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James Purefoy Talks The Following
On serial-killing, Kevin Bacon and flame-demons

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The latest Brit to take on a show-stealing role in a behemoth American TV show, Empire favourite James Purefoy stars in The Following as serial-killing smoothie Joe Carroll. We caught up with him to hear what it's like to get paid to terrorise Kevin Bacon, as well as the best story ever about scaring a burglar away with a sword.

To hear a section of this interview in audio form, download the latest Empire Podcast here.

James Purefoy Talks The Following

If the show's a hit, you'll be spending several years hanging out with Kevin Bacon. That's got to be pretty cool?
He's iconic. I look at Kevin sometimes and think, "You've been around all my life." I remember watching Animal House stoned. Let's face it, who wasn't stoned when they were watching Animal House back in the early '80s? So, you know, he's been around forever, and he really knows his business and his craft. It's like playing tennis with someone who's much better than you. You just get better, when you're with Kevin.

Have you seen the surreal TV ads he's done for EE?
He had to ring me when he was asked to do them: "Hey, James, what the fuck is all this about? What is Coronation Street?" Because it's all about British things that Americans don't understand. I had to talk him through the entire list.

He sells it well. You can imagine him sitting at home all day with BBC iPlayer, watching everything...
Joe Carroll is worshipping of death. He believes there's nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman dying.
Yes. Well, I'm his Brit consultant.

In The Following you play a guy whose name isn't particularly evil: Joe Carroll. But he's essentially the most horrible man the world has ever seen...
Out of all the bad guys I've ever seen I find him the fascinating, because he's so nihilistic. He is worshipping of death itself, in such a sickening, frightening way. Joe believes there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman dying. He's an aficionado of Edgar Allan Poe - he was a college professor ten years before the show started - and he started killing young women. But he's not your average serial killer. He's in prison at the beginning of the first episode, two weeks away from lethal injection, and he's had ten years to think of a plan to get out of there. One of the thing's he's brilliant at, Joe Carroll, is if there is one 1000th of a percent serial killer in you, he's very good at teasing it out and turning you into the serial killer you always kind of knew you could be. So he does that to a guard in prison who gives him access to the internet, and on the internet he then gets busy.

Did you immerse yourself in serial-killer research to prepare?
I did. And still do actually, there's so much material out there. The first week when I was asked to do it, I sat in a hotel room in Santa Monica with my laptop, and for 16 hours a day, pretty much for a week, I sat watching interviews with serial killers. And listening. There's an awful lot of audio with serial killers talking on the internet.

So did you find yourself clearing your history cache a lot?
Yeah, it's slightly alarming, and there's stuff on my iPod you don't even wanna think about that I go jogging to, listening to Ted Bundy talking into my ear. I didn't pay attention to any fiction at all, because then you're just regurgitating facsimile of someone else's performance.

Did you model Joe on any one killer in particular?
Well, I guess Ted. (Laughs) Ted, we're on first name terms, how hilarious is that? Ted Bundy, of course, and there were a number of others I took bits from. But some of them are still alive, and of the things I learnt about serial killers is that they are pretty much all crazed narcissistic egomaniacs, who would like nothing more than to find out that an actor in a big TV show had based themselves on them. So I won't mention the live ones, but Ted Bundy, he's dead. And you know, he was a white-collar, very cultured, smart man, charming as hell, with a great line of suits and a great smile. He'd be able to sit with you and have a chat about politics, or what was on at the nearest movie theater or art show or something, and in his spare time was having necrophilic sex with his victims up in the mountains.

Playing someone that nasty, over a long period of time, does that start to affect how the cast and crew behave around you?
No, they're fine. It would start affecting me a little bit now and again. You play a particularly dark, grisly scene, and sometimes there's a little taste of ashes, darkness and death in your mouth at the end of the day.

Do you have a way of clearing that?
British actors are pretty good, by and large, at turning on at action and off at cut. I get that Death Row costume off me, get it in the wardrobe in the dressing room, and go find a bottle of wine fast. Because I've got a young family, and the last thing they need is someone coming in doing Joe Carroll at the end of an evening.

