In the new SundanceTV original series Hap and Leonard — which debuts Wednesday, March 2 at 10 p.m. EST — James Purefoy (Hap) stars alongside Michael K. Williams (Leonard) in a noir-inspired show set in the 1980s about two best friends — one a good ol’ East Texas white guy, and the other an openly gay, black Vietnam vet — who are down on their luck but on the hunt for some lost loot. It’s a simple get-rich-quick plan that of course goes awry, and hijinks ensue. Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame plays the femme fatale of the show, which was created by director/writer Jim Mickle and writer Nick Damici and based on a series of books by Joe R. Lansdale.
We spoke to Purefoy recently about the show and how he came to star in it, the captivating horror of the current U.S. presidential race, the beauty of rural life, and how he’s happy to have never landed the role just about any male actor would kill for (James Bond, which Purefoy was reportedly considered for twice), among other things.
I’m always kind of amazed when actors who aren’t from the U.S. are able to portray Southern characters well. I thought you did a good job with Hap. I was a bit taken aback upon discovering that you’re British.
I’m so excited to hear you say so. To me it really is about playing the American. I know that sounds kind of strange but there’s such a world of difference. Although we speak with the same language, there’s also a divide. There’s something so very different about what happens underneath the American skin.
I think for me it’s about trying to find the American in him and the Southern, the blue collar, where he comes from, and the disillusionment I think that he probably feels as a man who is of a certain age. It hasn’t really happened for him. It’s like a dream that hasn’t really happened. I think that’s quite common in America. Not only in the ’80s but now especially. I think it’s even worse now. Anyway, I think there’s a great disconnect with an awful lot of people, about the American dream.
The first time we see Hap and Leonard, it’s the 1980s and they’re in a rose field that they are working in and they are being effectively laid off to be replaced by immigrant workers, which is definitely a theme today still. I don’t know if you’re following the American presidential campaign that much, but it’s…
I feel very fascinated by it. I shouldn’t be, but there’s something so gripping about watching a multi-car pileup on any freeway, isn’t there? You kind of watch it slack-jawed going, “Holy moly! Is this really happening?”
Good to know that our friends across the pond are viewing this in the same way that much of us are.
It is like watching something terrible and you can’t do anything about it. Everybody seems powerless. The more Trump does…
The more ridiculous he gets.
He just gets more popular.
I know. I know.
But yes, I am being very aware of the other things and they are recent. There’ve been really a lot of articles about the American dream not being all that it’s cracked up to be. You know, seeing people get into a certain age, I guess the late 40s/50s and they go, “Hey. I have been pulling myself up my butt by my bootstraps. I have been working hard. When is this great reward finally going to arrive?” I think Hap feels a bit lost in the world that he is in. I think he is quite disillusioned by everything. By women, love, life and …
None of it has worked out for him as it was supposed to. The fairy tale just hasn’t come true.
He’s got this relationship with this crazy black gay, Leonard. He loves him, but really this is it. That’s the only thing he’s got.
There’s definitely a lot of that there and it makes total sense that this character would just say, “Fuck it!” and just go off on this chase for a million dollars at the bottom of an alligator-infested river.
I know so many people like that. I suppose one of the things that drew me to the part is, where I come from in the western part of England — in a very rural, industrial, agricultural world — I knew so many men like him, like Hap. By then it was when I was growing up. People in my local pub in the village were always trying to find some way to get themselves out of the wrap that they found themselves in. They’d be guys who are working in slaughterhouses or chicken farms; just farmers. Getting up and working ungodly fucking hours out in the field with cattle or with sheep or whatever it was. They’d be in the pub dreaming of get-rich-quick scenes all the time. Gambling ideas or trying to get from A to Z without doing the rest of the alphabet. Always trying to do some kind of quick way of making that buck. Hap sees this opportunity, he just can’t turn it down because it just seems like too much money.
That’s interesting, that you have that experience of growing up in a rural, working-class area. That would definitely inform you as to who this character is.
There’s nothing urban about them.
