Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
James Purefoy is the consummate British actor, having been trained on the stage at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford for a couple years before splitting his time between stage work and television through the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the first times I remember seeing him on film was in the 1995 Merchant-Ivory production FEAST OF JULY, directed by Christopher Menaul.
Purefoy has been in such diverse works as the 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen's MANSFIELD PARK, playing Prince Edward in 2001's A KNIGHT'S TALE, Spence Parks in RESIDENT EVIL, and opposite Reese Witherspoon in Mira Nair's 2004 version of VANITY FAIR. But for many American, Purefoy entered their databanks playing Mark Antony for the two-season run of HBO's groundbreaking "Rome" series. Since then, he had the lead role in the short-lived series "The Philanthropist" and was most recently seen in supporting role on the series "Camelot" and as a lead role in the British television series "Injustice."
But it was his role as the titular character in SOLOMON KANE that made the makers of his latest feature, IRONCLAD, think he was uniquely qualified for the role as Marshall, a member of the Knights Templar who have sworn off violence, but are forced to engage in a particularly bloody stand-off at a castle against their own king. The film is as spectacular as it is bloody, and it has just opened in a limited theatrical run this past Friday as well as being available on demand. With a great cast including Paul Giamatti, Jason Flemyng, Brian Cox, Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi, Kate Mara, and Mackenzie Crook, you really should check it out.
In my talk with Purefoy, we of course get a little into his supporting role as Kantos Kahn from the upcoming JOHN CARTER, directed by Andrew Stanton, certainly one of the most anticipated films of 2012 (it's due March 9). Purefoy is a great interview, and he's loaded with great stories about all of his films, as those who heard him talk about SOLOMON KANE can attest. Please enjoy James Purefoy…
James Purefoy: Hey, Steve.
Capone: Hi James, how are you?
JP: I’m good. How are you, sir?
Capone: Good. I believe one of my coworkers, Eric, was the moderator on your SOLOMON KANE panel at Comic Con two years ago.
JP: Yes, of course I remember Eric.
Capone: I think I’m one of the few Americans who has actually seen that film on the big screen. I believe it was about two months after the Comic Con panel.
JP: I appreciate it.
Capone: So, with IRONCLAD, I’ve got to admit when I started watching I didn’t know what it was about, they just sort of sent it to me with the idea of doing this interview. I have to say that I love movies about pious men that make a vow not to do violence, because you always know eventually all hell is going to break loose, and it’s going to be even worse than it would be for a guy who’s does violence all the time.
JP: [laughs] "You always know." Yeah, for sure. It’s very SOLOMON KANE, in fact.
Capone: Was that kind of a big payoff for you, to be able play a man who holds back only to cut loose in the end?
JP: I like the Templar Knights and I find them really interesting as a movement of people and a movement of men. I find that kind of fundamentalism fascinating. How anybody can be as strict with themselves and according to a set of principles is kind of rare that questions society. So yes, I find them fascinating, the people who devote themselves to a very monastic life, which is what these Templar Knights were. They were really warrior monks really, an incredibly well-trained group of people who were not what you would call a laugh. You wouldn’t want to have a beer with them, because they took these vows at the age of 12 of chastity, poverty, and complete obedience to the Church and whatever the church asked them to do.
So there’s a moment in the film where he talks to the Kate Mara character, Isabel, and says essentially that his “get out of jail free” card if you like was the fact that he took these vows and that he was working for the Church and he had committed appalling atrocities in the name of God, and yet was still guaranteed a place in Heaven, which sounds weird, doesn’t it? In terms of other fundamentalist religions or other fundamentalist people within those religions, whether they be Islamic or they be Christian fundamentalists who commit monstrous acts now, whether they may be bombing an abortion clinic in the Midwest or whether it be a terrorist blowing up a plane. These are all people who believe that they have got the key to the kingdom.
Capone: Were those parallels there for you when you read the script, or was that explicitly expressed when you were talking with the director [Jonathan English] about it?
