James Purefoy talks about playing a Knight Templar in gritty new movie Ironclad and why the violence had to be realistic. He also discusses why he named his sword "Florence" and reflects on his career to date, including the fall of HBO series Rome and why Mark Antony may be coming back in a different guise in forthcoming new series Camelot.
You must be quite handy with a sword now...
James Purefoy: I am quite good with a sword now. I think producers need to feel safe that their leading man can dismember somebody at the flick of an Oyster card.
Is there any practical application for swordplay?
James Purefoy: In real life? No [laughs]. Oh, yes. I am a member of a fencing club. Which is a very different thing, isn't it? Because obviously when you're fencing... when you're doing swordplay on films you know exactly where every blow is going to come but when you're doing it in real life you've no idea where it's going to come - and that's rather thrilling.
After this and Solomon Kane aren't you getting sick and tired of the rain, wind and cold on your film sets?
James Purefoy: I just want to make a movie in the Bahamas. That's all. I was watching that Mad Dogs [TV show] the other day and they all got to go to Majorca for, I don't know, what is that? Two months? I mean, having said that, I lived in Rome for two and a half years when we shot Rome, so, you know, it's all penance now.
Did the weather interrupt filming at all or was it just a case of, "Great, we'll just shoot anyway," in the rain?
James Purefoy: No, we just shot in the rain. But, you know, it's only rain. Obviously somebody in the office here is going: "Oh, the conditions were just horrific!" But you know... I shot Solomon Kane for four months in -15° temperatures where my costume froze to my body, so frankly, a little bit of Welsh rain and mud is not that difficult to deal with.
How much research did you do for Ironclad?
James Purefoy: A lot of reading about Templars because that's who my character is, and how to work the long sword. What do you do with it? So, a lot of reading of books about that. I've done a lot of sword movies and you use a rapier in a very different way than you use a sabre or a short sword, a short Roman sword.But this one, the long sword is a whole weapon. Not just the blade, which is what the other ones are. You can chop a man clean in half with a broadsword. And you use it - there's an awful lot of spinning and turning. It's like a dance. So, if you slice through somebody... now, normally, with a sword you'd stop and come back for another chop and stop there, but because it's so heavy, a broadsword, you [mimes slicing someone in half] and it keeps coming, you hold on behind it, which is why we called it Florence... because once you set it in motion you had to "go with the Flo".So, it's all to do with spinning and keeping up with the momentum of the blade and just slicing as it goes. But then it's not just that end of it, you've also got the pommel, which is a hard steel piece on the end of it, which is used - as you come that way [mimes swinging sword again] you can then reverse it and break somebody's head in with it. Or with the cross-guard, there's that idea of taking people's eyes out, gouging. So, the whole weapon is, like I say, not just the blade - every part of it is used.
Was there quite a bit of camaraderie on set then with the other actors?
James Purefoy: Yes, but I think that's crucial and it's very important for a film that is using that template of The Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven story - that template that you're hanging the film on. It is kind of important that you get a bunch of actors who are going to get on with each other. And fortunately we had not a w***er amongst us. Which is often not the case but there was no ego, there was no problem with that.There was gentle ribbing and joshing and joking. And a lot of people had worked with each other before - I'd worked with Derek Jacobi a couple of times and Brian [Cox] a couple of times and Jason [Flemyng] a couple of times and Mackenzie [Crook] twice, so, you know, it feels like just old friends coming back together.
The violence is convincingly medieval. Part of the humour might be rooted in the fact that this is, I think, the first film where somebody clubs somebody to death...
James Purefoy: With an arm [laughs]? Yeah, possibly. Is that a first? It might well be a first. I do think the violence in it is extreme but then I've never been good at being soft on it in that way. If you're going to try and make a film about something that is brutally violent, what's the point of not showing the brutal violence? So, that's the question.The question is why I made the film in the first place, but it's not a question about how extreme the violence is. It is violent and it was violent and it was known to be one of the most brutally violent sieges of the medieval times in the whole of Europe. I mean, it was horrific. And I think that's the important thing - I don't think that we over-glamorise or make it sexy, the violence. I think we are pretty honest about it.
The character you play is a very religious man and he's taken the vows. But he's also haunted by the things he's been asked to do in the name of his religion. Could you understand that side of him?
James Purefoy: I think you can understand it. I don't think you have to look far today to see people... men mainly, but the odd female suicide bomber and the appalling atrocities that they've committed, all the time. And they believe that they have a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card in terms of eternal damnation because they're doing it "in God's name".And it's not just Islamic extremists, it's religious fundamentalists in the United States who believe that they can shoot the owner of an abortion clinic, but they're doing it "in God's name". It's any asshole who commits unspeakable violence on anybody else in God's name. I have no time for it. I don't have much time for real violence at all. I think there are infinitely better ways of changing the world than using violence. Sitting round a table talking is a pretty good start.
There are some of us who are still mourning for Rome, where men really were men and young ladies were scared. Wasn't there supposed to be another series? What happened to it?
James Purefoy: Well, you know, I think they regretted [cancelling] it... actually, I know they regretted it. I know HBO regretted not doing it again. I don't think they quite realised how big it was going to be. And it was also blisteringly expensive - $11m an hour.And we were slightly b*****ed up here [in the UK]. The BBC did a very strange thing where they put somebody in charge of re-editing the first three episodes here... who did such a shocking butchering of the pace and the effect of the first three episodes that we never really recovered from it.So, if I step off a plane in New York or LA I get a lot of reaction about Rome, whereas here it never really took off and I think it was - I hate to say it - that person's fault. I mean, it's quite extraordinary how a hundred-million-dollar series can be given to a junior producer and editor and they f*** it up really badly.
And that was simply to put it on TV over here?
James Purefoy: They said - and here is the "reason" - somebody said: "Cut out a lot of the politics of the first three episodes, because the British public know a lot more about Roman history..." And that meant that it unbalanced it - it became much more about the sex and the violence. And so suddenly it became "The Rompy Rome", "The Sex and the Sandals".But actually, when people go back and they look at it, they go: "Actually, no, hang on, there's much less of that." And they've spun it. And that's what they were trying to do, they were spinning it as this quite outrageous series, whereas actually there was quite a lot of dry politics there that they eviscerated.
What can we expect from Camelot then?
James Purefoy: [Smiles] Well, Camelot... because Camelot is pretty mythic anyway, you can do pretty much what you like on Camelot, can't you? I mean, they've stayed as close as they could to Le Morte d'Arthur and Thomas Malory and I think they're going to do a great job. And again, they've got some fantastic actors in that. My character is very much Mark Antony in mediaeval times. If you were missing Mark Antony, tune into Camelot - he's re-appeared, with a big beard [laughs].
When you say you mainly get recognised more in LA, is that generally?
James Purefoy: No, just the Rome thing.
Can you walk down the street in the UK?
James Purefoy: Oh God, yes. And I take great pride in that. I've never been a "celeb-y" actor. You know, you don't catch me falling out of nightclubs at three o'clock in the morning. Well, very rarely! But I find it all a bit baffling, the whole celeb thing and I don't really get it. I don't get why people do it to themselves. I don't understand why... you know, there are plenty of restaurants in London without paparazzi in front of them, so go there if you don't like being photographed. Why choose The Ivy?
Interview: Rob Carnevale
Photos: PA/Warner Bros