In the Fox thriller The Following, James Purefoy plays Edgar Allen Poe literalist and serial killer Joe Carroll, a man who in the series’ first episode removed the eyeballs of his victim and strung up her corpse like a side of beef. While promoting the show on a panel last month, he and The Following’s creative team were hit with a barrage of questions about the level of gore on the show and being accountable in a post-Newton world. He later told Vulture that he found the discussion superficial. “It’s intellectually poor and substandard because it's inflammatory, it's tabloid-esque, it's easy,” he said. Purefoy, who also starred in HBO’s graphic soap opera Rome, expanded on that as well as the research he did to play the show’s Über-villain, whom he claims could survive the season. He also told us what it was like to kiss Kevin Bacon.
What do you make about the amount of violence on the show?
I'm surprised that in a society, in a culture that's been watching violence on film, television, and stage for two and a half thousand years, anyone brings it up anymore. One woman asked [series creator Kevin Williamson], “How do you come up with all those ways of killing people?” Has she never seen King Lear, where a man has his eyes pulled out in front of the audience? She never had seen Titus Andronicus, where a woman is made to eat a pie with her own sick children in it? The very idea, it's just preposterous, to tell you the truth.
The idea that —
That violence on television, film, or in video games has any effect whatsoever. I am absolutely as appalled as anybody else by the massacres that happen in this country. I really am. But [violence on TV] is a smokescreen, an excuse. The situation is much more complex than people watching violence in entertainment. These programs are seen all over the world and it’s only in this country that these kind of things are happening with such alarming regularity.
Let’s talk about the show itself. When you signed on, how long did you think Joe Carroll would last on the show?
When you sign up for a show in the United States, it's six or seven years, generally speaking.
But how long did you think this part specifically would last?
Well, it's market driven, isn't it? I'm not a new boy. I'm only too aware that television is market-driven and if people don't like the character that's when they get rid of you.
In the flashbacks, he’s the charming lit professor, but mostly Joe sits and talks.
Well, one of the big things about Joe Carroll is that he's quite punchy, you know? I don't think you want to use too much of him. It keeps him mysterious. You don't want to explain too much about him in the first four episodes. And I don't bug Kevin Williamson about giving me more screen time or backstory. I'm trying to be in this for the long haul.
You think you’d be killed off faster if you knew more?
When you get someone’s backstory on the show, you know they're going to die. When you find out why somebody has done something, they're not going to be around for long.
I still don’t get the sense that Ryan [Bacon] is very good at his job, so maybe you will stick around!
He's good. He's just against somebody who's so much better [laughs]. While he's been out doing his book tours, Joe Carroll has been in prison for years, working out how he's going to escape the electric chair and reach his super objective.
Going back to what you said about knowing too much about the characters, is the show then about waiting for his followers to get picked off?
I’d say Joe is not averse to throwing them under the bus if they get in the way.
I won’t get invested in that “love” triangle then.
Well, I’m just saying Joe’s plan is not a single linear narrative. It’s a magnificent flow chart. Any criminal master mind like that, they are looking down from a very great height on everybody else who is scrambling, desperately looking for pieces in the gutter. It's all about reaching that super objective. That's all he wants. Read it how you want.
Just because I mentioned that triangle: How was it having Kevin Bacon kiss you?
Yeah, I just remember his tongue flicking gently into my mouth. So forward of him. And in front of all those people. I thought what we had was private.
Is this the kind of role for which you do research?
Oh, you do a lot of research. You have to. Before I said yes to doing the show, I spent a week in L.A. in a hotel room, sixteen hours a day watching stuff on YouTube and Google, interviews with actual serial killers, audio tapes, reading books, all that kind of stuff. There are the ones who are educationally or mentally challenged and then there are the other ones like Ted Bundy, who was incredibly smart and able to fool everybody for a very long period of time. They’re fascinating because they are simultaneously just like us. Joe’s like that. He's not convincing anybody to do anything that they don't want to do already. All he does is give them the means and the wherewithal to do what they want.
Have you had any scenes that have been especially tough or tense to shoot?
Yeah, there have been scenes that have freaked me out and I've had to bottle down my own rising panic about it.
Anything we’ve seen already?
Nothing you've seen so far. There's stuff coming up, stuff that I really have to just get in slight denial about.
Have you ever talked to Kevin Williamson about it?
I wouldn't do that to him. I think that if you sign on to play this part, you kind of go, Bring it on. It's not cable, it's on network. You're not going to see a scalpel going in to somebody's eye, not on network. I think we cut away just before that.