JP: I think the moment I read the script, when I started looking into the Templar Knights themselves. What I find fascinating about doing historical movies--I’ve done a few of them now as you know--is drawing that line between now and then and showing and talking to people now about how little we've changed in many ways. So I find that very interesting and I think that was one of the interesting things to me that pulled me into that film. Well, the cast was incredible. The story I liked a great deal, and I just liked the idea of playing this man who had very little going on in his head apart from prayer and contemplation, and I think it’s a very interesting kind of zone to get into, because we have so many things in our world now that occupy our headspace from you know the commercialism and iPads and music and movies and traffic and Christ knows what else. To imagine a world where you don’t have any of that and you are just contemplating God is a very interesting area to get into, because it’s so simple and simplicity is one of the things that is so hard to achieve.
Capone: Sadly lacking today, yeah.
JP: Yeah, yeah.
Capone: Was this particular stand, this showdown, at this castle based on a true event? I know some of the characters were real people, but I just wondered if this particular standoff was.
JP: Very much so. Jonathan English and Eric Kastel, who wrote the script had been thinking about doing this story, they came across this incredible document where they found that King John had in fact burned the pigs under the corner of the castle. And it was only after they found the document that they went “Wow, this is something extraordinary,” because this tiny little bit of information that we’ve got here can actually be the cornerstone of our movie in many ways. So, yes it is all true.
Capone: Wow. Did being able to handle these kinds of archaic weapons in things like SOLOMON KANE, did that sort of make you stand out as a candidate to get this role in the first place?
JP: Oh yeah, for sure. I know for certain the director, Jonathon English, had called [SOLOMON KANE director] Michael Bassett and asked him how I was doing with the sword when we were shooting SOLOMON KANE, and I think Michael said, “Yeah, I think he can handle a sword.” [Laughs]So I think that was it, that was the difference although they are two very, very different weapons. The rapier that Solomon Kane uses is an incredibly different weapon to the broad sword. The broad sword needs a whole different training on its own, because it’s so big and it works by just swinging it into action and then using the impetus that it has and the energy that it has to continue that swing onward, which is why we ended up calling it Florence, because you had to go with the flow. [Laugh] Once you’ve kicked it off… They really could chop a man in half.
Capone: And I was going to mention that actually. You do really get the sense that the giant heavy, clunky weapons make things incredibly messy, and this is one of the most violent films I think I have ever seen, down to like an anatomical level. Is it a statement about just how truly ugly violence was at this time?
JP: Yeah, for sure. I think that’s exactly what they wanted to do. What they wanted to do was desperately wanted to find a way to put the audience slap bang in the middle of a medieval siege and what that would be like. In these days of unmanned aircrafts and surgical strikes and guns that can shoot a long, long way off, hand-to-hand combat and what that’s like and being really close and seeing the look in the eye of the person you are doing damage to is just a very different thing indeed. I’m sure that if we didn’t have a lot of the weapons that we have now we would have a lot less war, because people would find it a lot harder to go to war in the first place.
JP: It was brutal, and those weapons were incredibly brutal. As I say, the broad sword you would use not only the blade, you would use the whole sword. I spent a little bit of time with the Royal Armory in Leeds in England learning about it and one of the things you find is that it’s a complete weapon. Not only do you use the blade as a stabbing device, but you also use it as a blocking device. You use the pommel to stove people’s brains in with. You used the crossbar to gouge people’s eyes out with. Despite it’s size and it’s unwieldiness, it is an incredibly effective and brutal weapon to use.
Capone: That’s true, you’re not carrying a shield around on your other arm.
JP: No, no kind of need, because nobody gets close enough to you. If you’ve got that weapon, you are at least three feet ahead of anybody else unless they’ve got one too, of course.
Capone: When you get a chance to work with the caliber of actors that you worked with in this film--Brian Cox and Charles Dance and Derek Jacobi--are you still at a point where you are learning from guys like that?
JP: Oh yeah, for sure.
Capone: What were certain things you remember kind of picking up on this film from just acting-wise?
JP: Brian has many, many different little tricks that he uses. One is to always get his face in shot, so regardless of the fact of where the camera is, he will always turn around and get that face on camera at some point. With Derek it’s the stillness of what Derek does, he's just so contained and so still. I don’t think you ever stop learning unless you’re a twat. [Laugh] Then you stop learning, because that’s when you stop being curious and it’s curiosity that keeps you hungry and keeps you alive and keeps you interested in the world around you, isn’t it? So you know I’m constantly fascinated by the way other people work and especially the people who have got a great deal of experience.
