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Interview

James Purefoy Unearths the Tell-Tale Heart of ‘The Following’

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James Purefoy Unearths the Tell-Tale Heart of ‘The Following’
Photo Source: Chad Griffith

James Purefoy doesn’t slow down for things like blizzards. Up at 5 a.m. the morning after Nemo blanketed the East Coast, Purefoy put in time at a press conference for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association prior to a photo shoot at New York City’s midtown London hotel before sitting down to chat at the ground-floor restaurant Maze. His busy morning—one that has been bolstered by some very strong Mexican coffee—is in stark contrast to his work on Fox’s new drama “The Following,” in which Purefoy’s most exhausting physical act thus far has been driving a car.

Not that the 48-year-old Brit is making lazy acting choices on the Kevin Williamson drama, co-starring Kevin Bacon. But his physicality is somewhat hampered by playing convicted serial killer Joe Carroll, manipulating a band of devotees into killing from his seat on death row. Purefoy’s performance is a master class in making immobility chilling, something he attributes to the language of the character, a former college professor specializing in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. 

“He’s quite theatrical, and he uses language in quite a theatrical way,” Purefoy says. “And he uses words, choice, specific words, to get under the skin. It’s a specificity about language that that class of Englishman would use as a weapon to impress and to bludgeon and to make others feel stupid. That contradiction between his language and his action—that’s the dichotomy of the man. He speaks so elegantly and then will cut out somebody’s eyes.”

A love of language may be the only thing that Purefoy shares with Carroll; he relishes the feel and taste of words, hitting some syllables like a gong and murmuring others, all with a liberal application of verbal italics. The result is both lyrical and mesmerizing, a combination that can lull his conversational partner into a false sense of comfort—and that Purefoy uses to great effect in his role. 

Carroll is most often seen in prison with manacled hands; Purefoy’s performance is concentrated in his voice and his face, a counter to the knives and guns that proliferate elsewhere and just as chilling as any sudden slashes of a knife. His scenes with Bacon’s ex–FBI agent Ryan Hardy, who put him behind bars originally, play out like a battle between corrupted superego and id. Their interactions crackle with a tension that at least one television critic during this year’s Television Critics Association press tour called sexual. 

Although both actors had to participate in a chemistry read during pilot season last year—something Purefoy likens to “a couple of dogs in the park, sniffing each other’s bums”—Purefoy doesn’t trust the concept that has become a magical totem for entertainment business suits. “I think producers love the idea of chemistry and the money people love the idea of chemistry, but if you’re acting it well enough, you have good chemistry,” he says. “It’s about the characters and do they spark each other off? Well, yes they do in this case.” 

For Williamson, the news that Purefoy was intrigued by the show’s premise left him with tunnel vision. “When I realized he was interested in the script, suddenly I had blinders on, and there was no one else for me,” Williamson says. “I had my hopes high, and he did not disappoint.”

With Williamson on board, Purefoy also had the pleasure of sitting with Warner Bros. executive Peter Roth, who has what Purefoy terms “a really proper, old-school way of dealing with what they euphemistically call talent.” While discussing “The Following” and Purefoy’s ambitions, the two spoke about Purefoy’s strengths and weaknesses, a conversation he relished. “In a way you are your own focus group,” he says. “There are parts I have done that have ignited the imagination, and there are some that haven’t, and that’s quite interesting to come to terms with. Quite often, it seems to be the parts where I am the biggest bastard that seem to ignite people’s imagination more than others. It may be the accent; I don’t know.”

If Purefoy’s most popular characters are indeed the “biggest bastards”—a hypothesis borne out by his well-regarded turn as Mark Antony on “Rome” and the quick fizzle of his NBC drama “The Philanthropist”—then the success of “The Following” is secured. What could be less redeemable than a man who practically salivates at each new murder committed in his name, who has a woman ingratiate herself into his ex-wife’s life as his son’s nanny in order to kidnap him? Purefoy is adamant that neither he nor the audience needs to like Joe Carroll; just don’t call him evil.

“People talk to me about ‘How does it feel to play somebody so evil?’ ” Purefoy says. “Look, don’t talk to me about evil. To talk about evil, you’re able to put him in a box and throw it away and pretend it has nothing to do with you. It’s not. It is everything to do with all of us, these kinds of people. Good and evil are such easy concepts to deal with. Gray, ambiguity, ambivalence, shadows—these are concepts that are really hard to deal with because they take a great deal of time.”

While researching the shadows before filming began, Purefoy discovered the black heart of the Internet, a reminder that the world of “The Following” is not as removed from reality as some viewers might wish. “I started with pro-anorexia sites,” Purefoy says before grimacing. “Makes me slightly gag at the very idea that anyone would be out there encouraging young women to become so thin that they literally disappear. You can go onto things like pro-suicide websites, where people are encouraging and talking about ways of killing yourself. These are people out here, on our streets. That person next to you in the grocery store is somebody who possibly is going home that night and encouraging a 12-year-old girl to kill herself. That’s what we’re tapping into on the show.”

If Purefoy sounds defensive, his attitude is understandable given the post-Sandy Hook climate in which “The Following” premiered. Months of discussing the show’s violence has left him sensitive to the topic. But “The Following” is a reminder that everyday people can harbor darkness within them. The series’ most terrifying moment thus far has not involved recognizable weapons but magnets placed on the bare chest of a man with a pacemaker. And the most devastation is not visited on the murdered or their families; it’s in the face of Natalie Zea as Joe Carroll’s ex-wife, the woman who unknowingly shared life with a mass murderer and then hired another murderer to care for her young son.

“That happens all the time,” Purefoy says. “Suddenly you find out that it’s your husband who is the monster. And you go back all the time, thinking about that moment and this moment and where they were, and they said they were going out to buy a newspaper, and actually they were killing someone. Her whole life has been a mirage, a chimera, a construct built around her. It’s like something out of Greek literature.” 

With so much death and manipulation around him every day, how does Purefoy return to normal life? “Teamsters,” he says gleefully. “I have really great teamsters on the show who drive me home who could not be less interested in talking about the shit that happened during the day. They want to talk about the ballgame or talk about the fucking traffic or the snow. They decompress me beautifully on the half hour it takes me to get home. Teamsters save my life.” 

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