It was cold old day in February and a few last minute scheduling re-arrangements found me sitting in a Central London PR office waiting to speak to James Purefoy, the dashing actor from stage and screen, best known for his roles in major TV productions such as Rome.
His latest film, swords’n’sorcery epic Solomon Kane, based on a character by Conan The Barbarian author Robert E. Howard, hits the cinema this week. The remarkably affable Mr Purefoy was taking a few minutes out of his busy schedule to chat to me about the film, and anything else that seemed pertinent to ask.
Here’s how it went down (after a few pleasantries had been exchanged)…
How many times have you seen the film?
I’ve only seen it once, I’m not very good at watching myself, to tell the truth.
What attracted you to the project?
Lot and lots of things! When I was a boy growing up in Somerset I used to love watching films like The Outlaw Josey Wales and it seemed to me that Solomon Kane was cut from the same cloth. He’s a terse man that doesn’t give away too much about himself. He expresses himself through actions rather than words. And I liked the fact that the film was British. We don’t really have enough of these films. I feel that we could be making more of this type of film.
Were you familiar with the character?
No, no I wasn’t at all. I’ve seen films based on Robert E. Howard’s work, but I’ve always associated them with muscle-bound Austrian bodybuilders! And as a British actor you tend not to think about those kinds of film, because you think, there’s never going to be a part in any of those films for someone like me. But then, of course, when I spoke to Mike [J. Basset, the director] about it and I started reading all the books and the poems and every short story there was, I saw this very British, 17th Century swaggering swordsman and I thought, yeah, let’s have a go at that, that could be a laugh!
But you were familiar with stuff like Conan?
Well, I hadn’t read the books, but I’d seen the movies – Conan, Krull, Red Sonja. But I think the other thing about them was that we always thought the swords ‘n’ sorcery genre tended to be associated with the 80s and seen of as quite camp – all the cheesy one liners – which is something I’m not capable of doing. When people aren’t taking it seriously it’s hard to emphasise when you’re an audience member. We are trying to create a world where everybody takes things very seriously. We wanted to make the audience think: what would I do in this sort of situation? When you’re faced by a group of ghouls or the walking undead? I don’t think a pithy one-liner is the first thing to come to mind!
He’s quite a dark character in the film. Did you worry about him not coming across heroically enough or were you happy to go down the road of Kane being an antihero?
I didn’t worry about that. An antihero is just as good as a hero, if not better. So, he is dark, but I think the benefit of having this as an origin tale is that you know where he’s coming from. If you can show the humanity of what happened in that moment, then all the other stuff goes out the window and you don’t have to worry about that sort of thing. The audience know who he is. They know he’s started off as a bad guy and that he’s had a run in with the Devil. They’ve already been told that his soul is going to go to Hell if he doesn’t change his ways.
And so, all of this context that story produces means you can kind of move his behaviour any way you like after that, because you know that what he’s doing is coming from a good place.Do relish the freedom that playing a more visceral, darker character gives you as an actor?
Well, I’ve played quite a lot of dark characters [laughs]. Mark Antony was not the most benign of gentlemen, Blackbeard, not the most benign of gentlemen. So, you know, I’ve played a number of [darker] people. But what you have to do is find humanity and common moments that audiences can latch on to. So, long as you’re not playing flash, that you’re playing it real, the audiences get it and where you’re coming from. It’s not so much about good or bad, we’re all good and bad, it’s shades of gray. Shades of grey are infinitely more interesting than black or white. You just get more depth, more texture, more reality.
Well, we had a bunch of injuries. There were a lot of incredibly talented stuntmen and they were getting injured all the time by my flailing sword! I got smacked over the head with quite a big sword at one point and had seven stitches put in, but it looked much worse on the day. I had to keep acting, but I could just feel blood pouring down my face. Obviously, we couldn’t use it, because we would have to have used the injury later on. So there was that moment. But then again, I’m not moaning about it. This is the kind of film it is.
When you’re making a big action picture, like this, and you’re talking about up close, hand-to-hand physical contact with people, you know you’re going to get injured. It’s just a question of how badly you get injured and how long you have to stay away from the set.
The following week there was another big fight where I had to stab someone in the neck, and this guy moved his head right at the wrong moment and I stabbed him right through the cheek! Suffice to say, they didn’t pay for him to go to the most expensive plastic surgeon in the Czech Republic. But he came back with a nasty little cut and said [putting on Czech accent]: “I don’t mind. As long as movie is successful, I have something to brag about.”What was the hardest scene, injuries aside?
