James Purefoy understands that much of the discussion about his buzzy new FOX drama The Following, which premieres tonight at 9, has been about its tipping the scales of graphic violence. Especially for a broadcast network offering. Especially with the heartrending horror of the Sandy Hook massacre still fresh in viewers’ minds.
But, says Purefoy — who stars as Joe Carroll, a seductive, Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed literature professor turned serial killer turned jailed cult hero for a legion of copycat killers — our natural connection to tragedy and violence has been the backbone of drama since its advent. It’s just the finger-pointing that’s new.
“It doesn’t bother us, you see, because we know what we’re doing,” Purefoy says of The Following cast and crew, helmed by creator Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries, Dawson’s Creek.) “I feel like the violence [on television] thing has been thrown up by what happened at Sandy Hook — which of course, as a father and a human being, I’m appalled about. But it’s a smokescreen. I hate to say this, but it’s a smoke screen that was thrown into the national conversation by that idiot from the NRA.”
Purefoy cites his background as a former member of Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company for giving him his perspective on the hand-in-hand nature of violent content and dramatic works that have captured — and held — audience’s attention for centuries.
“I find it fascinating, because I come from a tradition of classical theater and I love seeing the correlation between popular television, how we move on in the world with popular television, and then correlating that back to drama over the centuries. And nothing changes,” he says. “The last two thousand years have been a mere blip in man’s evolution. It’s tiny seconds.We have been interested in the macabre since drama was invented.”
Even in the tales we read to our children — which have spawned a new wave of recent, not-so-kid-friendly, shows and films.
“I’ve been reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales recently — horrifying what happens in Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” Purefoy says. “Violence is a big part of our culture. Now whether that’s a part of social control, which it tends to be — there’s a philosophy called the Aristotelian system of tragedy, whereby if you step outside your place in society, you will get punished with violence. If you remember any Shakespearean tragedy, Othello for example — because he becomes obsessed by jealously, he steps out of the norm and gets punished for it by dying in the end of the play. Hamlet — if you can’t make up your mind about whether you’re going to do something or not, you get punished. King Lear — lack of self-knowledge, you get punished. So there’s a kind of social control that goes on in the Aristotelian system of tragedy.”
And in our own consciousness, whether we choose to embrace it — or in The Following‘s case, watch it — or not.
“We like it because it’s ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’” Purefoy says. “We like to imagine, ‘Oh God, imagine if I were in that situation! What would I do?’ Because it is so extreme. That’s what gives us the chills at the back of our neck.”
Asked if he’s at all concerned that the magnitude of his character’s seductive creepiness might make passersby a tad nervous when they encounter him on the street, Purefoy says he hopes that isn’t the case.
“I think it’s unlikely,” he chuckles. “I’ve always thought that if you are an actor at the top of your game, doing great parts and yet you can still go to the supermarket and buy a sanitary product for your wife without anyone giving you trouble, then you’ve kind of made it.”
The Following premieres tonight at 9/8CT on Fox.