Capone: Yeah. I would not be doing my job unless I asked you at least one question about JOHN CARTER, because I think there’s a lot of us who are really excited to know about that.
JP: Go ahead, but I’m not even really sure if I’m allowed to talk about JOHN CARTER. I’ve spouted my mouth off already a couple of weeks ago.
Capone: Tell me just a little bit about the character. That’s something people might know if they had read the books. I don’t think you would be giving away any secrets there.
JP: Well the character is called Kantos Kahn and he is the admiral of the Xavarin, which is a gigantic sort of ship. But in the John Carter world, these ships fly through the air and are powered by solar panels, so they go very, very fast when it’s very, very sunny, and they slow down a little bit when it’s cloudy. He is the captain of the ship… Unfortunately, because I haven’t seen the ship… All I’ve seen is the exit to the ship… [Laughs] But I did see that it is about 300 meters long, because I remember when we were out in Utah, they put out some markers in the desert showing us how long it was with fluorescent markers and green screen markers. So it’s a big, big ship, and he’s the admiral of that ship. He is Tardos Mors’ right-hand man, in other words Ciaran Hinds’ right-hand man. And so yeah that’s a right shoulder I know terribly well [from having played his right-hand man before]. [Laughs.]
Capone: I was about to say, you’ve worked with him a couple of times before.
JP: This is the third time I have been his second in command, yes Ciaran has promised me that he will be… [Laughs] He said to me the other day when he came to see me in a play the other day and he said, “I promise you I will be your faithful old retainer in your next film.”
Capone: I hope that happens.
JP: So do I. I hope that happens. He’s a lovely man, and I love working with him. Kantos is pretty fearless. He loves getting into sticky scrapes with John Carter himself. He has a certain amount of brio and Errol Flynn-like qualities, and nothing ever phases him or he doesn’t get scared by stuff. He’s a good character. Obviously you know that the film is the first part of a planned trilogy, and I am very much hoping that the film is a success, because I want to play him more and I want to see what happens to him in the other adventures.
Capone: It’s my understanding that your character would have an expanded role if they did make additional films.
JP: That’s my understanding, but you never know these days.
Capone: That’s true. So you basically worked just in a green screen environment for when you shot?
JP: Yeah, it was a lot of green screen work. We shot most of it here [in England], and then they did also a lot of work out in Utah in the desert there, but yes it is an awful lot of green screen. I’m not particularly keen on watching myself too much, I’ve watched everything I do once just because I have to, but this one I’m really looking forward to, because I have no idea what it is I’m going to see. What I do know is that Andrew Stanton has got the most phenomenal imagination, and if there’s anything about this film, it’s the greatness of the story. The story will be immaculate.
Capone: I interviewed him for WALL-E, and he had just announced that he was going to be doing this and he was just starting to figuring out how he was going to handle it. I’m dying to talk to him again and really see what he’s come up with.
JP: I think one of the things he really relished was working with actors in front of a camera, because he’s so secure, Andrew, in who he is and what he is. He’s not threatened by anybody else’s creativity. He welcomes that and embraces that, and so it’s a very collaborative process with him. So it’s a real pleasure working with him. He’s one of those directors you like working with, because it’s just kind of fun and easy, and he’s not threatened by actors and the ideas that they have.
Capone: What else do you have coming up aside from JOHN CARTER?
JP: Aside from JOHN CARTER, the only thing is the thing I’m doing at the moment, we are doing a big cycle of history plays for the BBC of the Shakespeare history plays, but the other thing I can’t talk about, because we are right slap bang in the middle of negotiations, and I don’t want to queer the pitch just in case it doesn’t come off.
Capone: The plays, are you doing multiple plays then?
JP: With the BBC, the BBC are doing four of the plays. They are doing RICHARD II, and then HENRY IV: PART ONE and PART TWO, and then HENRY V, and they are doing it all out on locations, so it’s not so studio bound. And it’s got some big British names, Patrick Stewart, who you'll know from STAR TREK…
Capone: Among other things.
