Hap and Leonard’s James Purefoy talks mojo, Hollywood sexism and worlds lesser known

James Purefoy, right, as Hap and co-star Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard in Hap and Leonard

For two seasons on HBO’s Rome, James Purefoy melted hearts and solidified his English hunk status as the fated Mark Antony in white-hot scenes opposite another fierce English actor, Polly Walker.

American audiences became hooked on Purefoy and the people who watched the series lived for the fiery and compelling scenes between these two actors.

After Rome was wrapped, Purefoy went contemporary in his American television character roles, first playing billionaire Teddy Rist in NBC’s The Philanthropist where he struck up a fortuitous friendship with co-star Michael Kenneth Williams.

Williams later grabbed the memorable role of crime kingpin Chalky White in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

In our exclusive interview with Purefoy below, we learn that each actor remained close and lamented that their scenes were too far and few between given their on-screen chemistry.

Purefoy as Teddy Rist and Williams as his right-hand man Dax in The Philanthropist

Then there was showrunner Kevin Williamson’s The Following, a well-reviewed broadcast thriller that pitted ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) against Purefoy’s serial killer Joe Carroll, a craven man who molded a cult of killers.

This intense drama instantly changed perceptions of Purefoy, who went from a charming and charismatic leading man and powerbroker to a cunning serial killer who scared the crap out of everyone.

It was a clever and twisted turn for him, flexing his malleable talent. Purefoy has never gravitated to a consistent type of character.

But now fans are reveling in his critically acclaimed role on SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard, which debuts its second season, Mucho Mojo, tonight.

This is an upbeat Southern American Butch and Sundance-type masculine adventure based on Joe Lansdale’s darkly comic novels, where the range, humor, and warmth of Purefoy is on full display as Hap Collins, paired with Williams who was cast opposite as the more prickly Leonard Pine.

The series has been brilliantly adapted for television by Jim Mickle and Nick Damici, who have captured the genre-busting spirit Lansdale infused in these highly watchable characters.

Hap and Leonard, thanks to the natural chemistry of Purefoy and Williams, are perfectly paired in this deeply nuanced and interesting story of two average men experiencing extraordinary things.

These unlikely best friends have become, for lack of a better word, caretakers for each other as they journey through a life that is both nothing but hard knocks and lucky at the same time.

Monsters and Critics got to speak with Purefoy yesterday about the addictive Sundance series, and found out that Purefoy has no qualms about praising his fellow actors and calling it like it is on Hollywood sexism…

Monsters and Critics: The tone of the show is a bit lighter this season, it feels.

James Purefoy: Yes, this season is a lot of fun and has a very different tone to it — I feel anyway.

M&C: You and Michael have had a friendship from before this series began. Can you talk about how that helps your characters develop in the series?

JP: Michael and I worked together on NBC’s The Philanthropist about seven to eight years ago. I was playing the philanthropist, a billionaire, and Michael was a character in the show called Dax, who was in my character’s security detail.

He flew my jets and such, and hung out with me and we always felt that we never got the amount of scenes or time that we wanted on that show.

He’s very likable, and very easy to get on with. So we became very good friends.

It took a long time to shoot the show for various reasons. We were stuck out in South Africa for a long time and we got ourselves into a few scrapes and a few little moments off camera where we realized we had each other’s backs and we felt very safe with each other. I think that is the nub of it.

M&C: A trust was established, as actors?

JP: Mike and I feel we can say anything to each other we like. There is a lot of trust there.

In many ways, we’re very similar to Hap and Leonard because these characters bicker and argue like brothers rather than friends, and Mike and I can easily bicker and argue but knowing that when you do that with somebody who is like a brother, you know they’re going to be there the following day.

It’s easy for people to fall out with each other and not speak to each other for five years. That’s not going to happen.

We are good friends and we wanted to bring that very simple idea of what a male friendship could be like…which is you don’t need to overstate it or cook it or over-sentimentalize it, talk about it too much. It’s just there. In the air around you.

That’s what we wanted to get with these two — that it was just in the air, a given.

James Purefoy as Hap Collins, Michael K Williams as Leonard Pine
Purefoy and Williams eating together on a porch in a scene from Season 2

M&C: Hap and Leonard have a very clear moral compass as to what is right and wrong, will this season score some big personal wins for each man?

JP: Yeah, I mean certainly for Hap. They will concentrate on him a great deal. For Hap the big win is that he gets his mojo back as a man this season.

What happened last season was that we met Hap and he was a little bit like a man in a cocoon, or a man sort of held in suspended animation.

When you’ve been in prison in the 1960s, like…well he’d never really grown up.  He had never really done anything of any note.

What happened to him, the betrayal that he’d experienced at the hands of his wife, Trudy (Christina Hendricks), when he leaves prison, it had sort of kept him preserved in aspic if you like.  Up until the beginning of the season when she came back into his life again — he was very passive.

Things are happening to him all the time, and it was only in the final episodes that he started fighting back again and he started realizing he was cracking out of the mold and he’s becoming his own man again.

When Trudy dies at the end of the season, he’s been crushed by that obviously because she was the big love of his life, but there is a silver lining to that cloud which is that he can put it to bed.

He can depart with that part of his life and get over it. Then there is only one other person left in his life, and that’s Leonard.

M&C: How does Leonard’s friendship keep Hap afloat?