James Purefoy Talks The Following

Did it take more deliberation than usual before committing to such a dark role?
It did, but there are lots of great things about this show - we only do 15 episodes, max, so you're not locked into something for ten months of the year for seven years. It's shooting in New York, so I get back to my family and see my son a lot, that kind of stuff. It's not nearly as damaging as being in Los Angeles. And Joe really is a fascinating character. What you want when you're doing a big American TV show, I guess, is something where you feel like you're peeling back the layer of the onion. So you feel like you're constantly discovering what it is that makes the man who he is. And Joe's had some problems in his past!

When Kevin Williamson pitched the show to you, how much information did he divulge?
He knows what he's doing up until the end of the second season. After that, no idea. I'm sure as we progress, he'll start having ideas about a third season and how that would pan out. But the nature of it is me introducing the serial killer of the week and unleashing them on Kevin's character. Because I have vengeance with a big capital V printed on the inside of my head. I don't even wanna kill him. I want to insert a crochet needle into his stomach and gently tug on his entrails for the rest of his life.

What's Kevin Bacon ever done to you?
(Laughs) Nothing at all!

It's a really ambitious show, because even Dexter had self-contained arcs each season…
There's stuff on my iPod you don't even want to think about. I go jogging while listening to Ted Bundy.
And Dexter's sort of like a midwife, like a community service, isn't he, in comparison to Joe Carroll? At least he's killing people the audience want to see dead anyway. There's nothing redeeming about Joe other than that he has an eloquent turn of phrase. But I think if you're watching characters that enjoy themselves, then the audience enjoy themselves regardless of how bad they are. Mark Anthony was a very bad man in many ways, yet people seemed to enjoy watching him.

Speaking of Rome, that was another very ambitious show. Is there still a sense of sadness that you guys didn't get to take it further?
[Kevin] McKidd and I had lunch the other day, and I said to him, "Have you been asked to do Game Of Thrones?" And he said, "I'd never do it. Because they stole our fucking show." He worked out that if Rome had run for the entire seven seasons that it should have run, we would only have finished it last year. And he feels that HBO did Game of Thrones instead of us, so they stole our show. I kind of agree with him. I won't be doing Game Of Thrones, even if they ask me.

At the moment there are lots of Brits on TV shows in the States. Damian Lewis on Homeland, Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead...
Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary. Jason Isaacs in Awake. Matthew Rhys, David Morrissey… the list goes on.

The Following shoots in New York, but it's easy to imagine a little enclave of British actors, just hanging about in the same place.
And the weird thing is, these are all people who've known each other for years. Jason and I were in the same year at drama school; he's godfather to my child. I've known Johnny since he was 16. Damian and I have known each other forever. They're all people who have been sitting round my kitchen table for Sunday lunch. So that's weird, seeing these people slowly graduate to not just playing little parts on American TV but leading gigantic series. It's a weird phenomena that's happened.

Have you ever been in direct competition with any of these guys?
That's a good question, I can't ever remember having been up for the same part. But there are people, obviously, that I have as bête noirs in my life, that I'd rather didn't exist. (Laughs) Colin Firth. Clive Owen. That would be nice, wouldn't it, to have their careers. I don't know if there is any actor in the whole world that isn't slightly jealous of someone else. Maybe Brad Pitt. But he might be jealous of George Clooney.

Are you a big TV watcher? Do you watch The Walking Dead?
I haven't - I spent so much time being killed by zombies in Resident Evil, I've kind of done my zombie thing now. Homeland and Breaking Bad, those are my two shows that I can't get enough of. And I think that's one of the things about The Following... the networks are going, "Walking Dead? They're getting 30 million people watching it, but it means that they're not watching us!" You know, people aren't watching a network: they're watching cable channels. And I think that's one of the big reasons our show is so cabley. It's trying to pull that audience away from the cable channels and back to networks.

