James Purefoy is a great actor of both stage and screen. He’s best known for his portrayals of Mark Antony in Rome and Joe Carroll in The Following, but has also appeared in the likes of Resident Evil, A Knight’s Tale and Solomon Kane.
This week he stars in new release Momentum. In Momentum he plays Mr. Washington, an enigmatic and intimidating man who is tasked with tracking down Olga Kurylenko‘s thief Alex Farraday. The film is firmly in the action thriller vein, but with the interesting addition of the action hero actually being an action heroine, an element that caught James’ eye.
We sat down with James to discuss the project, his desire for equality within the film industry, and the unnerving parallels between recent events and plot strands in The Following.
What was it about Momentum that interested you?
I really like Olga [Kurylenko], I like what she does on screen. I think she’s tough and she looks great; I like what she does between action and cut. Then, Stephen Campenelli being a long time camera operator for Clint Eastwood, I’m a big fan of Clint Eastwood. Over the last twenty years I’ve been very aware of his [Stephen Campenelli] camera moves and his assuredness. This is his first directing gig and in a way it was a really sensible choice for him because camera moves make or break an action movie. He was very certain about the way he wanted to direct. Clint Eastwood has a very disciplined set, and he wanted to recreate that, that interested me.
You have a very physical role, how much training did you have to do?
Mr Washington doesn’t do much action really. The best villains are the ones who don’t really have to lift much of a finger and only have to when all their assistants have died and they are forced to get their hands dirty.
I’m very comfortable in doing action stuff, I’ve done a lot of it, it’s not alien to me. Although not so much with guns. I did a couple of days with ‘gun’ people in South Africa who taught me the usual things – how to strip one, how to use it, hold it, what stance to be in. I’m not hugely comfortable with guns… I’ve been profoundly upset about some of the reactions in the US about the events in Paris – ‘if only those victims had had guns’. But what do they have there? 20,000 people are killed or injured a year in firearm incidents in the US. If that is the answer then perhaps you should keep your guns in your armies and police.
Washington could be perceived as both good and bad – how important as an actor is it to play characters with shades of grey?
Vital. Obviously, it’s two dimensional if it’s black or white. If it’s good guy or bad guy then forget about it, what you want to do is tickle the complexities of the audience’s expectation. That’s one of the interesting things about playing a bad guy or the person on the wrong side, the antagonist. You succeed if you’ve got the audience to in some way enjoy your company.
So how did you perceive Washington?
I just saw him as a man doing his job. He comes from that culture of men, and they are largely men who are in that world of security services, private armies, private security contractors. It seems to be a never ending revolving door in that world. You can pop up for the CIA one minute and work at Blackwater the next. You can be part of the SAS Regiment and then be a mercenary. They stay in similar jobs all the time, they dip in and out. But they’re people who are doing their jobs, quite amoral people it seems to me. They are people who follow orders, whatever they need to do to get the job done is successful job.
What was the most enjoyable scene to shoot?
The interrogation was a good scene to do. I love what Olga and I managed to get into that scene. I think pretty much anything with Olga actually because she was a great pleasure to work with. She played the scene many, many different ways. There were tears, there were no tears, lots of different shades of what we were trying to achieve. Trying to find ways of doing it was interesting. She’s a really good person to work with, I’d like to work with her again.
There are a lot of these types of movies around but they usually feature a male protagonist, how important is it to now have a female in the role?
It’s great isn’t it? That was another big reason for signing on. It doesn’t happen that often. The more it happens, the more it will happen and it’s down to those of us who have the opportunity to say yes or no to things. I might not have done it if it were male orientated. It’s part of the campaign, the battle. I’m as responsible for being a part of that battle as anyone else the aim of which which is total equality. I think that’s what you’ve got to do and you’ve got to throw your hat into the ring on the side of equality at every opportunity. I made this and a film called Equity in the summer which is a female driven movie about Wall Street with a female director, female star, female producers, a lot of female crew. It’s really important that you put your ego aside sometimes and say I’m going to sign up for that and that’s one of the reasons why.
You had three great years on The Following, what was it like inhabiting Joe Carroll?
Dark. He was a very dark man. Nihilistic. Funny isn’t it, the events of Paris have really made me think about those kind of people. Those people who are so bleak, so fucking sick in the head that they don’t… the idea of death cults is so far away from most of us. The idea of killing yourself or killing other people for another cause, that is as bleak as Isis is or as bleak as Joe Carroll is. I don’t really want to say them in the same sentence because one’s ridiculous fiction and one is an appalling fact. The feelings that it brings up in me are very resonant. He was just so bleak. He didn’t have any empathy and every single thing he did was about him. There is nothing in Joe Carrol that is kind, gentle or strong, nourishing… nothing. Even when it appeared that he was being thoughtful about other people that was the last thing on his mind.
So you were ready to distance yourself from Joe?
Yeah. I wanted to move one, I was finding it increasingly difficult to play the part in the sense that it was really bubbling into my subconscious. I had a daughter during the show. I was finding the show increasingly misogynistic and I was dreaming about it a lot. Kevin [Bacon] was also dreaming about it a lot too which was weird. We did this Comic-Con panel, eight of us from the cast in a line with me and Kevin at the end, and somebody said ‘do you ever dream about it?’ we went down the line and none of the other cast [did], and then we got to me and I said ‘yeah I do’. I wasn’t expecting Kev too, but he said ‘Oh yeah, yeah, all the time.’ It was just a very intense part. He was a very dark man.
There was only so many times that Joe could pop back up again…
I could very easily see why if you wanted the show to continue then really you’ve got to kill Joe off as it was becoming increasingly untenable that he remained alive and so you have to try and find another narrative. I think in the end that narrative was elusive and difficult because the DNA between Joe and Ryan was so textured and so thick that anything else seemed slight by comparison.
Outside of your characters I’m guessing you guys got on well?
Really really well. He’s such a gentleman and so experienced as an actor. He knows what he’s doing. He’s very prepared and he was a good leader of a company of actors.
What other projects can we expect to see you in next?
There’s High-Rise which comes out in March next year, a Ben Wheatley film. It screened at the London Film Festival. I think the movie is a work of genius actually. I think there’s a lot of stuff in it, it’s one of those films that it’s only in several viewings you’ll understand what he’s getting at. We don’t make those types of films very often in this country. We’re constantly told to make our films simple and commercial, whereas this is complex and difficult and challenging. I really like it, I’m not sure I could love anybody who didn’t love it.
Equity, the aforementioned Wall Street movie which is in post now. Hap and Leonard which is a TV series I do for Sundance TV, Hap which is me, and Michael Kenneth Williams playing Leonard, which is about two blue collar rose field workers in East Texas and their adventures with Christina Hendricks.
I’m also in the middle of shooting a remake of Roots, the Alex Haley novel with a whole bunch of great actors –Forrest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Jonathan Rhys Myers, Laurence Fishburne. So, lots of stuff and, hopefully, some it will be very good stuff!
Momentum arrives in cinemas and VOD platforms on 20th November.