James Purefoy will be watching tonight’s season finale of “The Following” along with everyone else — between different versions of the script and possible last minute changes, he admits “I don’t really know what happens.” The English actor has been doing a last-minute whirlwind of press for the Fox thriller, in which he plays Edgar Allen Poe-loving serial killer Joe Carroll, a professor-turned-mastermind engineering a high body count duel with former FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), the man who first captured him and who had an affair with his then-wife Claire (Natalie Zea).
The dark drama has proven a hit for Fox, who renewed the show for a second season last month — though given creator and showrunner Kevin Williamson’s penchant for killing off characters, one has to wonder who’s going to be standing at the end and ready for another round. Indiewire caught up with Purefoy for a quick chat about closing out the season.
I know you can’t go into detail, so what are some vague, tantalizing things you can tell us about what you do know about the finale?
What I do know is that it’s going to be explosive. It’s a final showdown between Ryan Hardy and Joe Carroll. It involves Claire, the wife. If you are of the asthmatic disposition you’re going to need your inhaler on the couch, simply for watching the character Annie Parisse plays, Agent Parker, last seen looking at a small, underground apartment.
That’s a nice spin on a terrible situation. [The character has been buried alive.] You’ve said that nobody in the show is safe, and I have a hard time imagining it without Joe, but would you include your own character in that description?
I would include everybody. Absolutely everybody. Kevin Bacon, even. Because we have a showrunner who has absolutely no qualms about killing off major characters because he is the most mischievous imp on the West Coast.
When the show began, the power was very much on Joe’s side. What’s it been like to play him becoming more unstable and vulnerable as the season has continued?
The thing that people tend to forget is that Joe is insane. He is a serial killer! So however calm and collected he has looked or appeared, this is merely a costume Joe puts on. Underneath that cool, calm, and collected exterior is a cauldron of volcanic lava of insanity bubbling away. He can look pretty sane, and that’s one of the things that makes him so dangerous. Right now, the stab that he received from his ex-wife a few episodes ago is the missile that really penetrated his defenses and blown his force field apart. Mad as it may sound, I think he really believed that there was a possibility that he and Claire could get back together.
Serial killers have never really gone away from film and TV, but they do seem to be having a kind of resurgence right now with the success of “The Following,” “Hannibal,” “Dexter” and others. What do you see as the appeal in watching them?
What it kind of comes down to is the love that we’ve had for hundreds of years for the boogie monster. If you read Grimm’s fairy tales, they’re absolutely terrifying. One of the things about serial killers that people find so attractive to watch is, unlike vampires or zombies or other creations, these people are real, and they’re out there and at your local grocery store and cinema — they are your neighbor.
It’s perfectly possible that you could’ve spoke to one today, on your way to work. So that person who was chatting to you quietly in Starbucks could also be thinking about killing you. One of the great attractions is that there is a possibility that you could’ve come across one in your life already and you didn’t know it.
People have pointed out that the show has some resonances with our contemporary fears about terrorism.
Along the same lines, it goes back to your not knowing what other people’s intentions are towards you. And it’s not just terrorism, it’s anyone who wants to kill. They could be sitting next to you in class, they could be on campus. Horror of any kind is dependent on a certain amount of insecurity and paranoia from the audience. And it feeds on that and works on that.
The show has a 15-episode season, which is on the shorter side for a network show, and it’s also more serialized with more of a focused on an overarching story. Did that appeal to you as an actor?
That was a big part of it. I think as an actor I would find it a little run of the mill doing procedurals where it’s the same sort of thing week in and week out. Your character doesn’t get to grow very much, which purely from an actor’s point of view you want to see an arc of your character.
I was fortunate enough to do an HBO show, “Rome,” in which my arc was built in by historical fact, and over the course of 22 episodes we were able to tell the stories of these people. We had a beginning and middle and end and as we went on you changed every week. For me, playing Joe Carroll, he started off as one thing and has ended up as something else entirely. That’s one of the great attraction for me playing this part.