“I DO think you go through various phases in your career,” James Purefoy is telling me. “British actors oftentimes go through the same phases. There’s the frilly shirt phase, there’s the big sword phase, there’s the bad guy phase and then there’s the character actor phase, isn’t there?”
Purefoy, now in his fifties, has done all of them. He’s been a frilly-shirted guy (in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Mansfield Park back in the 1990s and Vanity Fair back in 2004), the guy with the big sword (in Solomon Kane and Ironclad and, perhaps most memorably playing Mark Anthony, sometimes naked, in the TV series Rome) and, yes, he’s been the bad guy , a very bad guy, a serial killer in fact, in the TV series The Following.
So, what does that leave? Well, oilskins, apparently. Purefoy can be found in your local cinema today playing a Cornish fisherman in new movie Fisherman’s Friends, a wannabe crowd-pleaser that tells the story of the eponymous male singing group from Port Isaac who signed a record deal in 2010.
The film, which also stars Daniel Mays, Tuppence Middleton and David Hayman, is conspicuously lacking in big swords or frilly shirts. “It’s a lovely heartwarming, incredible story that also has the double advantage of being true,” Purefoy suggests.
The movie version is slightly fictionalised as is the way of such things, but it has given Purefoy the chance to play a West countryman for once. “It’s a one man campaign I have to put west country men in all their complexity and interest up there on the screen because we don’t have enough of them.
Purefoy is from Somerset, not Cornwall, of course, but close enough to make the accent not too much of a stretch. He certainly found it a little easier than his fellow cast member Dave Johns who’s a Geordie of course..
The other thing the film allows him to do for the first time is sing on screen for the first time
Nervous, much James? “No, because these are no choirboys. They’re not pure as the driven snow. They are big, hairy-arsed lobster fishermen. The singing was not about whether you could sing prettily or beautifully, but can you carry a tune? Can you give it some gusto?”
Rehearsing in Port Isaac would often take place in the pub conveniently enough. “Obviously, that was a hard ask. To sit in the pub singing sea shanties well into the night on many, many occasions.”
It is a measure of Purefoy’s adaptability that he is telling me all of this while sitting in Mexico City where he’s filming a hush-hush TV project for one of the streaming services. He’s spent the last five months there playing a CIA agent. After he has spoken to The Herald, he’s off to take his daughter to see a Mayan temple.
He is rather taken with Mexico City, it has to be said. “It’s incredibly vibrant and interesting and, frankly, I think one of the coolest destinations I’ve ever been to in my life. I would recommend it to anybody.”
Purefoy has never been afraid to travel in search of a good part. He has spent much of the last three years in the southern states of the US filming the rather fine crime drama Hap and Leonard based on Joe Lansdale’s novels.
“It was a very subversive and beautifully written show. Something I was really proud of doing. I was sad to see it go.”
Sad and surprised. “It was the network’s highest-rated and most watched and best review show so it was a bit of a mystery as to why they would cancel that. It didn’t seem to follow normal business norms.”
The fact that it was about race relations at a time when the subject is very much a hot button topic in the US may have had something to do with it.
Purefoy’s adaptability is as much about his own desire for novelty as his ability. “As you get older you have to keep stretching yourself because otherwise you get stale and you end up regurgitating the same old, same old thing over and over again,” he says.
So, what then does he look for in a part these days? “I look at the script. Is it interesting? It is well written? Does it hold something in it for that I can get my teeth into that I haven’t done before?”
And that means turning down roles that feel a little too familiar. “You turn down money, you turn down big opportunities. You say, ‘You know, I’m just not sure I can do another sword movie right now regardless of what this pay cheque is. I feel I’ve done this before.’ People are just going to get bored. I’m bored and if I’m bored, people are going to get bored of me.”
When Purefoy’s not on set you might find him and his family in Somerset where he owns the house he grew up in. “We tend to go there at weekends and holidays. It’s very isolated and for me it’s about the land and gardening and all the things that middle-aged men like to do – tinker away in the shed and hope you can’t be found by any of the children.”
He doesn’t say if he wears oilskins while he’s tinkering. But keep the image in mind.
Fisherman’s Friends is in cinemas now.