James Purefoy is an enigma. From jousting Heath Ledger in 2001’s pulpy A Knight’s Tale to manipulating a cult of serial killers in Fox’s The Following, the 52-year old actor has appeared in a wider range of film, television and theatre productions than the lion’s share of his contemporaries.
Yet still he doesn’t roar. Purefoy, whose name may ring a vague bell, is not an actor who turns heads on the street. For, despite starring in feature films and counting some of the industry’s biggest names amongst his friends, he sees no appeal in submitting to the spotlight.
It seems fitting, then, that when we meet to discuss the new series of Purefoy’s ‘swamp-noir’ series Hap and Leonard, it is in a suitably shady member’s club in Central London.
‘It’s a niche niche, isn’t it?’ says Purefoy from behind a cup of tea, as he tries to explain the term ‘swamp-noir’ with a laugh. ‘But that’s what they say.’
Set in 1987, Hap and Leonard tells the story of a pair of blue-collar best friends. Hap, played by Purefoy, is a labourer who was once jailed for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Leonard, played by Purefoy’s real-life friend Michael Kenneth Williams – of The Wire fame – is a gay, African American Navy Seal veteran.
The characters just jumped off the page. Even though they lived in East Texas, they could’ve easily lived in Somerset
‘I really enjoy his company,’ says Purefoy of his co-star. ‘He’s a very different guy from me, obviously. He’s from the hood in Brooklyn, I’m from Somerset. It’s quite a culture clash, and yet we’re able to find quite a lot of common ground between each other and how we see the world.
‘I hope men, especially, will recognise the relationship. Of course, Michael and I, like our characters, bicker. We row and argue, but we’ll always make up at the end of the day. We spent two entire episodes last season handcuffed together, and that was not easy because Michael doesn’t like being handcuffed.
‘I don’t mind it,’ he adds with a wry smile.
Hap and Leonard, now in its second series, is ‘a tiny little show for a tiny little network,’ SundanceTV. But, despite its scale, the rich and relatable storytelling has attracted a solid fanbase.
‘The quality of the writing is just sublime,’ Purefoy enthuses. ‘And I kind of recognised the guys in it. Where I grew up, in the West Country, people I saw everyday would be very much like Hap and Leonard – good men trying to find get rich quick schemes and scams.
‘And, when I read the script, those characters just jumped off the page. Even though they lived in East Texas, they could’ve easily lived in Somerset.’
For the second series, streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime in the UK, production moved to Atlanta. And that wasn’t the only change. This time, the show – which deals with racial and gender politics head-on – was filming at the same time as the US election.
‘We finished about five or six days after Trump got elected,’ says Purefoy. ‘And it hadn’t really struck me as a political series or script. But then, because of the election, all of these conversations about race and LGBT issues, gay marriage – they became pushed to the fore.
‘It was tricky,’ the actor continues, ‘because it was a very polarising election. Fascinating for me, however – because I was a fly on the wall in a world that wasn’t mine. I actually found myself being much more passionate than some of the American cast and crew. But so many people, even here, just don’t concern themselves with current affairs – and they need to.’
Recent years have seen Purefoy take to Twitter in a bid to raise the public’s awareness of noteworthy issues. In the actor’s own words, his social media presence is ‘tweeting about politics, tweeting about charities, tweeting about my shows’. But that’s as far as it goes. Purefoy’s personal life stays personal – and that’s the way he likes it.
‘I was once described as a ‘stealth celebrity’ and I couldn’t have been happier. It sounds kind of cool, and it shows just how disinterested I am in that side of the world. I don’t go to the parties. I don’t go to the openings. I just don’t buy into it. I’d rather be at home with a good book.
It was tricky for me. I was a fly on the wall in a world that wasn’t mine
‘And I’ve seen great damage from what that sort of tabloid press can do to people,’ the actor reasons. ‘I have close friends who were trawled through the phone hacking scandal, and their families and lives are tarnished with suspicion and paranoia.’
But would the threat of bad press ever stop Purefoy from working?
‘Of course not! I love working. I get irritated and antsy if I spend too long waiting around for a role. I went through a period of about six or seven years at one point when I was taking roles to be working, even though they were all quite similar. All period dramas, and I always seemed to have a sword in my hand.
‘If you’re a certain type of white, middle-class actor, they love to throw a pair of britches and a poncey shirt on you and cast you in a period drama. But I’ve got a great collection of swords now.’
Purefoy’s contracts, at one time, always contained a stipulation that he could keep his character’s sword at the end of filming. His collection, as a result, is envious – with favourite pieces including the blade of Solomon Kane, a puritan avenger Purefoy played in the eponymous film, and a 6-foot broadsword taken from the ‘slightly questionably’ medieval siege epic Ironclad.
But, out of all his sword-wielding turns, perhaps Purefoy’s role in HBO’s Rome is his most famous.
‘Marc Antony certainly broke me in America. And they’re not so interested in typecasting or pigeon-holing you over there as they are in Britain. There’s a lot of control in this country, because here we like to keep people in their place. And I think that’s just ingrained in the class system. We’re told to keep in our place and pipe down; tall poppy syndrome.
If you’re a certain type of white, middle-class actor, they love to throw a pair of britches and a poncey shirt on you and cast you in a period drama.
‘And that’s another reason why the political level of my Twitter activity is much greater now – because it’s much more important now. Things are really, massively at stake – both in this country and the United States. So I live by the old adage; evil prevails when good men do nothing. And, if the least I can do is get people to read an article that shines a light on an issue, then I’m happy.’
Hap & Leonard Series 2 is streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video