James Purefoy on “The Following”

The co-star of "The Following" talks about his creepy serial killer character and the real causes of violence.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

As audiences discover “The Following,” we’re all getting caught in Joe Carroll’s web. James Purefoy personifies the show’s fictional serial killer, who is currently imprisoned… but he also has a host of devotees on the outside continuing his work.

Meeting with the Television Critics Association last month, Purefoy had an answer for any question about violence and the media, and any cryptic response about “The Following” spoilers.

CraveOnline: Are you thankful for the flashback scenes, for Joe Carroll’s backstory and to stretch your legs?

James Purefoy: I find the prison cell quite comforting actually. I find the idea of not being able to move your arms or your hands because you’re chained to the desk, then it all becomes about your voice, what you say, what’s happening in your face. Kind of curious constrictions that I enjoy actually. I like it.

CraveOnline: Would you like to see Joe Carroll free or do you like where he is?

James Purefoy: When I was looking into the show and looking into serial killers, one of the things I found out about Ted Bundy, Ted Bundy escaped from maximum security prison, not once but twice.

CraveOnline: How much research did you do?

James Purefoy: A lot. But I don’t know anything about it. I know as much about serial killers as you do but I need to know about what makes a serial killer. Who are they? Why are we so interested? One of the things I’ve realized is that serial killers, more often there seems to be just a cigarette paper between you and them.

That’s why we’re so fascinated. Ted Bundy for example, if I were standing here as Ted Bundy you would never know that I was going off to the woods tonight to have sex with dead people. And yet, he was perfectly charming, perfectly sociable, could have a conversation about anything you pretty much wanted to have a conversation with him about and yet, and yet, and yet.

That’s what makes us love, or fascinated by those characters, is the fact that on the one hand, they’re insane, and on the other hand so terribly present and sane that there’s not much that divides us.

CraveOnline: Is it easy to disconnect from him at the end of the day?

James Purefoy: Yeah, of course. I’m doing a show that lasts 7-8 months of the year of my life and I have a young family. Young family have requests and needs. They need to talk about homework and brushing their teeth and the s*** that kids talk about at bedtime and I can’t go home as Joe Carroll and do that. I have to be me when I go home. It’s my responsibility as a professional actor to deliver the goods between action and cut, and my job as a professional father to deliver the goods to my children when they need it.

CraveOnline: Does Joe or the script ever scare the crap out of you?

James Purefoy: It’s scary but as a culture, as a civilization, we’ve been watching violence and scary stuff. I was dipping into Sophocles last week and looking at Oedipus in Oedipus Rex where he pulls out his own eyes. This was written in 495 B.C. We’ve been doing this for a very long time.

CraveOnline: Does the fact that “The Following” is so relatable to the real world make it even scarier?

James Purefoy: Well, maybe that’s a good thing. I think in a society that is quite obsessed with violence, it’s quite a good thing to shine a torch into the dark corners and make it part of our national conversation. We need to talk about these things because when you hide it under the carpet, you do it privately and secretly, that’s when it starts really kicking off.

If we could talk about it and talk about bad sh*t that’s going on in our brains, then you can get some kind of understanding about it. When it’s all secretive and hidden away, that’s when you’re in trouble.

CraveOnline: That’s true. America’s been a violent society since the beginning: The American Revolution, the Native American slaughter, the Civil War. Yet we’re surprised when there’s violence in entertainment.

James Purefoy: Right, and the idea that our violence on television and in films is something to do with the chronic problem is fatuous, babyish and intellectually impoverished. That’s what I absolutely believe. We have to look much deeper than the stuff that we see watching TV as to why the things in this country are happening.

I’m really not convinced it’s to do with the stuff we watch between 9 and 10. It’s much deeper and much more complex than that. In a way, what it is is a really beautiful way of blaming the media, of blaming culture for something that perhaps we’re not prepared to pay for.

CraveOnline: Shakespeare was violent.

James Purefoy: Shakespeare, there were no slaughters in children’s schools in Shakespeare’s time despite the fact in Shakespeare, you would have seen violence on Shakespeare’s stage that you would never see on television today. I’ve directed a production of King Lear where not only did we pull out Gloucester’s eyes, we crushed them onto the heel of a boot. You wouldn’t see that on network television.

CraveOnline: Are you drawn to shows that are sexual or violent, or is it a coincidence?

James Purefoy: No, I’m not particularly. I’m drawn to the side of life perhaps that we don’t talk about enough. I think it’s important to talk about these things and go, “No, hey, this is going on.” One of the things I did when I was researching this is I poked my nose into the very dark weird corners of the internet. It appalls me that there are pro anorexia websites, pro suicide websites and yet we don’t really talk about it. It’s too ugly to talk about, too scary to talk about it but God dammit, if we don’t talk about it, we’re never going to deal with it. We have to deal with it.

CraveOnline: Does Carroll have favorite followers or is it more about quantity with him?

James Purefoy: Does Carroll care about his followers? Is it important to him in his grand scheme of things? In the super objective that he’s after, is all of this just a smokescreen? That’s the kind of thing you have to think about with this show. You might be just being sent on a massive, massive red herring because what he wants is actually quite simple. How to get it is very complicated.

CraveOnline: What does he want?

James Purefoy: I can’t tell you that.

CraveOnline: We’ve seen Carroll in control. Will there come a time when he’s not?

James Purefoy: His pulse rate very rarely goes above 35. Because he knows what he wants. He’s had 10 long years in prison to know what he wants and how to get it. And he’s worked an incredibly complex plan for that to happen.

CraveOnline: What do you tell people this show is about?

James Purefoy: It’s about Ryan Hardy. Ryan Hardy, a very good man, in very troubled circumstances who finds himself working again with a serial killer that he put away. That serial killer, he’s now discovered, has found a way to contact not just other serial killers, but people who occupy the dark corners of the internet, people who go to visit serial killers, profess their love for them, a whole subsect of society that we’d rather not talk about.

And in this show we’re taking a blinding light and showing that group of people, because if we don’t ever think about them we’re never going to be able to understand.

CraveOnline: Will we learn more of Joe Carroll’s backstory?

James Purefoy: Yeah, but Joe Carroll’s around for a long time. Generally speaking in the show, if you find out too much about somebody’s backstory, it means they’re going to die.

CraveOnline: Do you know why he’s doing what he’s doing?

James Purefoy: Yeah. I know what my superobjective is. I know what he wants.

CraveOnline: Will we ever hear that?

James Purefoy: We’re potentially seven years away so as I say, if you hear too much backstory of somebody, they’re going to die quite soon. Generally speaking, the people who you hear the least backstory about are the people who are going to stick around.

CraveOnline: Now that he has this cult, does Joe Carroll have other plans?

James Purefoy: Anything he can do to achieve his objective.

CraveOnline: And he only has that one, not any other objective?

James Purefoy: No, not really. His objective is quite simple in comparison.