James Purefoy interview: Ironclad, Solomon Kane, John Carter Of Mars, 007 and more

Interview Duncan Bowles 28 Feb 2011 - 13:23

Ahead of Ironclad’s UK release, we catch up with James Purefoy to talk about John Carter Of Mars, the British film industry, and wielding big swords…


Warning:
There are a number of spoilers for Ironclad in the first half of this interview.

The 4th of March sees the return to the big screen of a tormented James Purefoy, armed with a sword and inflicting large amounts of damage with it in Ironclad. This is a very good thing, both for me as a cinema goer and to the UK’s somewhat fragile industry as a whole, with our recent slew of sword based action movies turning out to be solid entertainment.

Independently financed films such as Ironclad show what can be done with several years’ dedication and, arguably, are serving to fill the reliable British genre stable that’s been left vacant since Hammer ceased to be for several decades.

Hammer has since returned, but chose Let Me In as one of its first high-profile productions. Thus, a remake of a Swedish film with an American director was how our once beloved institution was resurrected. That’s an issue for another time, though.

Purefoy himself is every bit the classic British gentlemen, incredibly polite, articulate and well spoken, but with a blunt honesty about a variety of topics, which combined with his lack of airs and graces, made for a fascinating interview.

Let’s also not forget how unacceptably handsome Purefoy is, either.  There was very good reason for him to referred to as "James Puresex" on the A Knight’s Tale commentary.

Last year, he starred in my beloved Solomon Kane, but geek-wise, he also appeared in Resident Evil, and starred as Mark Anthony in the TV series, Rome.

James Purefoy was also an actor I strongly supported when there were rumblings he would play James Bond, before the role went to Daniel Craig. Don’t get me wrong, I love Craig as Bond, but Purefoy is a perfect, natural fit but, as I discovered, it was not to be.

As fate would have it, only two of us turned up for the round table, with the other writer, Mark Clark of Obsessed With Film, being the very same person I’d interviewed Sean Bean with before Christmas -  a very good omen indeed. I should also thank Justin Bieber at this point, as it was his press conference that had formed a media vacuum that day, leaving Mark and I substantial time with Mr Purefoy, and a chance to ask quite a large number of questions.

As he came into the room, immaculately dressed in a fitted suit, he double checked the time we were allocated. “Five or twenty five (minutes?)” he enquired. “Twenty five!” Mark and I replied in unison. “Jesus Christ are we going to fill that!” he humbly joked, which immediately broke any formality.

He then asked if we’d seen the film and what we thought. “It’s quite intense isn’t it?” Purefoy asked, before I rather embarrassingly started to gush about how I loved it, especially with my affinity for on-screen violence (which I tried to quantify immediately by using a childhood spent watching 80s action/sword and sorcery flicks as a defence).

“Well then, we’ve done our job beautifully” he stated, eventually leading into the start of the interview…

Den of Geek: There’s been a resurgence in sword (and sorcery) based genre films, and you seem to have been at the forefront of it…

Yeah, I know. It’s kind of a strange thing to find yourself in that position, when that’s not really what the plan was - although there was no plan, so it doesn’t really matter either way! I think once you’ve done it before [it helps]… I think producers also need to feel that a man can wield the sword. If they have seen you doing it enough, and they like what they see, then they feel safe hiring you to do it again.

DoG: How did your involvement with Ironclad start?

Right towards the end of when I was shooting Solomon Kane, right towards the end, Mike Bassett my director, got an email from Jonathan English (director of Ironclad) just checking me out - what’s he like, how’s he managing, how’s he coping. Mike, being Mike, said “He’s shit.”

No Mike, being Mike, said “No, he’s doing well, he’s great, he’s fine. If you need a man to wield a big fucking sword then he’s your man,” and so I was in LA shortly after that, and I met up with Jonathan and read the script, and I loved it. I loved the story, I thought the story was just a really interesting little tale that I had never heard before.

