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James Purefoy explains the psychology of madman Joe Carroll in 'The Following'

The psychological thriller “The Following” heads into its intense, spellbinding second season (which Fox premieres on Jan. 27, 2014) by catching up with a healthy and healed Ryan Hardy (played by Kevin Bacon) a year after the tragic events of last season. Following a horrific new murder spree on a New York City subway, the FBI calls on Ryan and Mike Weston (played by Shawn Ashmore) to speak with the lone survivor, Lily Gray (played by Connie Nielsen), in order to help them solve the case. Having worked tirelessly to rehabilitate his life, Ryan is reluctant to re-engage with the FBI. Instead, he proceeds with his own investigation behind closed doors, and finds a valuable ally in his niece Max Hardy (played by Jessica Stroup), a New York City police officer working in the Intel Division.

James Purefoy
James Purefoy at New York Comic-Con 2013 in New York City
Carla Hay

Throughout the season, Ryan will cross paths with several complicated individuals, including Mandy Lang (played by Tiffany Boone) and Luke (played by Sam Underwood), which furthers his suspicion that the reign of terror from serial killer Joe Carroll (played by James Purefoy) is far from over. That reign of terror included the mayhem wreaked by Joe’s devoted follower Emma Hill (played Valorie Curry), who is also back for the second season. The first season finale of “The Following” featured the highly anticipated face-off between Ryan and Carroll, ending in Carroll’s seemingly ultimate demise in a building that exploded. But is Carroll really dead? Here is what Purefoy said when I caught up with him for this interview at New York Comic-Con 2013 in New York City, where “The Following” had a panel discussion featuring stars and producers from the show.

At some point, don’t you think someone’s got to win in this battle between Joe Carroll and Ryan Hardy? Are you concerned that people will get bored with this ongoing battle or will think it’s being dragged on for too long?

It depends on how much people keep watching the show. TV is a funny old beast like that. The thing about “The Fugitive,” how many seasons did that run before they found [the real killer]. It kind of depends. Television is very elastic about the concept about what is real and what isn’t real. As long as the audience is there and buying it, they will support it as long as possible. If they start hating me and demanding that I’ll be off the show, I’ll be off the show. It’s not so much about the reality of the situation. It’s about what the public will take.

What kind of serial killer do you think Joe Carroll is: a psychopath or a sociopath?

Probably a sociopath. I think Joe is only about Joe. I think one of the interesting things about playing him that I’ve found is with our audience is that they feel very complicated about him. If you try to show him as very human, having a sense of humor — that kind of stuff — that really helps with an audience. If he’s got a good, sardonic, dry wit on him, then the audience finds themselves laughing one minute, and then horrified by what he does the next. They’re feeling really ambivalent and complicated.

And complicated is the best. That’s what you want: for them to feel complicated. You want you them to like you one minute and loathe you the next. The ebb and flow over an episode and over a season, that’s what keeps people coming back. If they like you and hate you at the same time, that makes it interesting. He’s definitely a sociopath.

Sociopaths, by definition, fake their emotions because they don’t know how to feel empathy. How do you explain the affection that Joe shows for his son? How genuine is that love?

I think it’s completely genuine. Everything Joe does, he believes it, like a proper sociopath would. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with what he does. He thinks it’s unusual. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with it. So yes, he absolutely adores his son and his wife, but clearly, he’s never going to be Dad of the Year, is he?

How does Joe deal with the murder of his ex-wife Claire?

He knows about Claire’s death because he sent Molly to do it. She stabbed him. At the moment Claire stabbed him, he realized, “Oh, I’ve been kidding myself. Obviously, I’m not going to be able to get back with my wife.” And then it becomes, “Oh, you know what would be great? Get at Ryan by killing Claire, because that would really destroy him.” He’s malignant with a capital “m.”

Will we be seeing more of Joe Carroll’s past to see why he became a serial killer?

Maybe you will. They don’t really like doing that too much because you don’t want to find out too much. We want you to come back. If we tell you everything now, you’re not going to come back. That’s what I mean about TV being a funny old beast.

For more info: "The Following" website


"The Following" interviews

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