All Hail James Purefoy


By Alastair McKay

When in Rome, James Purefoy has a rule. He is quite prepared to do as the Romans did, but only if the story demands it. In the first season of the HBO historical drama'which starts its second season this month'this included a scene in which the actor, playing Mark Antony, was toweled down by a slave. By the standards of American television it was explicit, and you don't have to Google for long to arrive at a screen grab of Purefoy's meat and two veg. But, says the 42-year-old English actor, it was justified.
'It was really right for the character,' he says. 'Somebody who's naked, talking to somebody who's clothed, is normally the weaker of the two, normally the more self-conscious. But in that situation it was very clear who had the status'the naked man. And that says a great deal about a man. That you can stand there and be completely confident and talk to a soldier in front of you, naked, and not give a flying fuck. It says a lot about the times and a lot about the man. So I had no qualms about doing it in terms of the character.'
You might, if you examine the nuances of Purefoy's phrasing, note a qualification'were there any qualms about putting his privates on parade?
'It wasn't really me, though, was it?' he says. 'If you're a vaguely bright actor, you can justify it in terms of the character. There were directors who were disappointed that I didn't get buck-naked in [the second] series, because I would just go: 'Why? Tell me the reason. What does it add to the character now that we haven't already got?' One of them said, 'Oh, I just want to show he's relaxed.' We know he's relaxed! How much more relaxed could I possibly be? No, you just want to see my cock in rehearsal. I'll show it to you now, shall I? And then we'll get it out of the way. We don't have to show it in front of millions of people.'
To which defensiveness we may add a note of mirth. Purefoy laughs explosively when I quote him a section of the Wikipedia summary of his career, in which two decades of treading the boards are reduced to a speculation about the veracity of that scene in episode 4, series 1. 'His full-frontal nudity'caused a sensation. However, an interview from a special-effects technician who mentioned 'digitally altering' the appearance of penises for actors who 'didn't want to remove their g-strings' casts doubt on the veracity of Purefoy's nude scene.'
'Hahahah!' He turns tumescent with mirth. 'That's absolutely hilarious! I won't say whose it was, but there was a penis in the series that may have been slightly enhanced. But it wasn't mine. Mine's all mine, I'm afraid. Believe me, I can look at the episode and go, 'Yep, that's me.' '