JP: When it looks like Leonard is going to be doing serious time for child murder because the cops obviously want to pin it on him for that murder…when he realizes he might lose Leonard, he really needs to get a firecracker up his ass and to get moving.

One of the things he realizes as the season progresses is that he can do this amateur investigation thing really well.

M&C: Hap has a purposeful epiphany?

JP: I think it’s the first time in his life he’s actually found something not only that he can do well but that he’s passionate about.

It’s because he has a reason to be passionate about it — if not he’s going to lose his friend and that’s the last person really in his life.

That scares the s*** out of him. So he needs to do something and he needs to do it fast and that’s what he does.

There are so many lovely surprises in this season, I’m really dying for people to see it.

So many great themes and little moments where you go ‘oh my god’ and then that, and then this and then that — it’s a very different feel this season, a really different feel from last and I think every season will be as well.

Because [author] Joe Lansdale [who] wrote those books, he skips around genres all the time on purpose; this isn’t like Louis L’Amour or those Texan writers who churn the same thing over again and again.

Douglas M. Griffin as Det. Charlie Blank, James Purefoy as Hap Collins
Douglas M. Griffin as Det. Charlie Blank and Purefoy as Hap Collins in Season 2, Episode 1

M&C: Where can the story go?

JP: I quite easily see Hap and Leonard having an encounter with an alien race for example. I could see that happening and us buying it! So anything can happen with these two.

This season is so much more about the community of LaBorde in East Texas and the urban feel of that.

It’s very much Leonard’s world. He [Hap] doesn’t come from the African American community at all. It’s just not Hap’s world.

Hap is a little bit of a fish out of water, and he’s made aware of it because of Leonard, but this is not really his world.

[He’s a] little bit of a bystander, I think. Also, he’s realizing how black people might feel in a white man’s world.

The shoe is on the other foot in this show. It’s very deep and very textured, there’s a load of stuff in this series. People are going to be very surprised by it.

M&C: Tiffany Mack’s Florida is such a powerful character, so smart and fierce. Then she sort of does a slow melt towards Hap from what I have seen. How does that unfold?

JP: Why would she [be interested in Hap]? He’s a man 20 years older than her. He’s got no money, no prospects, he’s not ambitious…so I did struggle with that a little bit with the writers.

I go to them, ‘What is it? Why is she attracted to him? What has he got?’

M&C: Well, you look just like James Purefoy…

JP: (laughing) Well bless you! But you can see from her POV she’s a rock ‘n’ roll lawyer! She’s really cool, she’s worked really hard. She’s a black woman in Texas in 1987. That’s not an easy life to chose. And yet she’s done it against all the odds.

So I do struggle with ‘what the f*** is she doing with Hap?’ I think at the end of the day it’s because he’s a good guy. Maybe there aren’t that many of them around.

James Purefoy as Hap Collins
Purefoy’s Hap smiling from inside a car in a scene from Season 2

M&C: In the past two winter TCAs I was there when you were on panel. Each time, a question was asked that sort of set you off — the one about Christina Hendricks as ‘window dressing,’ and this past TCA someone asked Tiffany Mack a similar question about being the beautiful love interest for Hap. Can you talk about your reactions and why you make a point of standing up for female actors?

JP: Oh god I know! I was really…look, if I was there and had been in that room, I would have to go ‘what’s the matter with you guys? Here we are presenting women in the best possible way, and yet you keep wanting to drag it down?’

I found the comment about Christina last year astonishing. To talk about Christina Hendricks as if she was ‘window dressing’ — I just wanted to say: ‘Way to go, way to go, sister, that’s good! With friends like you who needs enemies?’ Who needs men?

I am just…Florida Grange, like all Lansdale female characters, are just written so strong; they are so possessed. They’re smart, doing their own thing and they are not defined by the men around them.

Christina Hendricks as Trudy Fawst
Christina Hendricks as Trudy Fawst in Season 1, Episode 6

M&C: You of all the actors really jumped up both times when people marginalized the female actors.

JP: I am just very aware of it. We’ve got to get over it, we’ve got to move on. And if you [critics] keep talking about women in this way we will never move on. This conversation has got to be put to bed.

M&C: You film in Georgia, can you talk about the region you film in and how it affects you?

JP: In the first season we were in Louisiana — I loved it and I think one of the things that I love about our show that it is so specifically geographical.

There are very few shows on American television, there’s Fargo and Nashville..that are about specific places and have a very strong authenticity to it and the smell of it.

I love it when I see that. For me, there are so many things I love watching. I love to feel like I am looking through a keyhole into a world which I’ve never seen before.

There’s a very famous work of art by Marcel Duchamp, the Étant donnés in the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art, and there is just a barn door, and in the very plain barn door is a keyhole and you go over and look through it, and inside that keyhole there is a whole world…and there is a naked woman stretched out in front of you on the grass.

You feel slightly embarrassed and self-conscious because there is a queue of people behind you about to do the same thing.

I saw that when I was very young and I have always been really impressed by that idea of looking through a keyhole at a world that you’re not familiar with and I think that’s when drama works best.

Often it works like that, that suddenly you are given the view of a life or group of people that you had no idea existed.

That’s one of the things I think that this show does really well with that geographical location. I see sex, I see death…and you really get a sense of it. A very strong sense of where that place is, which I find really interesting.

Make sure to drive that twisty East Texas highway with Hap and Leonard tonight at 10/9c on SundanceTV.

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