SPOILERS START

Obsessed With Film: I think that’s the point, that for me it was a little period of history that I knew nothing about, and I am sure most people would know nothing about.

It just got me curious. I mean the whole pig thing, for example, is just brilliant. I mean you’re trying to work out how he’s going to bring the fucking castle down and he does it by burning pigs, which is absolutely true.

DoG: I figured it was, because it’s the kind of thing you can’t make up!

The director also seemed to have an eye for detail, for that period. I think it was the first thing he found. I think he found that bit of information out and went ‘wow’ and then worked backwards from that point.

DoG: So burning pigs, castle…

Yeah… castle, knights, who are these guys? So I think that was the thing he found out first. It is the most extraordinary detail.

I think as far as violence is concerned - as I’d like to talk about that quickly - I have only seen the movie once, and I don’t find it a glorification of violence, or particularly sexy violence, but I do find, unlike, funnily enough, a lot of those films we were talking about earlier, the violence in this film has consequence.

Not only to the people it is inflicted upon, but also to the people in the film themselves, and especially him I think, the Thomas Marshall character. His life of violence is coming at a heavy price to him. I think if you are going to make a film about one of the most brutal medieval sieges ever known, then I just don’t understand the point of being light on the violence.

DoG: Its integral isn’t it?

It is absolutely integral, and if you are going to hold a mirror up to something, then hold the mirror up and see the reflection of what that is.

OWF: You can tell that the action is, like you say, at no point does anyone enjoy what they are doing, it is a necessity.

Well, Jamie Foreman’s character does a bit, but that’s because he’s a psychopath, you know? [Laughs] I think they are a really interesting group of characters, and they work together on a screen. And my character, I loved that character – I loved playing that man because he was the most austere person that I have ever played in my life.

And Templar knights, I did a lot of reading about Templar knights, and I find them fascinating. I find it fascinating that in 1215, you had men that could get away with causing appalling atrocities in the name of God, and their get out of jail free card was that they were doing it in the name of God.

We cut to 800 years later, and we’ve still got arseholes, all over the world, committing atrocities in the name of God, and I’m not just talking about Islamic ones – I’m talking about Christian fundamentalist men and women who shoot, or maim, or bomb the owners of abortion clinics in the United States. You know, in the name of God, and that they will be forgiven in the name of God.

DoG: And I think it is interesting that genre movies can put that message across…

They can make that little link. There’s a little link there, that can go back and back and I find that fascinating. These guys, they’re Templars, they were in the Templar cult from the age of like 10, 11 years old and that’s when they took their vow of chastity, obedience and poverty.

Obedience is one of the fascinating things I found out. There is a whole sort of Templar induction course, if you like, and one of the things, and the reason why they were finally pulled out by King Philip in France, was to do with this particular heresy.

Once you have taken the vow of obedience and say “Fine, I will be obedient,” they can say “Right, spit on the cross,” and to a very religious man, spitting on a cross would be heretical in the most awful, horrific way.

But because they had been told to do it, they had to be obedient, so they had to spit on the cross, and that was the thing that bought the Templars down, right at the very end. Despite the fact they were enormously powerful, incredibly rich and a big threat to monarchies all over Europe. They couldn’t bring them down on a financial basis, they had to bring them down on a heretical basis. It’s like Al Capone!

OWF: Your character Marshall, he’s kind of wracked by this somewhat undisclosed guilt …

Yeah, my back story was that he had done atrocities in the Holy Land and had been put on a vow of silence since then, just to shut him up, by the church. He does it, but he clearly in his heart and soul, he knows that he has done something very bad.

OWF: By then end, he’s not so much exorcised his demons, but perhaps has just kind of learned to live with them somewhat?

I think that’s precisely the case. I think that the big… the key thing that happens to him, is the killing of the Abbott at the beginning of the film, which he then discovers was done with the Pope’s blessing, and he just doesn’t... I think that’s the thing - once you start questioning, the worm of doubt starts eating away at you about something… I mean (under) the Pope, everything you do, it should be fine, it should be okay, and actually he realises no, what the Pope has asked me to do isn’t right.