Are you still reading film scripts?
Of course. Though you're so involved when you're doing a show like this - it's so big and takes up so much of your time - that you don't plan too far ahead. I haven't even had a conversation with my agent about what happens in April or May next year.

James Purefoy Talks The Following
Purefoy with Kate Mara in Ironclad

There's been talk for a while about a Solomon Kane 2 or Ironclad 2...
Ironclad 2 would be unlikely, I think. At least until they've paid me properly for Ironclad 1. (Laughs) So let's just get that dealt with first.

Did you get a free Blu-ray at least?
Yeah. A free Blu-ray and a sword. But Solomon Kane, that's one that I'd love to do another one of, because I think there are many great stories to tell. And we learned so much from doing the first one that I think we'd be a lot better at the second.

How big is your sword collection now?
I've got the ones from Ironclad, Solomon, Rome, and various others. I think I've got 11 or 12 swords now at home, something like that. It's the Ironclad sword that people get most excited about. My boy's friends, who are 15 and 16, love that sword because it's taller than most of them and they've seen the movie. They go, "Can it really chop a man in half?" And it can! It really, genuinely can - that's the alarming thing about a broadsword.

Would you describe Solomon Kane as an enjoyable shoot?
Only because the film required a great deal of me. If your enjoyment of a film is commensurate with how much pain your leading actor goes through up on the screen, then I think people enjoy that film a lot, because it looks terribly unpleasant. I had to get really fit for it, I learned a lot about horses and fighting, and it was blindingly cold. It was really, really hard. Probably the toughest thing I've ever had to do.

We visited the set near the end of the shoot, to watch you fight a flaming demon...
I've got 11 or 12 swords now at home. The NRA have got nothing on me!
At least the flaming demon wasn't there... that's much easier than fighting a man who is actually on fire. We did a shot which was a top shot - we were in a big castle hall and there was no crew in the room at all because they were all above me. And I was facing off against Vlad, one of the best swordsmen in Slovenia, who is unbelievably good and really goes for it, even when he's on fire. He had a tube going up his sleeve and into his mouth, and he accidentally inhaled flame twice, so his mouth was blistering on the inside. We'd already said to him, "Vlad, you know we can pull in your understudy just to do the final take?" and he goes "No, I get hundred buck for each take." So on the final take I'm getting alarmed for him, but go to cut his shoulder. And I made the mistake of slicing towards his left shoulder when it should have been his right one. Suddenly this hand comes out of the ball of flame and indicates that I've gone wrong and it should be the other shoulder. I said, "Okay, fine, thank you" and we continued. It was all very polite!

Sounds intense. Is Vlad still alive?
Yeah, he pitched up on Camelot, another one of my sword and sorcery epics. And he pitched up on John Carter too.

Tell us you got a free Blu-ray on that one!
Yes. (Laughs) And a free sword.

We're guessing it would be a terrible idea for a burglar to try your house...
The NRA have got nothing on me! I did have a hilarious experience actually. Just after I'd done Ironclad, I was in my bed when I heard something outside the house, where I had a very nice bike chained up. I went over to my front window and looked through the venetian blind, and there was a guy pulling a giant pair of wire-cutters out of a bag. I thought, "Fucking hell, he's gonna try and nick my bike." Oh, I'm naked as well.

Of course!
Obviously. I think, "Alright, what the fuck am I gonna use?" I range around the house looking and then I spy Flo, which is the six-foot broadsword. We called it Flo because you have to go with the flow with this sword - once you set it into motion, it wouldn't stop unless it killed someone. So I get Flo out and give myself some backlight - if there's one thing I've learned about movies, it's to give yourself some backlight. I open the front door and I stand there, butt-naked with Flo in my hand, and go, "Hey! What the fuck do you think you're doing?" And he looks at me - not only a man with a sword, but a naked man with a very big sword in his hand - and scarpers. He ran down the street, leaving everything. I still have the wire-cutters in my toolshed. It's nice that I got something off him!

The Following starts on Sky Atlantic HD on Tuesday, Jan 22, at 10pm.

Interview by Chris Hewitt

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