PASADENA, Calif. — Actor James Purefoy always does the unexpected. He went from playing the dashing Mark Antony in “Rome” to a coiled serial killer in Fox’s new “The Following.”
Acting is the perfect choice for him, he says, easing into an occasional chair in a dark lounge here. “Somebody like me who is a little bit ADD it’s perfect because I can flick fast between different worlds, different times. You get to travel a great deal and meet fascinating people and dip for a short amount of time in somebody else’s life that you find fascinating for one reason or another.”
His own life is fascinating enough. He grew up among the upper middle class in Britain, living at first with his mother when his parents split. The constant victim of bullying at boarding school (where he was sent at 7), he arranged to have himself expelled when he was 16. He went to work as an orderly in a hospital “pushing elderly people around in wheelchairs and working in operating theaters and delivering blood banks and that kind of stuff,” he says.
Two years later, while attending the local college, his drama teacher chose him to play Romeo in Shakespeare’s tragedy.
It was during that performance that he knew he’d be an actor: “I felt the electricity. I felt that I had an audience in the palm of my hand, that I could do anything at any time and they would laugh, they would cry, they would stop, they would weep, they would do whatever — slightly maniacal isn’t it? It’s a little bit of a power trip, but it’s very exciting when you’re on a stage and you suddenly realize you have 500 people in your hand and they’re listening to you.”
But they weren’t always listening. After “Romeo,” Purefoy was determined to attend drama school. They all rejected him. “One of them said, ‘Go away and get some experience.’ So I went away and got a job in the play ‘Equus.’ My first time on stage I was naked like a born baby, onto the stage, completely naked …”
He finally earned a place at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he stayed for 2 1/2 years. “I left there all very cocky and full of myself, rather arrogant and thought the world would be my oyster. The next year I went up for 143 parts and I didn’t get one of them,” he shrugs.
“It’s was always down to the last one, the last two, the last three. It always went to Clive Owen, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, James Wilby — any of those posh boys who were around. I couldn’t break through … I think that was the lowest point because for a year I didn’t work. And I went into this kind of spiral — an actor spiral of self-loathing and despair.”
He finally landed the juvenile lead in an episode of “Sherlock Holmes” with Jeremy Brett and managed to capture a part in a light comedy series, “Coasting.” But he knew nothing about filming and his gig on “Sherlock” lasted only six days.
Brett arranged for him to be on set the entire 30-day shoot, during which time he taught Purefoy about camera lenses, working with close-ups and other special techniques. “Extraordinary little tricks that I’ve used ever since,” he says.
Purefoy went on to costar in “Resident Evil,” “The Philanthropists” and “A Knight’s Tale,” leading up to his tour-de-force performance as the malevolent character in “The Following.” “He knows exactly what he’s going to do. He’s had 10 years to completely come up with an entire plan that is not a linear narrative, it’s a flow chart of epic proportions based on an ever-growing spider’s web, and he knows if that doesn’t work then this will kick in, if that doesn’t work this will kick in. His coworkers are psychotic, psychopathic serial killers or fanaticists so they’re not very dependable as coworkers. He’s quite prepared to throw them under the bus if it doesn’t work because he’s a man with no moral compass and no boundaries. He’s absolutely monstrous.”
The father of a 16-year-old son by his ex-wife, Purefoy has a 3-month-old daughter with his girlfriend, art historian Jessica Adams. They met at a costume ball. “I didn’t even know what she looked like. But she made me laugh and was witty and rather stroppy (haughty) with me. I wasn’t used to girls treating me in a disinterested fashion,” he laughs.
“It was classic, a brilliant maneuver … She was wearing a mask. I invited her out and she turned me down. She didn’t like my reputation. She wasn’t even an actress. There were people she knew who were actors and actresses, and she didn’t like that I had been out with what she considered to be too many of ‘that kind of girl.’
“I went to Rome to shoot ‘Rome’ and she knew I was interested in her … I thought one of the ways I could try and get to go out with her was to get her to teach me about artists, there was a gap in my knowledge. She called me one night. ‘Hello, it’s Jess. Guess where I am? I’m lying on my back in the Sistine Chapel. I’m making a documentary about the ceiling.’ She described to me what she was seeing. Of course, I fell in love with her. That was eight years ago.”