SPOILERS END

DoG: Going to your supporting cast as well, I wondered if you’d now added in some contractual stipulation…

To have Crook and Flemying?

DoG: Yeah! Because you had two Solomon Kane actors…

Well, there was a time when we were going to have Pete Postlethwaite in it, but he wasn’t well enough to do it, I don’t think. Somehow, Jonathan English wanted Max von Sydow to come on board! I mean, Jesus Christ! I mean you can’t just take the entire cast and put them in another film. I mean, I know you like it!

DoG: Is Jonathan English friends with Michael Bassett, then?

I think they know each other, yeah. They are great in the film, really great. I think Mackenzie just does something very, very…  I mean he was great in Solomon Kane - a mad, crazed priest - and suddenly, in this, he’s sexy in this film! When I saw the film, a lot of the girls were going, “Mackenzie Crook looks sooo sexy!” Not that Mackenzie isn’t sexy, he is sexy, but he has just played a lot of characters who are a bit divvy, hasn’t he?

DoG: You’ve also got the heavyweights like Max von Sydow in Solomon Kane, and now you have Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles…

And Charlie Dance, yeah. And Brian just brings enormous status to any film that he’s in, so you know he’s just great to have around, really good to have around.

DoG: He seems to have an amazing intensity all the time on screen.

Absolutely, yeah.

DoG: And I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but does it make you up your game?

I think it does make you up your game, it makes us all up our game, everyone and him as well, I suspect. He had a great time on the film, you know Brian can be a bit of a curmudgeon and I am sure he would say so himself [chuckles], but actually he had a really good time. I think mainly because he was the governor, in a way, and we were all looking up to him, and I think he felt that and he enjoyed that.

OWF: I think it was a nice little group of actors, and working together I am assuming it was a good working atmosphere, and none of that in fighting from the original Magnificent Seven occurred?

Yeah, there was nothing like that at all, and whenever I hear those stories of the original Magnificent Seven… I mean I bought everybody the entire boxset of all the Magnificent Seven movies one day, and so we were watching a lot of them, and then I found out subsequently - and it upsets me terribly - that actors have these mad, ego-driven moments of wanting more close-ups, or getting in front of the shot. I find that repellent.

DoG: It is worrying, meeting heroes, as much as you differentiate between on-screen and real life. I think that it is one of my constant worries…

It is slightly heartbreaking, when it goes awry like that, and a bit pear shaped. But no, suffice to say on this film there were no egos like that, nobody getting in the way. Everybody had their moments and everybody was glad to give people their moments. It certainly helped we were all staying in the same hotel in Cardiff and drank it dry!

I’d been reading recently before that, when I’d been making John Carter, and we were out somewhere in bloody north London somewhere, in a big ex-Woolworths distribution centre that’d been turned into a gigantic set. Kieran Hinds, who I have worked with several times, was in the next trailer to me, and I was reading the book about, I think it’s just called Hellraisers, and it’s about Ollie Reed and Richard Harris, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, all the old school [drinkers].

Kieran came in, and we’d been sitting on this set for six hours, doing fuck all, and he came in and said “What’s that?” and I said, “It’s a book Kieran, that we shouldn’t read really, because frankly it’s upsetting me!

Because in the olden days could you imagine Ollie Reed and Richard Burton behaving [puts on a pathetic voice] like this and just sitting in their trailers waiting, sitting in their Disney trailers and not just…”

In the olden days what would have happened, was that they would have had to come and find Kieran and I and we would have just been drunk in a pub somewhere, and the producers would have had to have pulled us out, but nowadays there’s litigation, and there’s corporate-ness and those things are there obviously for pretty good reasons, so it doesn’t happen anymore.

OWF: So it’s contractual that you don’t go off and get rollocked!

Exactly. On that film it was great because we were all staying in the same hotel and we were good lads, having a good time and, yes, the hotel bar was where we did it.

