James Purefoy on ‘Hap and Leonard’: ‘It’s Nice Playing Someone With A Heart’

James Purefoy on 'Hap and Leonard,'
James Minchin/SundanceTV

For three seasons on Fox’s “The Following,” James Purefoy played the maniacal serial killer Joe Carroll. In SundanceTV’s “Hap and Leonard,” he sheds that evil skin in favor of a charming Southern boy with a weakness for women. “What a relief it is!” he tells Variety. “It’s nice playing someone who’s got a heart, who’s a real man, not a coward. Which Joe Carroll kind of is.”

Unlike the psychopathic killer he played for three years, Purefoy says, “Hap is the best kind of man — gentle, strong, real. And wounded by his love.”

That love is embodied by Christina Hendricks, who stars as Trudy, the ex-wife who wanders back into his life armed with a get-rich-quick scheme he can’t resist. He can’t resist her either, much to the frustration of his best friend, Leonard (Michael Kenneth Williams, “The Wire”). Their exploits in search of the elusive cash drive the six-episode event series, based on Joe Lansdale’s darkly comic novels.

How did this part come to you?

Strangely, through a circuitous back door route. I’d just finished “The Following,” and was about to leave New York. I went to a party, and Michael was there. I’d worked with him on a show called “The Philanthropist” many years ago. We got very close on that show and became really good buddies and always felt that in front of the camera, we owed each other something. We had unfinished business. I went home and I was about to get on a plane, and he rang and said I completely forgot I’m doing this show, “Hap and Leonard.” I’m Leonard and they’re looking for Hap. Would you have a look? I read it on the plane and by the time I got home I’d fallen in love.

What about the script appealed to you?

I knew the man because I’d grown up in a very rural community in a part of the English countryside that’s not the bucolic, it’s not the stereotype. It’s industrial agriculture. Tractors. Slaughterhouses. Chicken farming. I knew these guys. Hap and Leonard used to go to my pub. My pub was full of get-rich-quick schemes that never worked — scams, pyramid schemes. People trying to find a way to get themselves out of a rut. Hap and Leonard are working in the rose fields, a back-breaking job, and at the beginning of the show, they get exchanged for Mexican workers who are cheaper. They’re presented with this thing – it’s not millions, it’s thousands. But it’s enough for them. And other people keep coming in, so that money becomes less and less. But it’s still always just enough to still keep them.

And he can’t resist Trudy.

How could you not love her. How could you not keep loving her. She keeps coming back. I think people, men especially, are going to really empathize with that thing of you cannot help but love somebody like her. You know how damaging it is. You know she’s going to hurt you. Again, you fool. But any minute with her is good. It’s worth all the bad.

And she comes in the form of Christina Hendricks.

It’s like having two old rusty old pickups onset and then a Daimler or a Bentley arrives. That’s what it’s like. Quality is here. She is drop dead gorgeous and intelligent and strong and powerful. All the things that make a good man weak in the knees. You couldn’t ask for anything more.

Why are Hap and Leonard so loyal to each other?

As you’ll see, over the course of the show, one of the big things we wanted to establish over this season is why. Why are these two so attached to each other? How did this start? Why do they always have each others’ back without question? Fundamentally without question. You know they’re going to look after each other. It develops and it’s beautiful. It makes me cry. (He cries.) On our show, we don’t mind men who cry! Grown men cry.

So you finally got to work with Michael again. Was it what you expected it would be?

It was easy. It was like sitting in your old armchair. It was just comfortable. We know exactly how to work with each other. It just fits like a glove. He is a tremendous actor. He’s got incredible presence on screen.

You also get to show off your comedic chops.

Joe Carroll had a certain black comedy to him. But I think it’s lovely playing a man who in his heart and soul is a gentle man. And he’s wounded and complicated. I think the show is a very beguiling piece of television. It’s a six-hour independent movie that’s going to unfold in unexpected ways. What you see is not what you get. Things will develop, things will happen that make you go, “that’s a breathtaking moment.” Joe Lansdale is a master storyteller. It’s a pleasure working with him.

Was it hard to learn the accent?

It’s fearsomely difficult! Bradley Cooper said it’s fearsomely difficult and he’s f—ing American. (Laughs.) The East Texas accent is a famously difficult accent to do. I leave that up to you guys to decide how I did. I’m comfortable with the voice. But whether it’s absolutely perfect I have no idea. I do know Joe Lansdale has the most extraordinary voice you’ve ever heard in your life in terms of an accent that when I started doing it they had to go, “Whoa, we need less.” But that’s how he talks.

Will you be back for season two, should it happen?

Of course. What will happen is it tonally changes. It’s not the kind of show that needs to have the same look. It will change depending on which of the novels we’re going to do next. The next one they want to do has a much more urban vibe to it. The next one won’t be so country. It could be set in the back streets of Shreveport or the back streets of New Orleans. It doesn’t have to be so quite so dreamy or sleepy. It can be much more snappy if we want it to be.

What else are you working on?

I just finished “Roots” for A&E and History. I’m playing a slave owner, so it’s nasty. It’s pretty harrowing. But it’s a crucial part of American history. It needs to be talked about and told, and told in a new way. The producer of that was asked why he wanted to do it, and said it’s because he’s trying to get his kids to watch it.

“Hap and Leonard” premieres Wednesday, March 2 at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.

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