From show creator/executive producer Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries), the dark, fast-paced thriller The Following is an epic story of good versus evil, as told through the eyes of ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), who is forced to return to the case that destroyed his career when it becomes evident that notorious serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) is at the center of a cult of like-minded killers who have created an insidious web of blood and carnage. With Hardy’s help, a team of agents, including Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore) and cult specialist Debra Parker (Annie Parisse), attempt to unravel the deadly plot of murder before the body count rises.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor James Purefoy talked about what attracted him to this show and character, relying on the directors to keep him from going too over-the-top, the types of serial killers and cult leaders he researched for the role, how much fun he’s having working with co-star Kevin Bacon, how he personally views Joe Carroll, and what it’s like to work in such a dark headspace. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
JAMES PUREFOY: I think it’s a well-written, well-acted, really well-shot show. It doesn’t feel like your average TV series with the way that it’s shot, and Marcos Siega is our secret weapon. I think what he’s done with the way the show is shot, it’s a good 70% of its success. He’s done it in a slightly off-kilter way that makes it much more interesting than a really wildly over-produced TV show with lots of rock-pounding music and quick cuts and sexy acting going on. Unsettling is what it should be. I don’t think it’s about the blood and the guts and the gore. I think it’s about us getting our fingers underneath your skin and working at you from there. That’s what makes it interesting. I like television that grabs you by your throat, and I think this grabs you by your throat. My life is really precious. I don’t want to spend it watching ambient TV that just drifts through you. I’ve got better things to do. If I’m going to watch TV, I want to watch stuff that grabs you by the throat, pins you up against the fucking wall, and doesn’t let you go. I think Kevin Bacon is great. All those youngsters are fantastic, and fucking mad. It’s really good. I like it.
How did you come to be a part of this show?
PUREFOY: Peter Roth, who’s the head of Warner Bros. television, has always had time for actors. He’s one of those executives who really gets down and sits and talks, in a way that other executives can only dream about and wish that they had that skill. What it means is that he gets great TV made because he’s able to get people to do stuff for him. He’s a gentleman. He has a lovely office on the Warner Bros. lot. He invites you in and hugs you a lot, makes you feel very welcome, and makes his intentions very clear, that he wants you to work for him. And then, he’ll find you something to do. He’s a rare old Hollywood beast, and I am very fond of him.
So, I went to his office and we talked. I was ready to do a show here. I’d been thinking about doing one, but I’ve got a young kid in England that I couldn’t leave until he got to a certain age. Now, he’s cool with it. So, I came out here at the beginning of last year, and went to have various meetings with various executives. Amazingly, both Fox and Warner Bros. got their big guns out and sat down with me and talked to me about the kind of show I wanted to do. And then, they said, “What about this?” So, I read this and I read a whole bunch of other pilots, and was asked to do a bunch of other ones, but this one kept coming back to me. I’d never read a piece of television where it’s an hour script and it’s perfect. There’s no fat on it, at all. It just lays out characters that you’re interested in, gives you quick and fast sketches of these people and the story is unpredictable and has more turns than you’ve got in your intestine. Just when you think you know what’s going on, something else happens, and that doesn’t stop. It continues like that, throughout the whole series.
And it’s a great character. I suspect that there’s probably not an American actor who would have agreed to do it. We Brits don’t have a problem with not being liked. Joe Carroll is charming enough, but he’s interesting and he has relish. Joe Carroll is the one who’s holding every single great picture, card and ace in the pack. He’s the one who’s got all the information, and he’s delighting in taunting and torturing Ryan Hardy and the FBI. His plan is enormously complex and complicated. It’s not just a single line. It’s a flow chart, like an ever-expanding spider’s web. If one thing goes wrong, something else takes place, and it goes on and on and on. There are enough people out there. This is not about somebody getting people to do things they don’t want to do. This is absolutely about him enabling people to do things that they do want to do. He’s a facilitator and an enabler, he’s non-judgmental and he appears to give love to people who need it. There are fail-safes built in for him. It doesn’t matter that much. He’s quite prepared to throw them under the bus.
Were there things you wanted to make sure you didn’t do with this character?
PUREFOY: Fortunately, I’ve got very good directors. I have a natural propensity for going over the top. If you don’t say, “James, less, less, less!,” than I will go over the top. I need a strong director, and I need somebody to rein me in a little bit and go, “Woah, there, big fella!,” because the character is having such a good time. You need to be disciplined and you need to try to occupy a zone of acting that is always quite scary because you don’t think you’re doing anything. Actors are their own worst enemies. They quite often will get in their own way, and I have to be encouraged, endlessly, not to get in my own way.
PUREFOY: He loves her. I know you look at me like I’m mad, but he loves her. He genuinely loves her. He’s floored by her. She genuinely makes him shake.
What sort of serial killers and cult leaders did you research for this?