You know, being crucified is always tricky!
That’s a headline!
[Laughing] That’s always something you’re not going to look forward too: minimal clothes and 40 foot up in the air on a cross. And it was minus-twelve on those days. So what would happen was you’d come down off the cross and have a cup of tea for five minutes. But if you forget to move, your clothes picked the water up so badly that they would just freeze! So you’d get to get up off a chair and just fall flat on your face because the clothes had frozen to your body. And then they would have to get a kettle and defrost you.
Was there anything cut out that you particularly hated to lose?
I don’t think so. I wasn’t that unhappy. Besides, movies need to be a certain length, and I’m aware of that. And especially with a film like this, playing to that kind of audience, I wouldn’t have been happy if it was anything longer than it is, ninety minutes. And that seems to me, for this kind of film, perfect. I don’t understand Pirates Of The Caribbean. I don’t understand two-and-a-half hours.
Well, I always want to leave people wanting more. And I know that when we went to see Pirates, me and my boy, he turned to me – half an hour before the end – and said, “Dad, when is this film going to be over?” So that was a gigantic flick, and he was bored. I do like the way with Kane it’s the big final fight, one more scene and it’s over. Lovely, and out for a curry. For me, it works.
What was it like working with someone like Max von Sydow?
Well, you know [shoots me a look of, ‘what do you think’ and laughs]. Genius. Not only a genius, but a modern cinematic icon. And, if you’ve got any sense at all as an actor, you give the stage to him, and you watch and you learn.
He had to come on and do a shed-load of what we call ‘exposition’, and all actors hate exposition. He had a load of it, and it was quite a mouthful, and I remember watching him and thinking, right, so that’s how you do it. If I have to do any of that, that’s how I’ll do it. I will just steal from him. I always say steal from the best, and he’s the best.
He’s an extraordinary, extraordinary man. He’s been around for decade, after decade, after decade, and it was a great pleasure even spending just two days having my face next to his on the screen.It must have been a happy day when he said yes?
Yeah, I think so. Well, we had him and Pete Postlethwaite, who’s one of the greatest actors alive. The way that he approached the part in the film with such tenderness and gentleness; he’s just, again, a really good man – a great artist, working brilliantly well.
I think that’s one of the nicest things about playing leading parts, just talking to someone and not really worrying about their effect on your performance, because they’re just making it better. So, you know, you can be generous. [laughs]
Because this film was an origin story, obviously, you had to invent the mythology behind it a little bit. But if it progresses onto a second, or even a third film will you go back to Robert E. Howard’s original material?
Well, you see the trouble with Robert E. Howard’s books in terms of ‘movieiasation’ is that they’re often quite short. They’re like five, six, seven pages. They’re little episodes that happen and the way they are written is specifically for that format. There was no back-story. He was presented fully formed.
But the producers gave Mike a very specific thing they wanted him to do when they hired him to write the film. They wanted a back-story and Mike couldn’t argue with it, that’s the job he was hired for. So, he did that.
However, quite a lot of the stories in Weird Tales [where Kane was very first published] take place in Africa, so I think what we’d be doing is lifting characters, lifting moments and knitting them together. But there could be a lot more room for parts of those stories in a second or third film.
There are rumours of a new Rome series?
Yeah, nothing to do with me, I’m afraid, because I’m dead! Well, Mark Antony is dead at the end of the second season. I mean, obviously, it was the greatest part I ever played, but unless they do a prequel [laughs]. No, as far as I’m aware the plan is to do a ‘what happens after’ series. Unless I come back as a ghost.
I’ve just enough time to ask, what’s your next project?
I’ve just finished doing Ironclad, which is sort of ‘Magnificent Seven in a castle’ with Paul Giamatti, Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi, Charlie Dance. Really good, like Magnificent Seven in a castle shot in the style of Saving Private Ryan. And now I’m doing John Carter Of Mars with Taylor Kitsch from Wolverine. I play Kantos Kan, who is a Martian fighter pilot.
That’s a cool name.
He’s cool. He’s very cool. And it’s all a bit of a laugh. It’s big, gigantic and it’s by Andrew Stanton, who did WALL-E, and he knows a thing or two about storytelling. He’s one of the best storytellers on the planet right now.
James Purefoy, it’s been a pleasure.
Solomon Kane is released in the UK on Friday 19th February. Our review is here.