Published 20/01/2013 | 06:00
He was nearly 007, but now James Purefoy is taking the villain's side – as a serial killer. Declan Cashin talks to the actor about his dark new series, 'The Following'
James Purefoy was once known as the man who was almost, kinda James Bond, but the British actor also almost, kinda attained another star-making, glittering role earlier in life: that of a Wexford hurler.
"My godmother lived in Ireland and I used to spend my summers in Rosslare," the dapper star explains over coffee in London's Soho Hotel.
"Her husband was a man named Billy Rackard, and he and his two brothers [Nicky and Bobby] were very famous hurling players. He was a f***ing hilarious man. We used to knock a ball around all the time."
At this point, Purefoy slips into a highly credible Wexford accent, recounting stories of helping out during those summers in the late Billy's furniture store.
Oh, he's a right charmer, that Purefoy. So it's totally discombobulating to reconcile the man with the rotten egg he plays in the grisly new US drama series 'The Following', which starts next week.
Created by Kevin Williamson ('Scream'), the show has been pegged as "24 meets Seven". It's about Joe Carroll (Purefoy), a literary professor-turned-serial killer who, in the pilot episode, escapes death row and embarks on a new killing spree.
The FBI then recruit Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), the damaged former agent who originally put Carroll away, to assist on the case.
But the authorities soon uncover a much wider plot, involving an entire cult of mass murderers, all communicating with one another online – and all of it masterminded by the devious Carroll.
Purefoy's character comes across in the show as Hannibal Lecter crossed with Mark Zuckerberg, but, laughs Purefoy, "compared to Carroll, Lector is a man of remarkably little vision".
"He can barely see beyond the next meal," he says. "Whereas Joe's plan is like a gigantic spider's web. He's planned the whole thing out and he has many people with him in the cult.
"Unfortunately, his 'co-workers' aren't that reliable, as they tend to be psychopathic serial killers."
Purefoy reckons that 'The Following' will get under the viewers' skins because "it brings the serial killer front and centre".
He explains: "It was vampires [dominating pop culture] for a while, and then zombies. Vampires and zombies are always fictional, but serial killers are real.
"This show is based on the statistic that, according to the FBI, there are up to 300 serial killers active in the US on any given day. That means there are people out there wishing us harm – wishing young women, especially, harm. One of the things the show does is to play on that fear."
Though it's airing here on Sky Atlantic, in the US, 'The Following' is broadcasting on Fox, the notoriously conservative and censorious network television, despite its frequent scenes of gruesome violence (though, through clever editing, you never see as much as you think you do).
Still, the show pushes boundaries like few network projects have in recent years.
"It's a sort of response to the enormous success of cable shows," Purefoy says. "If you have 13 million people watching 'The Walking Dead' on cable, then a) they're not watching you, and b) when it comes to the Emmys and Golden Globes, the networks are being ignored.
"There had to be a trickle-down effect from cable, because audiences are watching shows such as 'Homeland' and 'Breaking Bad' in their droves.
"People are beginning to realise that they have to start looking at what audiences are engaging with."
The timing of the debut of 'The Following', however, has led to controversy in the States. Some are arguing that the show glorifies mindless, random violence – a particularly sensitive topic in the US right now.
Indeed, 'Weekend' is chatting to Purefoy just days after the unconscionable horror unleashed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Is Purefoy expecting a backlash against the show and its subject matter?
"I asked Kevin Williamson about that right at the beginning," Purefoy replies. "He said, 'I can't take responsibility for mental health problems or bad parenting'.
"For example, the guy who dressed up as the Joker [to commit the cinema shooting during a showing of 'The Dark Knight Rises' in Aurora, Colorado last year] could have dressed up as someone else, and then that film would have got it in the neck.
"They say that guns don't kill people; people kill people. Well, movies don't kill people; people kill people."
Purefoy continues: "Our love of the thrill of violence is thousands of years old. Go back to Sophocles. I've been in productions of 'King Lear' where Gloucester's eyes are pulled out in front of you on stage.
"Or, there's Titus Andronicus, who bakes a pie with Lavinia's two boys inside it and makes her eat it. These things are not new. There's something else going on. Plenty of people watch violent movies and never do a thing. It's more to do with access to mental health care, and the provision of that care."
One of the things 'The Following' does quite cleverly is to twist to increasingly demented ends our modern obsessions with social networking and online interaction.
"Carroll is very aware that the internet is an incredible tool for so many things, but that the dark areas of the web are very scary," Purefoy says. "When I was researching this part, I ended up looking at pro-anorexia and pro-suicide websites.
"Looking through these forums and the advice given to teenage girls and young men made me feel sick to my stomach. It's not just those sites, but also those ones where people adopt a false name and discuss horrific fantasies of violence. The internet has become a portal to allow people to do that."
Working on such a dark series, it must help that Purefoy gets a kick out of acting alongside the ageless Kevin Bacon.
"I look at him and think, 'How old are you?'" Purefoy laughs.
"He's been around all my life. I was watching him, stoned, in 'Animal House' when I was 17 [Purefoy is 48 now]. I don't understand it.
"He's played a blinder of a career. He's never become hugely famous for one thing, but then you look at his catalogue of movies. It must go into the hundreds. He's played really fascinating characters.
"And he's really well loved. You go out with Kevin and you feel the love for him all the time, right through America. He wears his celebrity like a light mackintosh. He's gracious and patient. I have a bit of a man-crush."
As for his own level of fame, Purefoy says he is recognised much less in the UK than in America.
He became quite famous in the US for playing Mark Antony in the raunchy TV series 'Rome', a role that required him to go full-frontal on screen.
"I can't imagine it's going to happen much more in my life now that I'm knocking on 50," he laughs. "But it happened. It's just one of those things. What can you do?"
So he doesn't yearn to be more well-known?
"If you can have this career, and then simultaneously go to Sainsbury's and buy sanitary ware for your girlfriend or wife without being recognised, that's bingo," Purefoy replies.
But how differently his life and career would have panned out had he made it as James Bond in the mid-1990s.
"Yes, I was seen when Pierce [Brosnan] was cast, and yes, I was seen when Daniel [Craig] was cast," he says.
"I fully expect to be called into the Eon [producers'] offices when Daniel is finished and I'm very grey and very old for one last shot at it.
"I'm amused by it more than anything else. It would be so disingenuous of me to call it an audition. It's just one of those most incredibly exciting moments of your life. I haven't met Pierce, but I've met Daniel a few times, and clearly he's great in that part."
That's all very diplomatic, but surely he must have mentally cast himself in those Bond movies, even ever so briefly?
"No, but what I do know is that Daniel has five minutes in a pub and that's it before it gets out of hand," Purefoy replies with a laugh.
"I could sit in a pub for three hours at a time, maybe longer, and not be bothered at all. So, who's winning there?"
'The Following' starts on Tuesday at 10pm on Sky Atlantic.