DoG: You could be the start of the new old school!

Well the thing is, the reason all that sort of stuff died out, is because actors became savvy that you don’t do it in front of journalists, or cameras, because at the end of the day it’s harmful to your career, to be seen as that, so people do it behind closed doors now instead.

OWF: If I could ask about the actual production and financing of the film? It is quite an impressive amount of money that they seemed to gather together, particularly to make a film here, based on a very British subject. Do you think it will hopefully open doors to more projects like it?

I think one of the things about the British film industry that I have always sort of... we make our fair share of shit, of course we do. There have been some shocking films, and I have been in some of them, but by and large it is so hard to get a film made here, it is so hard to pull that money together, it’s such a little cottage industry, working out of tiny little... always at the top of buildings in Soho with no elevators, tiny little offices and so unglamorous, that people have to really love what they are doing.

It is not a kind of production line, it is not a factory in the way that... you have to love what you’re doing as it takes so long. It takes so long to make that movie, and get that movie put together, and you know, that is the big difference. Massive difference between us and LA where people are going to work and making movies every single day of their lives.

So the love of the film is a little bit absent, quite often in America, and I think it’s the love of the film, on something like The King’s Speech for example, it is the love of that story and the love of those performances, which make it rise to the top because it is invested with so much care.

DoG: Is that what draws you in? Because one of my questions was about your loyalty to up and coming British directors, even going back as far as Resident Evil. Is it the enthusiasm from the director, that helps attach you to a film?

I think the level of commitment that one gives here is greater in a way and, as I say, it was three or four years ago that I started talking about this with Jonathan, and sticking with it all that time, and you know some of the cast that were announced right at the beginning, were people who wanted to be in the movie.

Then some of them had to fall out because they had health issues, or it just took a little bit longer to get the film made, so they suddenly weren’t available and were replaced with other great actors.

But I do think you just have to commit a lot more it seems here, whereas in America, it seems that there are so many things happening all the time. The choice is just much greater of the things that you do, whereas here it is a bit of a drudge.

OWF: I was going to say – we were talking earlier about the way that distribution works, and I brought up the example of Solomon Kane, which I thought was a cracking film, but it seemed to sort of almost sneak out…

I think what happens again, you know, I don’t know, I don’t work for the distributors and they’re very... it’s funny now that I’m having this quite big experience of working with these people, they’re very erm… they’re quite secretive in their relationship with the filmmakers themselves.

Once they’ve bought the movie, you fuck off. That seems to be how it goes to me. That might be... I don’t know if that is insulting, but I do definitely get that sensation that you are shut out.

The producers, the writer, the director... once you have handed it over, you don’t really know what happens to it after that, or what the strategy is or... I mean now that I have seen it on Solomon Kane, I now understand that their strategy, it seemed to me, was to build the brand, which they did with all the buses.

They had a lot of brand and it seemed to me, that they didn’t have a lot of screens, but I think what that did was it built awareness, so that when it came out on DVD, it sold a shed load of DVDs. It was top of the DVD charts for two weeks here, so that’s where they made their money. Now they don’t care, clearly, whether they make their money in cinemas or DVDs so long as they are making money.

DoG: Speaking of Solomon Kane, at the expense of sounding like a sycophant, I loved it and spent a lot of last year championing the film. I am really worried there won’t be a sequel, because on a selfish level, I want more.

So do I! The trouble is, again, I don’t know what’s happening with any release in America. I don’t even know if there is a DVD release in America. I’m geek enough to look on Rotten Tomatoes and I see 83%, and I see other films, which are waaay lower than 83% positive reviews, from big publications and the top critics and all that kind of stuff, and I don’t get it.

I am as perplexed as you, I get rather perplexed about it, because you’re going, “Hang on, I don’t understand, here’s a British film, which got very good reviews, that looked good, had a size to it and yet...”

DoG: It appealed to lots of people...

