As Joe Carroll, The Following's notorious schoolteacher-turned-serial killer, James Purefoy has to charm and inspire, not instill fear. He has to be a chameleon, and a little bit of an actor himself, giving those around him not only what they want but what they need. The success of making Carroll as enigmatic as he has to be in order for the story to work should be a scary thought, though, because that means some real life audiences may find themselves caught under Carroll's spell, too, even if not fully sympathizing with his heinous actions.
"I personally want them to be interested about what motivates him, like when you play any character, and I want him to be three-dimensional enough. Obviously, you’re not going to forgive what he does because it’s appalling—truly, truly, appalling the acts he commits. But I think understanding the human psyche would be crucial to us all to prevent it happening again," Purefoy said.
"I think it’s easy to say ‘high body count, loads of blood!’ but you’re missing the point. Really, what’s much scarier is [the psychological]; we’re scraping your fingernails from the inside of your skin. We’re getting under your skin, and that’s a much more terrifying idea because we’re dealing with your imagination, and what you can come up with in your imagination is far more terrifying than anything Kevin Williamson can come up with. It’s about ideas, and the central idea us that somebody harnessing anarchy and chaos and violence for their own ends among the most anarchic and chaotic and violent in the country and giving them a home."
Since The Following sets out to show the full measure of the man in Carroll-- not just the strong leader who has amassed a legion of devout followers-- the audience will see him at his best and at his worst.
In the present day storyline, he is in jail, and he has been for almost a decade, planning, plotting, using the internet to find and mold other like-minded individuals. Having been caught, the pretense of what really drives him has slipped away, like Carroll shedding an old skin or dramatic mask.
"He’s decided he knows a way to achieve [his objective]. Whether you think he’s so narrowly focused on Ryan is besides the point because he may appear to be narrowly focused on Ryan, and he may want you to think that, but he’s had years. He’s sat on his bench in his cell, working out precisely what’s going to happen, and those first few episodes, very little goes wrong," Purefoy said.
In part this is because Carroll has taken a good amount of "chaos" into consideration when constructing his plan ("They are psychotic serial killers or fantasists of violence; they’re not the most reliable of coworkers!" Purefoy laughed). But perhaps most importantly, Purefoy pointed out that Carroll is not a puppet master. He may have created the blueprints, but he is not forcing the actions of anyone.
"Nobody in his following—none of them are doing anything they don’t want to do, and even if they’ve never done it before, they’ve clearly fantasized about it, or they wouldn’t be there," Purefoy said.
Carroll merely provides these people the means to fill the void in their lives. For some, that is in the acts they fulfill for Carroll. For others, it is merely the chance to have someone like Carroll in their lives. Through flashbacks to his life as a husband and a professor, we get to know the seductive man who drew so many in.
"I spent a lot of the first few episodes in [the interrogation room set], and I like the fact that I’m chained. I find it very good that I’m restricted; I’m constrained. I can’t move around, so there is no choice; it’s all about face. You find you can do quite a lot with just face and voice if you’re restricted to just that. It’s quite an interesting academic exercise for an actor," Purefoy said of the dicotomy of the character, and the series as a whole.
"What I find most about those scenes is you’re kind of naked because the rest of the time in the flashback scenes, it’s very theatrical; he’s wearing a costume. I say ‘Give me the most non-threatening costumes you can possibly imagine. Give me cardigans and jackets and soft shirts.’ You know, because Joe is hiding. Joe is hiding in plain sight. When he’s in prison, you know he’s a bad guy; he’s in prison gear; there’s no pretense."
The Following is not a show that questions whether or not Carroll is actually innocent, set up by a corrupt FBI agent with an axe to grind. It's clear from the get-go Carroll is actually a very dark and damaged individual. Purefoy knew exactly what he was signing up for, and because of that, he knew he had to go into the series without worrying about a morality line he didn't want to cross.
"I am somewhat protected [because] it’s a show on network telly, but I knew what game I was getting into. You can’t complain about it. It’s like one of those actresses who complain about the nude scene once they’ve read the script," Purefoy said.
"This guy is a serial killer. He has no moral compass or boundaries. He’s quite prepared to do what he has to do."
The Following airs on FOX on Monday nights at 9 p.m.
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