PUREFOY: I looked at the script and thought, “Okay, what kind of serial killer is he?” And then, I went and looked at loads of serial killers. I could push the ones with low IQs, who were mentally subnormal, out of the way because they’re not really responsible. It’s more a mental health issue with those people. And then, there are others where you start going, “All right, he’s interesting. I like that. Ted Bundy is interesting.” But, Ted Bundy didn’t have the brilliance of Joe Carroll. Even Hannibal Lecter is so smart and so brilliant, but in comparison to Joe Carroll, he’s not really anything that special. He really can’t see beyond the next meal.
Joe Carroll’s intellect is so big, so vast and so far-reaching. That’s when the cult leader stuff comes in. It’s not just about killing people. It’s about leading people. If you’re going to lead people, you better know how to manipulate people, and you have to be pretty smart to be able to do that. You have to manipulate them to do the things that they want to do, but can’t quite bring themselves to do. But, they do want to do it. All of the followers want to do those things. It’s not just serial killers. There are people who fantasize about violence. There are dark, terrifying corners of the internet, which are accessed by people in the privacy of their own homes. There are suicide websites, pro-anorexia websites and violence-related websites, where people go to talk about fucking up other people. I looked at a whole load of different things in the dark corners, and it was scary. I was always a lurker. I didn’t interact.
It’s like observing people on the street. You’re observing the way people are interacting, on a screen. In a way, what we’re doing with this show is shining a lot on the dark corners. We’re saying, “This exists in this country. What are we going to do about this? Let’s not pretend it doesn’t happen.” People have secrets that they are acting on, in a way that, before the internet, they never could. How are we going to deal with that? I’m not suggesting that this show is doing any kind of social service, whatsoever, but I often think that drama helps people feel less lonely about things. One of the great things about drama is that it makes you feel like you’re not a crackpot, and that there are other people who think and feel the way you do. Maybe just by doing that, we can start having a conversation about this. We really need to have a conversation about our obsession with violence.
PUREFOY: One of the things that I discovered in my research is that some serial killers build an ultimate reality around themselves that they believe in, 100%. Ted Bundy believed that he was doing all of that killing because of 1970s porn. I don’t know about you, but I knew what 1970s porn looked like, and it would hardly insight you to murder. It might be different now, but then? Jesus Christ, really?! Ted Bundy believed that. And Joe Carroll has made himself believe that what he’s doing is in the name of beauty, art, [Edgar Allen] Poe, and the idea that the death of a beautiful woman is the single most beautiful thing that you can see. He doesn’t think he’s wrong, so to be put in prison and punished for it pisses him off. And whilst he’s in prison, Ryan Hardy starts having a little dilly dalliance with my wife, whom I love, so I’m going to fuck him up for that. He’s not going to kill him. The only way I can describe it is that he wants to put a crochet hook through a very small hole in Ryan Hardy’s stomach, and just pull gently at his intestines, for the rest of his life. He’s not above vengeance, and that’s the understatement of the year. Vengeance is all that he’s about.
Is it fun to have someone like Kevin Bacon to play those scenes with?
PUREFOY: Yeah, he’s a really good actor and he’s been doing the job a really long time. Actors tend to get better with age. You start cutting away the useless stuff and achieving a point of effortlessness and simplicity, which is all you want to do, with any art at all, and Kevin is there. That’s what he does, and he does it with no effort. It’s simple. It’s really lovely to watch somebody be that good. Somebody doing something effortlessly is a lovely thing to watch. Those scenes are an enormous amount of fun to play because he’s like a great tennis player. You get better, working with him. I don’t have nearly enough to do with him. I’d like to be playing with him, every day, because he’s really good, it’s good fun, and it makes me good.
PUREFOY: I don’t judge him. That’s really important, as an actor. If you’re playing Hitler, you don’t play Hitler as an asshole. Hitler believed what he was doing was right. Any of those monsters and any serial killer believes in what they’re doing. I play it subjectively. It’s up to you to decide if I’m a monster or not. It’s up to a court to decide that. I’m just trying to be honest, from his point of view, and everybody else can make up their own minds about that, afterwards.
Does Joe Carroll have an ultimate goal?
PUREFOY: Oh, yeah, very much so. I can’t say anything about it, though. I know that there’s a super objective that he’s always trying to achieve. Kevin Williamson has told me what the super objective of Joe Carroll is. It’s a quite simple super objective. But, he will achieve it because he’s worked it out and he knows how to do it. It’s a question of a lot of small bombs going off. It’s distraction from the main event, and he’s just got to pull off enough distraction.
Is it difficult to always be in such a dark headspace?
PUREFOY: Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. It all depends on the day, really. Sometimes it’s just inherently comic, working with serial killers. I can’t deny that. Especially if they’re the ones that don’t have the highest of IQs, it can be hilarious. But then, there are other days that you have to do stuff that is barely suppressing a slight panic about what’s going to happen between, “Action!,” and “Cut!” The process of being an actor is that you generally don’t know what’s going to happen, and you shouldn’t know what’s going to happen. To occupy an area of 30 seconds or a minute of absolute uncertainty, within certain parameters, is what it’s exciting. And when you’re dealing with killing people and things that are upsetting, that can be a delicate place to occupy yourself for a day.
The Following airs on Monday nights on Fox.