TV & Film

'The Following': James Purefoy Talks Violence In The Media And The Show's 'Bizarre Love Story'


When "The Following" premieres tonight (Monday, January 21 at 9 p.m. EST on Fox), viewers will meet the charismatic serial killer known as Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), a man who has somehow been able to inspire an army of loyal followers to carry out untold grisly crimes in his name, even from his cell on Death Row.

Retired FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) is always one step behind, working to predict Joe's next move before anyone else is killed. The cat-and-mouse relationship between the two is a large part of what makes the new drama so compelling.

At the recent Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, HuffPost TV sat down with James Purefoy to discuss what drew him to playing a killer, whether violence on TV is contributing to the violence we see in America today, and the "bizarre love story" at the center of the show.

What drew you to the project initially?
Kevin Bacon, Kevin Williamson and ... the character is just a phenomenally complex, interesting person that you could spend a lot of time exploring as an actor. And I think if you’re signing up for something that potentially lasts seven years, it’s got to be something complex and interesting. You could be able to reveal many, many layers to the man. But the script was just a great ride. It was thrilling and you didn’t quite know what was going to happen and suddenly the last seven minutes of it, you’re going, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” [The story] evolves. This could go on and on and on. And, of course, if you’re looking for a TV show that is kind of serialized in its nature, you want to make sure that it’s something that’s got length.

How did you go about preparing Joe's backstory; was it something done in collaboration with Kevin Williamson or did you develop it on your own?
Well, Kevin’s got a huge amount on his plate. He’s got multiple spinning plates that he has to deal with. Although, sometimes with other characters, you get a lot of backstory because they die quite quickly, so you need to know what their story is before they disappear. With Joe, we can eke that one out for as long as we like, and as long as the show lasts really. We really don’t want to show too much of what he is or why he does what he does because that will play out as time goes on.

In my mind and what I’ve written, which is almost a novel now, I know exactly why he does what he does. I think in the first episode, it says he started killing when he got bad reviews, which I felt, obviously. If I killed every time I got a bad review, there wouldn’t be many women left in America. [Laughs.] But that’s obviously a trigger. Something pops in his head that has been sitting there festering since he was a child.

To tell you the truth, I’m not big on the concept of good and evil. I think that I find that a bit simplistic. If you say somebody is evil, then you can kind of dismiss them. You don’t have to worry about them. They’re just evil, so let’s just not worry about it. Much more interesting is trying to look at somebody and go, “Why?” There are plenty of psychopaths out there. They say there’s a very high concentration of psychopaths in finance, for example -- much, much more so than the rest of the population, which explains a great deal. On Wall Street and in the city of London, [there are] huge amounts of psychopaths. But they don’t kill people. So what turns a psychopath into somebody who’s a serial killer? What makes a psychopath in the beginning? So those are the sort of questions I ask myself, and those questions that you need to discuss and think about and research are what it is that turns a man from one place into becoming the man he is now.

The relationship between Ryan and Joe is the central dynamic of the show, and as we go on, we discover all these fascinating layers to it via flashbacks. Can you talk about playing their evolving relationship over the years?
[The first time they meet], he’s already a psychotic serial killer -- but he hides it so well, as the best serial killers do. Ted Bundy managed to convince the law firm that he was working with that he was so innocent, they started up a fighting fund for his legal fees. So it takes a curious blend of the psychotic and the humane and the manipulative to be able to become a serial killer. Joe Carroll is in a costume. He’s playing a part. That was one of the things we talked about with the costume people, I said, “Look, just give me the stuff that you would never imagine a serial killer would wear. Give me soft jackets. Give me cardigans.” Very anonymous. You would never know he was who he was. And so he’s playing a part.

He’s at his rawest and his most real, most honest in a way, when he’s sitting in that cell because he knows they know he’s guilty. There’s nothing to hide anymore. You can be honest-ish with them, but he’s not hiding behind a persona. He’s kind of naked there. Those early scenes, it’s about him playing the part. He knows what Ryan’s after, and he’s kind of just drawing him along, but it’s all about manipulation. It’s all about playing people. And, of course, that’s what the best -- not serial killers -- but best cult leaders do. They play people like flutes.

You made an interesting observation on the TCA panel that these followers Joe's gathering really don't need any coercion -- they're just looking for an excuse to do the terrible things they do.
They don’t. I love this idea [people have] that he’s so charismatic, he can force people to do things, When actually, anybody who [watches] would realize nobody needs forcing to do anything. I think what Kevin is doing here is maybe shining a torch on a dark, little corner of Western society’s obsession with violence. And if we’re not careful, and we don’t start actually dealing with it, it will get out of hand.

There’s lots of places on the Internet, dark corners on the Internet, that people in the privacy of their own rooms at night can click on stuff on the Internet, which they’ll fantasize about. And we’re not talking about just suicide rooms or anorexic rooms, we’re talking about violence rooms. We’re talking about people going on under a pseudonym and discussing the things that they would like to do to people. And we need to deal with that. We can't keep sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it doesn’t exist because it clearly does. And this, in a way, is kind of a popular way of going, “Hey everybody, we need to think about this a bit.”

There was a [person at the panel] who said, “I don’t know how you could imagine thinking about these things.” I come from a traditional, classical theatre and I said, "Have you never seen Shakespeare? Have you never seen 'King Lear' when Gloucester’s eyes get ripped out? Have you never seen 'Titus Andronicus' where he gets the children of his wife and cooks them and puts them in a pie and makes her eat them? Have you never seen Sophocles' 'Oedipus Rex' where he pulls out his own eyes?”

As a culture, the West has been fascinated with darkness and violence, the macabre, for thousands of years -- this is not a new phenomenon. And not only that, [but] the rest of the world sees the things that we see in this country, and the rest of the world does not have to deal with half a dozen appalling slaughters every year. Reasons why those things happen go much, much deeper than people watching violence on television and films. And if you start throwing that out as a smoke screen, then you’ve failed.

When we first meet Ryan, he's physical and psychological wreck. He's chugging vodka and he has a pacemaker, he's not exactly on his A-game. How much of Joe's plan is an effort to get him back to fighting weight so that he actually presents a challenge and the game isn't over too easily?
Right. A) Ryan is responsible for me spending 10 years in prison. B) Something funny has been going on with my ex-wife, who I so love. Now, we can all pause at the idea of how crazy that is that Joe Carroll should expect her to love him back, but we're dealing with a sociopathic, crazy man who has built an alternate reality around himself that he totally believes in.

So he feels very aggrieved by Ryan Hardy. And he doesn’t want to kill him because that’s too simple and too quick and too easy. He wants to cause him everlasting pain. And that’s what he’s going to do. So he will wind him along for as long as it takes. I think one of the extraordinary things about this show is that it is really about this bizarre love story in the middle between him and Ryan Hardy. But our life is two angels of death circling around each other constantly until one of them will have to die eventually. Which one that will be ... who knows?

"The Following" premieres Mon., Jan. 21 at 9 p.m. EST on Fox.

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