When Indiewire sat down with James Purefoy at the 2016 Winter TCAs, he was having a much better time than his last trip to the biannual press tour. Why? Because “Hap and Leonard” wasn’t quite as controversial as his last TV show; not as controversial, and an awful lot of fun.
Based on the pulp novels by Joe R. Lansdale, the new SundanceTV series features two best friends (Purefoy and “The Wire’s” Michael Kenneth Williams) in search of just one good payday, which may or may not be complicated by the presence of Trudy (Christina Hendricks), Hap’s ex-wife and the one woman who leaves him feeling helpless.
Below, Purefoy gets into how he got involved with the project (spoiler alert: already being friends with Williams paid off) and why, despite growing up in England, he immediately recognized the Southern-fried character of Hap as someone from his hometown. An edited transcript is below.
So, how are you doing? Is this your first TCAs?
No. God, no. “The Following.”
Yeah, that wasn’t an easy one. “The Following” came out at a really unfortunate time. It came out two weeks after Sandy Hook.
Oh, that’s right.
And it was a super violent show, and there was quite a lot of aggression, which became weird. Because as I said at the time, dramas always included violence. Always. Since Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Webster, all the way through. It doesn’t stop ever because it’s part of the human condition. So it’s a bit weird, you beating us after what happened two weeks ago, and would you still beat us in six months’ time? No, you probably won’t.
So this is a very different thing. There’s no controversy here.
I mean, this one feels like so much fun.
Yeah. I’m grinning. How much fun is just any madcap caper thing with Michael Kenneth Williams and the Rolls Royce of actresses?
[laughs] That is amazing. Especially getting to work with Michael Kenneth Williams, because that relationship right there is the core of the franchise.
Yeah, completely. And we’ve worked together before on a show called “The Philanthropist,” a number of years ago, a thing we did for NBC. But we never really had enough scenes. We got really close, we were good buddies on it, we remain good friends, but it felt like there was unfinished business.
I finished doing “The Following” in New York, and I was packing up, maybe to leave New York, go home to London, and I ran into him at a party. And the following morning, he ran in saying [switches from British accent to Williams impression] “I’m doing this show. ‘Hap and Leonard.’ I’m playing Lenny and we’re looking for Hap. You wanna come play with me down there and do that?”
“Send me the script,” I said, and so he sent me the script. And I just knew the man. Hap Collins. I just went, “My God!” I grew up in a very rural, industrial, agricultural community in England. Small village, one pub — the Knight’s Pub. It was full of men like Hap Collins. Men who were in their ’30s, ’40s. Life hadn’t really happened to them the way they wanted to, but they were always getting into madcap, get-rich-quick plans: pyramid selling schemes, stolen goods, anything to get them out of the rut.
I think one of the things, for me, about this show, is that I think it shows a very specific kind of American man because I think there’s an awful lot. Statistics bear me out on this. A lot of American men have been told that if they work hard and they pull themselves up by the bootstraps, anything is possible. Yes, that does happen to some people. But for loads of people out there, they’re in their late 40s, and they’re going, “When’s it going to happen? Because I’ve done that. I’m working longer hours now for less money than I’ve ever had, and yet, when’s this thing going to happen that everybody says is going to happen if you do these things?” And they’re stuck. It’s not going to happen.
So a hundred thousand dollars comes along, and the story seems like a possibility. What I love about it is, it’s not millions, it’s not billions. It’s just a hundred grand. But it’s enough to get lifted out of a rut, or maybe onto a different path. So yeah, they take that option. I get it. I understand it. And then I went ahead and read all the books, and met with Joe Lansdale. Figured out more about who he was and where he came from, and what makes him wounded. He’s a slightly wounded bird.
And that’s one of the things I love about him, to get that as well. That, “You women, what’ve you done to us?” You know, that thing, where you desperately fall in love with someone who happens to look like Christina Hendricks and she breaks your heart? And yet when she comes back into your life, every second with her is catnip. You know, he’s like a puppy.
He is like a puppy. But he can’t help himself. And we’ve all been there. With a man or a woman or whatever it is, we’ve all been that person who has so loved someone that you can’t say no to them.
It must be so interesting to play that power dynamic. What goes into that?
I mean, she’s not smarter than me or anything like that, but she knows what she does to him. And that is power. And she knows he won’t say no.
Is anything different between you guys on camera versus off camera?
