Interview: James Purefoy on IRONCLAD, SOLOMON KANE 2?, JOHN CARTER OF MARS!

Meeting in the trendy 75 St Martins Lane Hotel (so trendy they don’t seem to need a sign) to interview…

Mark Clark

Contributor

Meeting in the trendy 75 St Martins Lane Hotel (so trendy they don’t seem to need a sign) to interview James Purefoy about his new film Ironclad, bizarrely with my previous partner in crime from the Sean Bean/Cleanskin interview, Duncan from Den of Geek. Our paths just keep on crossing!

In Ironclad, released in the U.K. today (you can find my review HERE) Purefoy plays the penitent Templar Knight Thomas Marshall, caught up in the defence of Rochester castle, and the Kingdom itself under King John’s reign in 1215 and after a few minutes wait he arrived looking somewhat more relaxed than his screen counterpart; casually suave in a dark blue suit and slightly undone tie, white handkerchief in breast pocket. Damn the man.

PR lady told us we had 25 minutes, Purefoy made a mischievous comment about what we were going to talk about for that long. As it happens, it really wasn’t long enough.

After introductions and letting him know we had actually seen the film the evening before (and enjoyed it) we got down to business.

Note – there will be SPOILERS in this piece.

JAMES PUREFOY: It’s quite intense isn’t it…

OWF: You could say that.

DEN OF GEEK: Having grown up with the sword and sorcery films, things like Krull and Hawk the Slayer, there’s been that resurgence in the genre and you seem to be at the forefront of it.

JP: Yeah I know, it’s kind of a strange thing to find yourself in that position. It’s not really what the plan was (laughs). Although there was no plan so it didn’t really matter either way. But yeah it’s an odd thing. I think once you’ve done it once… and I think producers also, they need to feel that man can wield the sword. If they’ve seen you do it enough and they like what they see then they feel safe hiring you to do it again.

DoG: And how did your involvement with Ironclad start?

JP: Right towards the end of shooting Solomon Kane, Mike Bassett, my director, got an email from Jonathan English [director] just checking me out; how’s he managing, how’s he coping. And Mike being Mike, said ‘he’s shit’ (laughter). No, he said ‘he’s doing well, if you need a man to wield a big fucking sword then he’s your man’. And so I was in L.A. shortly after that and I met up with Jonathan and read the script and I just loved it. I just like the story, it was a really interesting, little tale I hadn’t heard before.

OWF: I think that was the point for me, it’s a little period of history that I knew nothing about.

JP: Yeah, you know it’s just got curiosity; the whole pig thing for example.. it’s just brilliant. You try and work out how he’s going to bring the fucking castle down, and he does it by burning pigs. Which is absolutely true. I think it was the first thing he found (the director); I think he found that little bit of information out and went, wow, and then worked backwards from that point. It’s the most extraordinary detail.

But I think as far as the violence is concerned, maybe we should just talk about that… I’ve only seen the movie once – I don’t find it a glorification of violence, I don’t particularly find it ‘sexy’ violence. What I do find is that unlike a lot of those films that we were talking about earlier violence in this film has consequences, not only to the people it is inflicted upon but also to the main characters, and especially the Thomas Marshall character. His life of violence is coming at a heavy price to him, and I think if you’re going to make a film about one of the most brutal medieval sieges ever known then I just don’t understand the point in being light on the violence.

DoG: It’s integral…

JP: It’s absolutely integral, and if you’re going to hold a mirror up to something, hold it up and see the reflection of what that is.

OWF: You can tell with the action the way it is, that at no point does anybody enjoy what they’re doing. It’s a necessity.

JP: No… Well Jamie Forman’s character does a bit, but that’s because he’s a psychopath (laughter).

But I think they’re a really great, interesting group of characters that work together on a screen, and you know my character, I loved playing that man because he’s the most austere person I’ve ever played in my life. And I did a lot of reading about Templar Knights. I find them fascinating. I find it fascinating that in 1215 you had men who could get away with causing appalling atrocities in the name of God, and they’re get out of jail free card was that they were doing it in the name of God. And we cut to 800 years later and we’ve still got arseholes all over world who are committing appalling atrocities in the name 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 will be forgiven in the name of God…

DoG: I think it’s interesting that genre movies can do that…

JP: There’s a little link there that goes back and back and back. I find that fascinating. Those guys, the Templars, they were inculcated into the Templar cult from the age of 10-11 years old, and that’s when they took their vow of chastity, obedience, and poverty. And one of the things I found out for example was that there was a whole sort of Templar induction course, and that the reason they were finally pulled down by King Philip in France was to do with this particular heresy which was to do with the fact that once they’ve taken the vow of obedience they’re told to spit on the Cross. And to a very religious man spitting on the Cross would be heretical in the most awful, horrific way. And because they’d been told to do it they had to be obedient and had to spit on the Cross… and that was the thing that brought the Templars down right at the very end.

