‘Hap and Leonard’ Season 3 Cast on Race, Male Friendships, & a Timely “Two-Bear Mambo”
Last November, I was invited down to a location shoot of Hap and Leonard Season 3, “Two-Bear Mambo,” which films here in Georgia. I was actually the only press person on set that day, which made it a very different vibe than anything I had experienced visiting sets before. It was very much a regular working day, as one of the season’s most pivotal moments (from its fifth episode) was being filmed.
There were a few things that were really interesting in observing the production that day, including the way stars Michael K. Williams and James Purefoy work (in talking with one another about character motivations before these intense moments, and whether or not they choose to stay in that headspace between takes). But more than anything, it was the way that everyone involved — from the writers and EPs down the the PAs — were genuinely proud of the show. That’s not something that can be faked, even when media are present. You can often tell when actors have beef with the writers, or pick up on frustrations among department heads. But with Hap and Leonard, everyone was so joyous and positive about the series. They have good reason to be — the series is an oft-overlooked and underrated gem of Peak TV.
In its third season, based once again off of Joe R. Lansdale’s book series, Hap (Purefoy) and Leonard (Williams) go to a very dark place both literally and emotionally. They’re headed to Grovetown, 100 miles from their East Texas abodes in LaBourde, to find their missing friend Florida Grange (Tiffany Mack). Govetown is full of racists and Klan activity, and while our heroes have a knack for getting out of most scrapes, this one is costlier than they know. As Louis Gossett, Jr. told me (he’s a new addition this year, as a diner cook named Bacon who tries to warn the duo out of town), “It’s dark comedy but it’s real. It’s comedy, and some tragic stuff that happens. The scene we’re doing today is quite serious. But it’s also very important.”
While on set, I spoke to Gossett as well as Purefoy and Williams about the new season, what they’re most excited for fans to see, the unique relationship between Hap and Leonard, as well as the role that race plays in Season 3, and what they’re still learning about their characters:
The Weight of Season 3’s Story
Race has always played a key role in Hap and Leonard’s story, from their own unlikely relationship in Texas in the 1980s to Season 2’s heartbreaking murder investigation. But “Two-Bear Mambo” really triples down on that in new way, as the two literally must take up arms against the klan.
“When they first talked about doing this story, [the writers] were going — this was way back in March of  — how are we going to make the KKK relevant? Isn’t it sort of a joke?” Purefoy said. “Like if people do it, it’s sort of laughed at? There’s no danger to it, really. And then Charlottesville happened.”
However, Williams said that the production never felt weighed down by the intensity of the subject matter. “We don’t carry that,” he told me. Still, filming some in Cedarstown, Georgia, where the last cross burning was just in 1980, “something permeates, but the people that you meet and that I spoke to are just so beautiful. To have us filming this show in their town, to see a black and white man leading this show, and to welcome us with open arms … I must say, the crew and the towns that we picked to shoot in have been very kind to us.”
Purefoy continued, “For us, it’s about trying to recalibrate ‘What is good?’ ‘What is bad?’ ‘Who are the bad guys?’ We should know that […] So trying to recalibrate and retake that ground, that there are no fine people who march with Nazis, full stop. There just aren’t. If you find yourself in a march with somebody who is waving a swastika, saying ‘blood and soil,’ and ‘you will not replace us’ … you’re probably not in the right place.
We would have made this story anyway. But it really brought things into focus that there really are people who have that level of bile and hate in their heart, and it’s a profoundly upsetting thing to realize that we still have that […] I think we all as artists have a responsibility to plant our flag — we shouldn’t need to, it’s ludicrous, to feel like we have to talk about these guys as the bad guys. There’s something insane about that.”
Williams added, “And I believe in life you have to laugh to keep from crying.”
Hap and Leonard’s Unique Friendship
One of the most unique and absolute best aspects of the show comes down to the friendship between these two men, Leonard and Hap. They’re so different in so many ways, but they’re also bonded so closely together. In Season 3 though, we see that tested in an unexpected way, one that really cuts to the essence of who they are as people. Gossett praised the scene I observed where Hap and Leonard are really up against the ropes: “There was something that happened today between those two actors and they bonded together, in their partnership, and the scene is that way anyway,” Gossett said about Purefoy and Williams. “And today was very important not just for Hap and Leonard but those two actors. They bonded very well in that scene. When all the chips are down […] It was beautiful to witness.”
“Normally they’re following one another into a mess,” Purefoy told me, “but this is one they both kind got dragged into, for different reasons. I believe Hap is the romantic looking to hopefully find true love in Florida, and Leonard is like ‘I go wherever I want to go, it’s America.’ So they end up on this quest and they both get taken to a place that neither one of them was ready for.”