Michael and I are a couple of rusty old pickups and a Rolls Royce comes on set. That’s what it’s like. She knows her lines. She’s incredibly professional. She’s smart, assertive, beautiful, all the things that are guaranteed to make an Englishman like me weak at the knees.
[laughs] I want to go back to what you said earlier about growing up in England, you still recognize that guy. That’s such an interesting point about just the fact that geographically, classy shoes don’t really matter.
No, they don’t really. And actually, Louisiana, funny enough, feels very like Somerset. Where I come from in the west country, it’s varied, there are four counties, and it’s very country. But some of them are more wealthy than others, like Dorset, Devon. In Somerset — that’s where I come from — you’re within sight of the richer counties nearby, whereas in Somerset, it’s full of scrappy little small holdings, smaller farms, and it’s rough. It’s freakin’ rough places: cider-drinking country, it’s men with no teeth, mullets, still to this day and age, to this day.
And I feel that in the ruralness of Louisiana, it can be rough. It’s rough as fuck down there in some places. It really is. It’s poor. There’s a lot of poverty, and you feel it. It’s very endemic.
Watching a lot of stuff that gets filmed in Los Angeles or New York, it is always really nice to watch a show that is shooting on location. A location you don’t see a ton of.
Yeah, you’re right. You don’t see a ton of Louisiana. Joe has got a very strong social conscience. A lot of what we do, it’s not glamorous, it’s not big houses and shiny cars. It’s tiny little houses and a lot of poverty. And he likes taking his torch and shining it on that world.
American television, by and large, is very aspirational. It’s about a life we wish we could lead. Or, you know, populated with characters we wished we looked like. Whereas our show isn’t really like that. It just is. It’s edgy, honest, in a refreshingly earnest way.
What was it like working with Jim Mickle?
Jim’s lovely. Very collaborationist. We just work. We just talk sensibly and it’s a grown-up relationship and it’s really proper and lovely.
I know he comes from the independent film world. Did that change the atmosphere on set at all?
I think it came as a bit of a shock to him. [laughs] I’m sure he’d tell you that himself. You know, the television schedule, how fast you shoot, and how many takes you can get before you have to move on, on, on. It’s pretty fucking relentless in terms of that, but I think the films he’s done are small enough that he still knows how to shoot fast. And that’s the future of television. You have to shoot fast. You have two cameras, three cameras.
Do you like that?
Yeah. It’s very alive. I was talking to Jimmi Simpson at this dinner last night, and a friend of his was also on “Westworld” with him, and they’re shooting on film.
Film! People slapping the camera with a hand. And there’s a hair in the gate. Really properly checking the gate for hairs. And it means there’s downtime, and the camera often reloads. I remember that, and it was a lovely time for an actor. Downtime for the reload, which meant you had a chance to go back to look at the script and study again. Whereas, you know, if you could just shoot endlessly, which you can on digital– On digital, there’s cards that last for hours. You just keep the camera turning and running over. It’s just very quick. It’s very quick and for someone like me, who’s ADD, I like it. I find it very refreshing and fast and you’re in the moment. You stay in the moment. It’s good.
It was really cool to see Jimmi Simpson. I actually didn’t know he was going to be in it. I’m a big fan of his.
If I get here, and the nominations are next year this time for what he does in this show, I will eat my hat.
[laughs] Well, I will call you in a year.
Call me in a year.
I’ll have a hat ready.
Get me some kind of hat made out of rice paper and I’ll eat it for you. Because he’s unbelievably good.
I feel like this is a cast of actors where, you look at that list and you’re like, “Oh! That person is so great in all these things.”
Yeah, it feels like a supergroup. Do you know what I mean? It feels like a supergroup, like, “Wow, all of these people are really, really strong. Really, really good.” Bill Sage, great! Jeff Pope, who plays the big guy, someone should give him a sitcom. Like, a funny, funny sitcom. He’s one of the most hilarious people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s dry, he’s bright, he’s talented. He knows a gag. He changes lots of stuff in the script to really get laughs out of it, and he’s a really funny guy. Everybody!
I’m excited about it, and I just hope that we can find our audience because we’re on a tiny little channel. I am very aware that SundanceTV has a really good reputation that when you turn it on, something good is going to be on it. It’s not going to be filled with shit.
“Hap and Leonard” airs Wednesdays on SundanceTV.
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