In the crime thriller “The Following” (which is televised in the U.S. on Fox), James Purefoy plays a serial killer named Joe Carroll (played by James Purefoy), who has a cult of followers willing to do whatever he commands. Joe’s biggest nemesis is Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent who helped send Joe to prison and years later is brought in as a consultant to investigate Joe when Joe’s son is kidnapped in a plot for Joe to escape from prison.
At New York Comic-Con in New York City on Oct. 14, 2012, the first episode (or pilot) of “The Following” was shown as a sneak preview, months before the show premiered on Fox in January 2013. After the sneak preview, I sat down with Purefoy at New York Comic-Con for a roundtable interview with other journalists to talk about “The Following” and what went into his portrayal of a demented murderer.
What do you think was the psychological key to unlocking the Joe Carroll character?
I’d done an awful lot of research into serial killers and cult leaders. The big one for me was that cult leaders don’t necessarily need to be that charismatic. For cult leaders, it’s not about the leader. It’s about the lack of something in the followers. And the leader is just particularly good at identifying that lack: what it is that person needs to feel whole.
I’ve watched interviews with David Koresh. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even follow David Koresh on Twitter. He’s really not charismatic at all, and yet [he was] followed by a bunch of people who thought he was extraordinary.
The Kool-Aid killer Jim Jones. I’ve listened to that final speech of his where hundreds of people killed themselves with cyanide. And again, you think, “No way am I going to do that!” And yet, those people did that. So what is it missing in them that he managed to fulfill? That’s what it’s about.
If you see “The Master,” that film with Philip Seymour Hoffman, that’s what it’s about. It’s about finding something in somebody and that [cult leader] identifying what it is they need and filling it for them because they’re brilliant manipulators more than anything. It’s smoke and mirrors and magic and just a trick.
Have you ever joined an organization or group that you ever quit because you didn’t like what was going on with it?
No, but I joined a rock group once. That’s as far as it ever went. The snake-oil salesmen, that’s all they are.
I’m an atheist. I just believe in us as human beings. That’s all. I have no place in anything but in the here and the now. To me, all religions are a cult in a certain way.
Did any real-life serial killers influence the way that you portray Joe Carroll?
I took four serial killers. One of them is dead: Ted Bundy, which is obvious because he was cultured. He was a white-collar serial killer. He wore the most immaculate suits and beautiful ties. He had great hair and a great smile. And yet — I don’t know if you’ve seen the final interview he did in prison before he died — he blamed it all on porn.
Now, I don’t know about you, but porn in 1973 or 1974 … Come on, really? It’s really shabby stuff, porn back then. What would he have been like now? They tend to blame other people rather than take the responsibility for their own actions because they can’t take responsibility for themselves.
And then there are three other serial killers who are alive now: one in England and two here [in the United States]. And like all serial killers, they are crazed, narcissistic egomaniacs. And they would like nothing more to know that I was sitting here mentioning their names, so they can watch themselves on TV and go, “Hey, that’s me.” So I won’t mention their names.
Are there any parallels that could be drawn between being a famous actor and being a cult leader?
No, because none of us — at least as far as I’m aware — are desperate to have a cult after us. But I guess there is that thing where people think that they know you and they think that you owe them something in some way.
I got a tweet this morning from somebody about something in my personal life. And they felt like it was their right to know about it. They were blocked very quickly. “Get off. You have no right to know about that.”
So there is that kind of weird thing that they feel like they own a piece of you. And they don’t. I’m just doing my job. I’m just trying to entertain people. I’m not a politician or a policy maker or anything like that. I’m in the land of make-believe. That’s what we do.
Does Joe Carroll place most of the blame on Ryan Hardy for his imprisonment?
Yeah. He blames him — anybody but himself. I have written quite a long back story for this character. It’s actually working to a novel. I think it’s about 7,000 words so far. It goes way back.
People have been saying, “Is there anything good about this character?” Well, probably not. But what it is, as the series goes on, is an understanding. You might not forgive what he does, but you might understand what he does what he does.
People have awful things happen to them when they’re young. There are an awful lot of people who were abused as children, and they become abusers of children. There are very few abusers of children who haven’t been abused. And it’s because their boundaries of what is appropriate behavior are completely elastic and screwed with from a very early age. And there are also people who were abused as children who don’t ever become abusers.
Clearly, Joe Carroll is somebody who is erudite and uses language beautifully and loves the poets. He’s a people person. And yet in his spare time, he does this horrific stuff.
Just like Ted Bundy. I mean, the stuff that Ted Bundy did when he would dig up those women [he killed] a month later, and then you see him do an interview, and you could never imagine that this man could be that man. And yet they were. And so many of them are.
What do you think about what many people believe is “legal serial killing,” such as war or the death penalty? Is that debate part of “The Following”?
We touch on that in the series. What is the difference between killing a lot of people in a war? What is the difference between a bombing? I don’t know. There is a great deal of ambiguity about all of this.
We have a character later on who is an ex-military man. Again, that boundary of killing an enemy and killing beyond that, he’s already done it half a dozen times. So moving it somewhere else is not much difference to him.
When is a serial killer not a serial killer? That’s a really fascinating question. I don’t really have an answer for that.
You were in “John Carter.” Why do you think movie audiences didn’t respond to it as well as other people hoped?
That’s one of the great mysteries of my life. “John Carter” is a terrific movie. I love it. I really enjoyed making it. I watched it three times. I think it’s a great movie. And if I had to watch “John Carter” or “Transformers 5,” which do you think it’s going to be?
It’s got a lot of heart and it’s original. And it’s the granddaddy of all science fiction. It’s just a shame that it’s been ripped off so many times already that people think somehow that it’s unoriginal.
For more info: "The Following" website
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