JP: And David Suchet, who is a wonderful British actor… There’s just a load of them, just a lot of big Shakespearian talent.
Capone: Is it the same cast in each play or different casts?
JP: No, because they die off and they naturally follow each other. RICHARD II goes into HENRY IV and then HENRY IV PART ONE goes into PART TWO which then Henry IV’s child is Henry V, so it’s a big cycle of plays.
Capone: So they're treating like history, got it. So who do you play then?
JP: I am playing the Duke of Norfolk. His name is Thomas Mowbray, he gets accused of treason at the beginning of RICHARD II and is banished by page 20. It’s not a huge part, but it’s great fun and it gets me be back doing Shakespeare again, because that’s something I haven’t done for a long time.
Capone: Other than the more recent films where you get to swing a sword or use some older weapons, you seem to have gone out of your way over the years to not repeat yourself in terms of the roles that you play. Is that by design, or is that the result of what you're being offered?
JP: Do you know what? I think the thing is that I come very much from a tradition in England, which is the theatrical tradition I guess. When I was growing up, the great actors were the Oliviers of this world or the Ralph Richardsons or the John Gielguds, all of those people, and what they seemed to do is go out of their way to be completely different in every single thing they did, and that was the thing that excited them and turned them on. I think that I probably come from a similar kind of tradition to that, so it does excite me, and I do like trying to be as different as I can in each part that I play, because I think for me that’s the way for longevity. If you bracket yourself in particular box, then you end up slightly in trouble, which is why I love doing "The Philanthropist" one minute and Beau Brummell the next, and then Blackbeard and then Solomon Kane and then Kantos Kahn. I think it’s just a good way of keeping fresh.
Capone: And remaining versatile, so that you are good for just about anything, yeah.
JP: Yes, well exactly, and that to me is the exciting part of being an actor, you can inhabit wildly different bodies, and can you do it? Can you take on that risk? Can you take on that challenge? Are people going to laugh at you?
Capone: Right. I will say that seeing what you all accomplished with "Rome," which when I look at what HBO has kind of done since then, I think that show really opened things up to them and made them realize they could invest a great deal of money in productions and create complete period pieces to set their dramas, rather than set them in the present, which they did for quite a while. I don’t think "Game of Thrones"would have been possibly without the confidence that "Rome" gave them.
JP: No, and what a great series that is, isn’t it?
Capone: "Game of Thrones"? Absolutely.
JP: It’s just fantastic. I love it. I’m a big fan of HBO, a really big fan. I’d work with them at the drop of a hat, anytime, because they think big and invest in development and they invest in production and they really stick to their tagline "It's not TV, it's HBO".
Capone That’s right. All right, I didn’t even realize until yesterday that IRONCLAD was actually opening here in Chicago, so I’m glad that we got to chat about it before it opens.
JP: Oh really? Well, fingers crossed, I hope it does okay.
Capone: Yeah. Well it’s On Demand, too, correct?
JP: Yes it is. I think it is. I think it was On Demand first, but I don’t know how it works.
Capone: I think that’s right.
JP: It started on On Demand first and then it went into the theaters after that and then it will get released on DVD after that.
Capone: Alright, well I’ll definitely tell people to see it on the big screen, because I think it really benefits from a huge screen presentation.
JP: It is the most violent film I have ever seen.
JP: It’s a slightly scary thing, when I watched it for the first time I thought, “I’ve seen some violent movies in my time, but this really is the most violent film I have ever seen and I’m the lead in it.”
Capone: That’s how I felt too, and I’ve seen a lot of violent films.
JP: For what it’s worth though, I don’t think the violence is glamorized or made sexy.
Capone: No, definitely not.
JP: I think it feels like it’s a documentary. That’s ideal, isn’t it?
Capone: That’s what happens when you throw in blood and mud and have all of those authentic weapons like those wonderful catapults.
JP: Yeah, the trebuchet.
Capone: That’s right. That's what they're called.
JP: That’s right.
Capone: Anyway, James thank you so much.
JP: Alright buddy, well it was very nice talking to you. I always like talking to you guys. You take care.
Capone: Thanks a lot. Bye.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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