Something I think is cool about them is the relationship between the two is obviously very unorthodox. It’s not something you normally see in the American South. A good ol’ boy white guy whose best friend is an openly gay black guy. That’s where they break the mold a bit.
No, you wouldn’t see that. That would be rare. I love their relationship. I love their relationship because it’s so there. It’s so present and is so not questioned.
I read somewhere that you and Michael K. Williams were buddies previous to working on this show together. Is that correct?
Yeah. We’ve had a long history together. We did a show together called The Philanthropist about six or seven years ago in which I played a billionaire philanthropist and Michael pitched up to play my security detail — the guy who flies my jet, who drives the cars, who supplies my security when we’re out on the road doing the shit we were doing in the show — and we just became pals. We just became really good friends and we sort of felt like we had unfinished business from that show. It felt like we haven’t really done enough on camera and explored each other in that way on camera. So he came to me with this project. I was doing the show called The Following in New York and I was packing up ready to go home and literally, the night before I got on the plane he called me and said, “I’ve got this series and they need someone to play Hap. I’m Leonard and it’s called Hap and Leonard. It’s about these two buddies in the ’80s. Why don’t you give them a call?” So I did and here I am.
Here you are. I’m told Hap and Leonard was shot mostly in Louisiana. Had you spent much time in the American South prior to working on this show?
I’d done a little bit of stuff. I really like it down there. I’ve just done something else down there, down in New Orleans itself. I really love New Orleans. It’s just got a great vibe. I think it’s a really interesting place and New Orleans obviously is a really interesting city.
New Orleans gets into your blood. It gets into your soul. It sort of infects you in ways that other American cities just don’t tend to.
Yeah, for sure. It’s about age though. New Orleans is about history and culture and you really feel it. You feel the many generations of people who live there and that’s not a thing you never get in, say, Los Angeles or Denver. You do get it in New York and there are other places, especially on the East Coast where there’s much older towns, but New Orleans has got something.
In researching you just a little bit, I discovered that you were actually considered on a couple of different occasions to play James Bond. That had to be, as a young British actor, I can’t even imagine what that must have felt like just to be considered and be in the running.
Yes, there was much excitement and possibility. But I’m glad it didn’t happen, to say the truth.
I’d just have a lot more money and a lot less privacy. All the phones would come out everywhere I’d go.
So you’re grateful just be a working actor who’s able to make a good living but not have to deal with all the celebrity, movie star bullshit?
Yeah. The bullshit is so very tiresome. When I watch it, when I see it happening to other people, I just go, “I’m very happy just to go from job to job.”
That’s a great perspective to have. The wisdom of someone who’s lived a little bit, I think. Where do you live now?
We have a place in London but we spend most of our time down in a house in the West of England. I’ve moved back there. It’s a very tiny village with three houses.
Really? It’s that small?
It is. No fucker bugs me down here.
Is it difficult to manage a career based in such a rural part of England like that, so far away from the centers of power in the entertainment world?
I think it’s fine. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve just done little independent movies and interesting things I like. I like doing lots of different things and that’s what I’ve always been interested in as an actor, is trying to get under the skin of those many people as I possible can before I shuffle off the mortal coil. I think everyone worries that the last thing they do is their last gig. “How am I going to pay the mortgage next year?” and all that kind of stuff. I never really wanted to be in something forever and ever. I never really ever wanted to be locked down doing one part for seven years. That was always a nightmare to me.
I guess it’s another reason that Hap and Leonard, or the concept of it, must have appealed to you because it’s not like a 20-something episode episodic that you find on network television.
It just means that I can do other things. I’ll do it for three to three 1/2 months and then I’m free to do other stuff. I can do a play, I can do a movie, I can do another TV show back here. I’m free to do other stuff. That’s always my favorite position.
Well, I’m looking forward to seeing where Hap and Leonard goes.
Thank you. I’m very fond of the show and I think it’s really good television and I think by the end the audience are going on a ride. They’re going on a trip. It feels like a sort of five-hour independent movie.