I was watching the BAFTAs, and they do a long five minute stretch of clips, you know, of a montage of all the films made here and you think... Am I sounding bitter? I probably am. I’m just a bit lost and a bit upset about it, because you think, Christ, that was a good film. What’s the embarrassment?

DoG: The reason we write is because we’re fans of films, so when you find a film that you do genuinely love, you do as much as you can to promote it, but then you think, “well, we’re only one outlet…”

I don’t understand it. I know that people have a kind of slight snobbishness about sword and sorcery movies, because it’s ‘a bit geeky’. But then I like the idea that ours [Kane] kind of does something slightly different with it, and took it very seriously, the genre, and it was very bleak and dark and wet and rainy and had a lot of that.

OWF: It is such a unique character.

Yeah, and I spend a lot of time talking to people like you who say, “When’s the next one?” And I think, “I have no idea.” Maybe we’ll make it into a TV series, I don’t know.

DoG: Would you be in the TV series?

I don’t know! We’ll just have to see.

DoG: Talking of projects, you mentioned John Carter Of Mars. We were saying we know virtually nothing about it. I don’t know if you can talk about it?

It’s about them being in post, and you know Disney are going to be gigantic when it comes out, and it’s about the fact that, just up the road from here 75 per cent, I would have thought, of effects houses in London are right now rendering incredibly expensive shots, and that’s what they’ve been doing.

We shot it, when did we finish shooting it? A year ago? And you always knew it was going to be 18 months of incredibly expensive, big, special effects shots.

DoG: Everyone’s really looking forward to it, especially with Andrew Stanton being from Pixar, and they’re champion story tellers so…

And they spend so much of their time on story, story, story, and they know that that’s the secret and what they’ll be doing with it is noodling and fiddling and fiddling and editing and cutting and [thinking] is that telling the right story, because unless you have the story right, it will flop, and you need to be emerged and engaged in that story.

He is brilliant, I think he’s extraordinary. I mean, WALL-E is just... you watch WALL-E and it is just mind blowing what he managed to wrap up in that film, as a kid’s film supposedly, so deeply, deeply, not cynical, but hopeless view of what we’re turning into.

DoG: And that he could have an entire narrative with nothing!

They say barely one word each, Eve and WALL-E.

DoG: I know you can’t talk about John Carter too much…

The only thing I can say, is that obviously it’s going to be enormous, it had a huge budget. I don’t like seeing myself on-screen, and I don’t watch myself very much. Once, and then that will be it, but this is a film I can’t wait to see, because I don’t know what’s going on behind me! We were working with these Tharks, which are these nine-foot-tall monsters, and they have four arms. I mean that’s well known, as it’s in the books, but who was it? You know it’s Willem Dafoe in a pyjama suit!

DoG: And that’s another leap of faith...

Willem Dafoe, in an actual pyjama suit, on stilts, with a camera on his head. I mean it’s the same as Avatar, or any of those things, but it’s very hard to tell what it’s going to look like with any of those things.

DoG: It should be quite a revelation for you when you do get to see it. I’m looking forward to it!

Me too!

Our time was at an end, but James Purefoy kindly asked if we had any more questions, so I tentatively mentioned Bond, if only to show support…

DoG: I was going to... I remember years ago when you had the small part, the cameo in A Knight’s Tale… I remember seeing that and thinking that role, in itself, was enough for me to warrant your future as a Bond. The James Bond card, if it comes up…

It will never come up. I’m too old to play Bond and rightly so. I mean Daniel, you know that ship has sailed with Captain Craig at the helm! There’ll be other things.

DoG: I had to ask.

There’ll be other things and he’s doing an amazing job, he’s a fantastic actor and I don’t think we could wish for a better one, I love watching him! I’ll just do other stuff instead. There is one thing coming up that I can’t tell you about now… but I might email you beforehand…

James Purefoy, thank you so much.

Ironclad is released in cinemas across the UK on the 4th March, and is thoroughly recommended.

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