As Joe Carroll, James Purefoy plays the ultimate control freak on the FOX show “The Following” (Mon. 9:00 p.m.). Carroll is a charming professor-turned-serial killer with a knack for getting other, seemingly normal people to do his bidding — whether that’s living undercover for years, killing themselves or offing someone else. I spoke to Purefoy at TCAs this winter and found that the English actor, who was previously best known for playing Marc Antony on the HBO series “Rome,” may not have Carroll’s lethal abilities, but he had lots of opinions about almost every topic from Newtown to anorexia to leash laws.
You seem to have quite a knack for playing bad guys.
I’ve played a lot of bad guys and good guys, but I think maybe the public finds me more interesting as a bad guy. I enjoy it. The devil always has the best tunes.
This might be your worst bad guy yet, it seems.
I think this part is the nadir of bad men, because it’s not just that what he does is bad; he’s bad in his soul. Dark in his soul. He loves death. Death is a really interesting thing to celebrate when you think about it. We don’t like thinking about death too much. We want to live. And that’s our purpose, we want to live. But that kind of thing is interesting. When you come across people who are the absolute diametric opposite to the rest of us and yet appear to be so similar, that’s the motif of the bogey monster, isn’t it?
Carroll is also able to make other people become the bogey monster — seemingly very normal people, too. Do you think that’s part of what makes the show so unnerving, the idea that anyone can kill, given the right influence?
And it’s true, there are people out there doing this kind of stuff. I am hoping that perhaps this show actually acts as some kind of social service.
Because the show reflects reality in some sense?
I don’t think we like looking into dark corners. In my research for this, vis a vis the Internet, I was looking into the darkest, nastiest corners. You’re on your own in a hotel room in Los Angeles with a laptop and your brief is, look into the dark side. You start looking into suicide websites. Pro-anorexia websites, which are the most heartbreaking things to look into. You’re looking at young girls talking about their weight and how they shouldn’t be fat and how can they lose weight and the tricks, like keeping the windows open at night. The cold makes you burn more calories. Not wearing clothes to bed, you burn more calories. That breaks my fucking heart. I hate that. And yet it’s out there. So I’m not going to pretend it’s not there.
There’s a lot of sick stuff on the Internet.
On websites are people who want to fantasize about violence. Those are the people Joe Carroll takes and manipulates. If there’s one millionth of a percent of a serial killer in any of them, he’ll bring it out, coax it, encourage it. That’s what makes it. To me, it’s not the body count, it’s not the blood, it’s the psychology of someone who wants to bring out the very worst in humanity.
So, what are his tricks to transforming someone into a killer? Are these people brainwashed?
No, it has nothing to do with brainwashing! When people say ‘Oh, God, how could anyone be so charismatic as to make people do these things,’ it has nothing to do with that. These are people who fantasize about doing these things anyway. He gives them license, he gives them care, he gives them love, the inverted compass, no judgement, they feel safe with him. That’s what makes him as a cult leader so terrifying
You’ve done quite a bit of American television. What’s the appeal to you?
In a decade, American television has become golden. No, I’m not talking about the ’80s or ’90s. Maybe early ’90s when HBO started coming through. We started realizing they were able to talk about stuff in society that people weren’t talking about. Showing it. I’m always reminded, because I come from a clasical theater background, of that speech Hamlet makes, that our job is to hold the mirror up to nature. That is our job, hold it up to the rest of society. Not a sort of nice, network, moral majority version, which is what we would like society to be. It’s so much more interesting about what it is. Because then we started understanding it. In a strange way, ‘The Following’ is a social service in itself, because we’re shining a light in the dark corners, and it’s only when we start talking bout the dark dorners that we start understanding them.
Since the massacre at Sandy Hook, a lot of people are talking about violence on television.
Awful. It’s fucking awful. When I’m here in America and those things happen, as a father, as a man, as a human being, gut wrenchingly awful. If you’re prepared to roll the die on a society and hope it’s not you or your kid who gets involved in something like that, so be it. But are we prepared to do that? It’s on the roll of a die. Then, accept the consequences. The idea that they turn around and blame Hollywood is intellectually impoverished, fatous, and in fact, babyish. Because all it does is put the blame somewhere else. And the reasons those things happen are multiple, complex and really difficult for us as a society to deal with. They cost a great deal of money to put right; patience and people, these things aren’t cured by drugs, they’re cured by people, and people are really expensive. Are you prepared to pay your tax dollars for those people? That’s the fundamental thing. That, guns, it’s a horrible horrible mix, a perfect storm.
“The Following” is hardly the first show to feature violence, of course.
That’s trouble.They told everynody earlier not to bring this up, but I refuse to admit, because we’ve been watching violent drama since Aeschylus invented it in 500 BC. I was dipping in to Sophocles last week, happened to be in a book shop, and I was looking at the scene where Oedipus rips out his own eyes. Reminded then of [the Earl of] Gloucester in ‘King Lear’ whose eyes are plucked out, thrown on the floor, stamped on. We’ve been watching violent drama, in fact, all of the developed world watches this show, plays Call of Duty, but what is it about this country where you have half a dozen of these appaling tragedies every year? If you don’t do something about it, it costs. And don’t leave it to the fucking roll of the die. Because I don’t want to leave it to the roll of the die. Because I don’t want to suddenly find it’s a one and a two and it’s my children. And me that’s on the receiving end of it. All you do is social engineering, which means massive spending on health care, a mental health provision. Who knows what would have happened to that kid in Sandy Hook if he’d had the right kind of mental health provision? It’s not even about background checks! That’s the thing, people talk about background checks. No! They just take the gun out of their mother’s cabinet!
You’ve shot most of the first season already. Can you give us a hint of what to expect?
The great thing about this show is, don’t trust anyone. The thing about Joe, we’ve seen this recently, General Petraeus and the other guy, carried a woman, paid by the fucking CIA. Everybody has secrets, everybody, and Joe Carroll is very technically proficient at finding out people’s secrets and their weaknesses.
Do you know how it ends, or are you in the dark, too?
And that’s the joy! I could be dead at the end of the year.
Was it a big important for you that “The Following” just has a fifteen episode season?
Big deal. Shooting in New York, big deal. I’m English, so most of my family is in London, so I’m halfway home. I love L.A., but the flight from L.A. to London is just murderous. New York to London is easy. Fifteen episodes means you have five months of the year, you know, doing 22 episodes. Do you really want to make a movie in [months] 11 and 12 before you start again? No. I want to be with my family. I want to go on holiday! I want to go to Tuscany! I want to eat Italian food and watch my kids playing in the garden.
Are you enjoying working in New York?
I love New York. New York is a world city. I’ve been to a lot of places in America, but New York feels like a world city. It’s hugely multicultural; it’s a great energy and a great vibe. And much to their chagrin, they’re not nearly as tough as they think they are. Their dogs are. Their dogs are really aggressive. I have a little dog, a Jack Russell half breed thing. Really thinks he’s an Irish wolfhound, but he gets attacked quite a lot by the dogs. It gets transferred, all their aggression, onto dogs. I think it’s because you can’t take a dog off a leash. They’re so absolutely connected to their alpha, they’re protective of them. In London, dogs are let off the leash all the time. So I’m a big advocate of taking dogs off the leash. They should be allowed to socialize. They’d be a lot less aggressive if they were.
You seem to have all the answers. Next, Purefoy for office!
[Laughing] Me for president! Tomorrow, America! The next day, the world!