In the new SundanceTV original series Hap and Leonard — which debuts Wednesday, March 2 at 10 p.m. EST — James Purefoy (Hap) stars alongside Michael K. Williams (Leonard) in a noir-inspired show set in the 1980s about two best friends — one a good ol’ East Texas white guy, and the other an openly gay, black Vietnam vet — who are down on their luck but on the hunt for some lost loot. It’s a simple get-rich-quick plan that of course goes awry, and hijinks ensue. Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame plays the femme fatale of the show, which was created by director/writer Jim Mickle and writer Nick Damici and based on a series of books by Joe R. Lansdale.
We spoke to Purefoy recently about the show and how he came to star in it, the captivating horror of the current U.S. presidential race, the beauty of rural life, and how he’s happy to have never landed the role just about any male actor would kill for (James Bond, which Purefoy was reportedly considered for twice), among other things.
I’m always kind of amazed when actors who aren’t from the U.S. are able to portray Southern characters well. I thought you did a good job with Hap. I was a bit taken aback upon discovering that you’re British.
I’m so excited to hear you say so. To me it really is about playing the American. I know that sounds kind of strange but there’s such a world of difference. Although we speak with the same language, there’s also a divide. There’s something so very different about what happens underneath the American skin.
I think for me it’s about trying to find the American in him and the Southern, the blue collar, where he comes from, and the disillusionment I think that he probably feels as a man who is of a certain age. It hasn’t really happened for him. It’s like a dream that hasn’t really happened. I think that’s quite common in America. Not only in the ’80s but now especially. I think it’s even worse now. Anyway, I think there’s a great disconnect with an awful lot of people, about the American dream.
The first time we see Hap and Leonard, it’s the 1980s and they’re in a rose field that they are working in and they are being effectively laid off to be replaced by immigrant workers, which is definitely a theme today still. I don’t know if you’re following the American presidential campaign that much, but it’s…
I feel very fascinated by it. I shouldn’t be, but there’s something so gripping about watching a multi-car pileup on any freeway, isn’t there? You kind of watch it slack-jawed going, “Holy moly! Is this really happening?”
Good to know that our friends across the pond are viewing this in the same way that much of us are.
It is like watching something terrible and you can’t do anything about it. Everybody seems powerless. The more Trump does…
The more ridiculous he gets.
He just gets more popular.
I know. I know.
But yes, I am being very aware of the other things and they are recent. There’ve been really a lot of articles about the American dream not being all that it’s cracked up to be. You know, seeing people get into a certain age, I guess the late 40s/50s and they go, “Hey. I have been pulling myself up my butt by my bootstraps. I have been working hard. When is this great reward finally going to arrive?” I think Hap feels a bit lost in the world that he is in. I think he is quite disillusioned by everything. By women, love, life and …
None of it has worked out for him as it was supposed to. The fairy tale just hasn’t come true.
He’s got this relationship with this crazy black gay, Leonard. He loves him, but really this is it. That’s the only thing he’s got.
There’s definitely a lot of that there and it makes total sense that this character would just say, “Fuck it!” and just go off on this chase for a million dollars at the bottom of an alligator-infested river.
I know so many people like that. I suppose one of the things that drew me to the part is, where I come from in the western part of England — in a very rural, industrial, agricultural world — I knew so many men like him, like Hap. By then it was when I was growing up. People in my local pub in the village were always trying to find some way to get themselves out of the wrap that they found themselves in. They’d be guys who are working in slaughterhouses or chicken farms; just farmers. Getting up and working ungodly fucking hours out in the field with cattle or with sheep or whatever it was. They’d be in the pub dreaming of get-rich-quick scenes all the time. Gambling ideas or trying to get from A to Z without doing the rest of the alphabet. Always trying to do some kind of quick way of making that buck. Hap sees this opportunity, he just can’t turn it down because it just seems like too much money.
That’s interesting, that you have that experience of growing up in a rural, working-class area. That would definitely inform you as to who this character is.
There’s nothing urban about them.