They were enormously powerful, they were incredibly rich and a big threat to monarchies all over Europe, and 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 being done for income tax…

OWF: Your character Marshall, he’s racked by this undisclosed guilt, we know something happened…

JP: Yeah, my back story was that he’d 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. But clearly in heart and soul he knows he’s done something bad.

OWF: And by the end, he’s not so much exorcised his demons, but perhaps has learned to live with them…

JP: I think that’s exactly it, I think that’s precisely the case… 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. I think that’s the thing, once you start questioning, the worm of doubt starts eating away at you; and he realises that, no, what the Pope has asked me to do isn’t right.

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

JP: To have Crook and Flemyng… (Mackenzie Crook and Jason Flemying also appeared in Solomon Kane).

There was a time when we were going to have (other Solomon Kane cast member) Pete Postlethwaite in it, but he wasn’t well enough to do it. And somehow Jonathan English wanted Max von Sydow to come in. Jesus Christ you can’t just take the entire cast and put them in another film… (laughter)

But they’re great in the film, really great, I think Mackenzie was great in Solomon Kane – mad, crazed priest – and now he’s sexy in this film. When I saw the film a lot of the girls went ‘look, Mackenzie Crook, so sexy’… Not that Mackenzie isn’t sexy, but he’s just played a lot of characters that are a bit divvy.

DoG: And you’ve got the heavyweights like Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi

JP:… and Charlie Dance. Yeah, and I mean Brian just brings enormous status to any film he’s in, so he’s just great to have around. Really good to have around.

DoG: Does that make you up your game?

JP: I think it makes us all up our game, him as well I suspect. He had a great time on the film. Brian can be a bit of a curmudgeon, and I’m sure he’d say so himself, but actually he had a really good time, mainly because he was the guv’nor in a way and we were all sort of looking up to him. I think he felt that, and he enjoyed that.

OWF: It was a nice group of actors, working together. I’m assuming it was a good working atmosphere; there was none of that original Magnificent Seven egocentric behaviour…

JP: No, there was nothing like that at all. Whenever I hear those stories about the original Magnificent Seven – I bought everybody the entire box set of all the movies one day, so we were watching a lot of them – and then I found out subsequently, and it upsets me terribly (laughter). 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 a worry, meeting heroes…

JP: It is, it’s slightly heartbreaking when it goes awry like that. It goes a bit pear-shaped.

But no, suffice to say on this film there were no egos like that. There was nobody getting in the way of anybody else. Everybody had their moments, everyone was glad to give people their moments. And it certainly helped; we were all staying in the same hotel in Cardiff and drank it dry… (laughter).

I’d been making John Carter and were out in north London somewhere in a big ex-Woolworth’s distribution centre that had been turned into a gigantic set, and Ciarin Hinds, who I’ve worked with several times, was in the next trailer to me, and I’d been reading a book called Hellraisers. It’s about Olly Reed, and Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole. We’d been sitting around on the set for 6 hours doing fuck all. And he came in and said what’s that, and I said it’s a book Ciarin that we shouldn’t read really because frankly it’s upsetting me… because in the olden days can you imagine Olly Read and Richard Burton behaving like this, sitting in their Disney trailers. In the olden days what would have happened was they would have had to come and find us, and we would have been drunk, in a pub somewhere. And the producers would have had to pull us out.

But nowadays there’s litigation, and there’s corporateness and all of those things obviously….

OWF: Careful…

JP: …for pretty good reasons, they don’t happen anymore. (laughter)

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

DoG: So you could be the start of the new Old School.

JP: No, well, I think the reason all that sort of stuff died out is that actors became savvy that you don’t do it in front of journalists. You don’t do it in front of cameras. At the end of the day it’s harmful for your career to be seen as that. And some people do it behind closed doors instead…

OWF: If I could talk about the actual production, financing of the film. It’s quite an impressive amount of money [$25 million] that they gathered together, particularly to make a film here, based on a very British subject. Do you think it will open doors to more projects like it?

JP: You know I think one of the things about the British film industry…. we make our fair share of shit, course we do, there have been some shocking films – I’ve been in some of them – but by and large it’s so hard to get a film made here, it’s so hard to pull that money together, it’s such a little cottage industry working out of tiny little offices at the top of buildings in Soho with no elevators. And it’s so unglamorous, people have to really love what they’re doing. It’s not a kind of production line, it’s not a factory.

You have to love it, you have to love what you’re doing because it takes so long to make that movie, to get that movie put together. And I think that’s a big difference, a massive difference between us and L.A. Where people are going to work and they’re making movies every day of their lives, and so the love of the film is a little bit absent quite often; and I think it’s the love of the film, on The King’s Speech for example, the love of that story, the love of those performances which make it rise to the top, because it’s invested with so much care.

DoG: You have quite a loyalty to up and coming British directors, even back to Resident Evil. Is it the enthusiasm of the director that helps to attach you to a project?