“It’s just a quest for the truth. It’s obviously a very heavy scene, but what makes it heavy are the layers,” William said. “It’s very easy to just shoot this to just make it aesthetically beautiful and cinematic, and sensational if you will. Sometimes you have to just find the truth to make it realistic and also beautifully painful to watch.”
“There is so much unspoken love about these two that they have for each other,” Purefoy said, adding,
“They barely talk about it, it’s just a given. And because it’s a given, you can play it any way you like, because you know that they’ve always got each other’s backs and you know they would do anything for each other. So we talked about it really early on, Michael and I, about wanting to redefine male relationships on television, and what they really mean to us. Our own friends, what are they like, and how do we hold that mirror up to that nature, and how do we show that in a TV show rather than how people imagine that is, or how people would like it to be. It can be a fight, Michael and I fight, often. [Laughs] But we always make up. We’ve known each other for a very long time, and we try and bring that friendship in front of the camera and show that there can be a tenderness, and love between men. You don’t need to bang on about it too much, but it’s there and you know it’s there and it’s profound.”
What Are They Still Learning About Their Characters?
Gossett’s role as Bacon has changed quite a bit from that in the books, where (as EP John Wirth explained it) “he was a bit of an Uncle Tom.” Here, Bacon is more positive, and will be trying to look out for Williams’ Leonard. In real life, the two have fostered a close bond since they both appeared on Boardwalk Empire together (where Gossett played Williams’ father), and Williams was hoping to find a place for Gossett on the show. Both men spoke about wanting to bring that off-screen relationship on-screen this year (more on that below), and while I won’t get into spoilers, Gossett said about Bacon’s role: “He has this line that ‘sometimes peace comes at a price.’ A very important line.”
That should give you a sense of Season 3’s stakes, but Williams said that we’ll also find Leonard in a difficult place emotionally. “He’s scared a little bit. He’s worried about the next phase of his life, and where his life is going. I think he’s at a point where it’s ‘Where have I been?’ ‘
Where am I at?’ ‘Where am I going?'” Williams told me. “And I think we see that in the scene where he talks to his younger self, and he’s faced with some demons that he has to let go of. He faces some demons.”
As for Hap, Purefoy shared that, “In the first season, to me, he was almost like an insect trapped in amber. He had this terrible emotional trauma when Trudy left him in prison, and he stopped growing emotionally. Then we turn a corner in the final episode, and he found the action side of him, to decide and do and be, and be proactive in taking control of his life. And then in the second season, we made him much more proactive. And he starts learning after the violence in this season, and that he is still at heart a pacifist. He sees its uses.”
What They’re Excited for Fans to See
“I am excited for the fans to see Mr. Lou Gossett Jr. to do his thing,” Williams said with a smile. “To see what he and I bring to the screen and to our relationship within the storyline. I’m really excited for that. I’m also really excited for people to see the way James and I … this is our third season, and we’ve been working on these characters and our rhythm, and I really feel like we got it in the pocket this year, like there’s some sweet comedic moments, in the writing — the banter, as we call it — between James and I that I’m extremely proud of.”
Gossett expounded on his relationship with Williams and how it translates into the Leonard/Bacon relationship, saying: “When he wanted me to do this, we almost created it from scratch. So it’s unwritten in the script, but we fill it in. As we talk in each scene, it became nice and something you could take a bite out of. It’s called subtext in acting class. So it’s me and Michael, and also Bacon and Leonard, it’s all kinds morphed together. It’s very nice … there’s some stuff we have to do beyond this, other projects, but it’s really nice to be with someone who’s almost family.”
Purefoy then summed up his feeling about the show that really perfectly define why it’s such a delightful and necessary series:
“I love this show, I think it does something extraordinary. I think it shows real working-class lives, I think it shows a black experience, it shows a white working class experience, it’s blue-collar. It actually shows and holds a mirror up to nature so much more than anything else that’s on television, and I think that people will recognize these people, these lives, the conditions of the houses that they live in. And the shitty cars they drive that fall apart, and they find hard to replace, and they aren’t earning enough, and they’re putting in longer hours and you know … it’s all about that sort of stuff. And if I didn’t do another job in my life I’d be happy to call it a close right now, because it’s a really interesting show, and I’m really proud of doing it.”
Hap and Leonard: The Two-Bear Mambo premieres Wednesday, March 7th on SundanceTV. Keep an eye out for our Season 3 review coming this week, as well as more from the set.