?
I’m really enjoying seeing the weird, eccentric qualities of blackness being explored. We’ve got a lot of shows and material coming out now that show that quirky side of us that is not usually explored. A lot of times, black people were extremely cool, and that’s how we’ve been commodified in TV and film. But now we’re starting to see an upswing of material where we’re like, It’s cool to be quirky and weird and smart.
I want to see more sci-fi with black people. I want to see more brilliant, noncool people being explored. It’s healthy for us to exercise every facet of our being as people, but then also as black people.
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Insecure screens on OSN First HD