JP: The level of commitment that one gives here is greater in a way, and as I say, it was 3-4 years ago I started talking about this with Jonathan, and sticking with it all that time. And some of the cast that were announced right at the beginning, some of them had to fall out because they had health issues or it just took a little longer to get the film made and so they suddenly weren’t available, and they were replaced with other great actors.

You just have to commit a lot more it seems, here, whereas in America there’s so many things happening all the time, the choice is just so much greater.

OWF: 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 almost sneak out…

JP: I think what happens again,… I don’t know, I don’t work for the distributors, and it’s funny now I’m having this quite big experience of working with these people, is that they’re quite, secretive, in their relationship with the film-makers themselves. Once they’ve bought the movie, you fuck off… that seems to be how it goes to me. I don’t know if that’s insulting but I do definitely get that sensation that you are shut out – the producers, the writer, the director – once you’ve handed it over you don’t really know what happens to it. Now that I’ve seen on Solomon Kane, I now understand that their strategy seemed to me was to build a brand, which they did with all the buses…

James Purefoy in Solomon Kane (2009)

 

 

OWF: Yes, the buses…

JP: … 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 build awareness so that when it came out on DVD it sold shed-loads. It was top of the DVD charts for 2 weeks here. So that’s where they made their money. Now they don’t care, clearly, whether they make they make their money in cinemas or on DVDs, as long as they’re making money.

DoG: Talking of Solomon Kane, I’d like more…

JP: Yeah, so do I. The trouble is I don’t know what’s happening with any release in America, I don’t even know if there’s a DVD release in America. You know I’m geek enough to look on Rotten Tomatoes and I see 83%, and I see other films which are way lower than 83% positive reviews, top critics, all that kind of stuff… 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…. I was watching the BAFTAS on Saturday night, they do a long five minutes stretch of clips of all the films that have been made here and you go where…? Am I sounding bitter, I probably am (laughter). Just a bit lost, and a bit upset by it, because you go Christ that was a good film, and I don’t get it. What’s the embarrassment?

I know that people have a slight snobbishness about sword and sorcery movies; there’s that, because it’s a bit geeky,

(A look of complete geek recognition between DoG and OWF at this point…)

but then I like the idea that ours did something slightly different with it, you know took it very seriously, the genre. It was very bleak and dark, and wet and rainy, and had a lot of that…

OWF: It’s very unique, he’s such a unique character…

JP: Yeah, and I spend a lot of time talking to people like you going ‘when’s the next one?’, and I go I’ve no idea… Maybe we’ll make it into a TV series.

DoG: Would you be in the TV series…

JP: I don’t know… we shall have to see.

James Purefoy in Solomon Kane (2009)

 

DoG: You mentioned John Carter of Mars, and we were saying earlier that we know virtually nothing about it

OWF: It’s been silence…

JP: I know, you know what it’s like… It’s about them being in post, you know Disney are going to be gigantic when it comes out. It’s about the fact that just up the road from here 75% of effects houses in London are, right now, rendering incredibly expensive shots. And that’s what they’ve been doing. We shot it when, about a year ago, and they always knew it was going to to be 18 months of incredibly expensive, big, special effects shots.

DoG: Andrew Stanton (John Carter director) being from Pixar, they’re champion story-tellers…

JP: They spend so much of their time on story, making sure. They know that’s the secret, and what they’ll be doing with it is noodling, and fiddling, and editing and asking is that telling the right story; because unless you’ve got the story right it’ll flop. You need to be emotionally engaged in that story. And he is brilliant, I think he’s extraordinary. You watch Wall-E and it’s mind-blowing what they manage to wrap up in that film. As a kid’s film, supposedly, such a deeply hopeless view of what we’re turning into.

The only thing I can say (about John Carter) is that it’s gong to be enormous, it’s got a huge budget. I don’t like seeing myself on screen, I don’t watch myself very much, I will watch once and that will be it, but this is a film I can’t wait to see. I don’t know what’s going on behind me. We were working with the ‘Tharks’, which are these 9 feet tall monsters, and they have 4 arms… I mean that’s well known because it’s in the books. Who was it? It was Willem Defoe in a pajama suit. (laughter) Willem Defoe in a pajama suit, on stilts, with a camera on his head.

Just like it is with Avatar, any of those things, it’s very hard to tell while you’re making it, what it’s going to look like.

OWF: Well I’m looking forward to it…

JP: Yeah, me too.

Purefoy has time for one more so being a gent I let Duncan jump in with the ‘Bond’ question…

JP: I’m too old to play James Bond, and that ship has sailed with captain Craig at the helm. 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 think he’s brilliant, I love watching him. But you know I’ll just do other stuff instead. There is one thing coming up that I can’t tell you about.

OWF: Dammit.

JP: I might email you

Cue Duncan and I spending an unhealthy amount of time monitoring gmail…

Ironclad is released in the U.K. today. Check out my review HERE. We are also giving away a poster from the film, HERE.