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 dramawhich starts its second season this monththis 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 dont have to Google for long to arrive at a screen grab of Purefoys 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 whos naked, talking to somebody whos clothed, is normally the weaker of the two, normally the more self-conscious. But in that situation it was very clear who had the statusthe 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 Purefoys phrasing, note a qualificationwere there any qualms about putting his privates on parade?
It wasnt really me, though, was it? he says. If youre a vaguely bright actor, you can justify it in terms of the character. There were directors who were disappointed that I didnt 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 havent already got? One of them said, Oh, I just want to show hes relaxed. We know hes relaxed! How much more relaxed could I possibly be? No, you just want to see my cock in rehearsal. Ill show it to you now, shall I? And then well get it out of the way. We dont 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 nuditycaused a sensation. However, an interview from a special-effects technician who mentioned digitally altering the appearance of penises for actors who didnt want to remove their g-strings casts doubt on the veracity of Purefoys nude scene.
Hahahah! He turns tumescent with mirth. Thats absolutely hilarious! I wont say whose it was, but there was a penis in the series that may have been slightly enhanced. But it wasnt mine. Mines all mine, Im afraid. Believe me, I can look at the episode and go, Yep, thats me.
In some ways, such talk is a continuation of a theme that has bugged Purefoy throughout his career. In the years before Rome, this often manifested itself in speculation that he was in contention to be the next James Bonda fate he has now been spared with the appointment of the younger, rougher Daniel Craig. But there is something about Purefoys looks, and his bearingslightly posh, very well-manneredwhich leads him to be judged for his beauty rather than his talent.
He is, of course, smart enough to know that he wont get far complaining about being too handsome, but the thought lingers behind much of what he says. Im not saying Im good-looking, but I think I know now, having played this run of parts, that I probably do fit into a stereotype of what people perceive to be good-looking. And its not particularly useful.
He says he felt liberated when playing the pirate Blackbeard from behind a big beard for British television: You can hide behind that. And also theres no neurosis about it, because youre not having to be the sexy one. The worst directors in the world are the ones who come up and say, Be more sexy. Well, what does that mean? I have no idea, because thats an entirely subjective thing, isnt it? Be more beautifulbe more sexy. Its thick. Thats what it is. When a director says that, I just think, Oh, fuck, youre thick.
This logic may have led him to sign up for the Wachowski Brothers comic book adaptation V For Vendetta, but that film remains the only significant blot on his rsum. He quit halfway through filming. That was a bit of a debacle. I dont really want to talk about it, he says. We all promised that it was best left that we had creative differences. Sadly, some people since have broken that promise. But Im a gentleman.
A gentleman, that is, who yearns for longevity: If your career is based on you looking young and handsome, youre fucked, arent you, when youre 50?
Look at meits like a fucking field in Suffolk, my forehead. In winter. You could plant barley in these lines. And Im 42. This will get worse. Good.
Look at Samuel Becketts face. What a face, what a life! When you look at those old actorsJason Robards lying on his bed in Magnoliaold faces have so much more life to them. Theyre so much more interesting to watch. A young, unlined, clean face has no experience and no life. Its got no secrets, no bruises.
Purefoys bruises came in the form of reviews of his stage work. His contribution to Noel Cowards Present Laughter was, he says, hailed as the worst performance one reviewer had ever seen in Londons West End. But he also had a tough time at the exclusive boys school Sherborne, in Dorset. He says only that the Victorian ethos of the place gives rise to all kinds of neurosis and problems later in life, but Im pretty level now. I dont have much anger about it anymore.
He left school at 16 and worked as a hospital orderly. He was thinking of applying to become an operating theater assistant when his father persuaded him to go to college and study again for his exams. One of them was drama.
From there, all roads led to Rome, with one of his first big-screen roles being alongside Kevin McKidd (Romes Vorenus) in the 1998 film Bedrooms and Hallways. It was the firstprobably the onlyBritish gay romcom, he says. It was all about the fluidity of sexuality. Never say never. Youd be a fool and an unwise man to say never. I havent as yet had a gay relationshipnot since school anywaybut I never say never. That would just be foolish. I know lots of people whove been straight and turned gay; I know lots of people whove been gay and turned straight. I think the more of a big deal we make out of that stuff, the harder it is for people to act how their heart wants to act.
And at school? Anybody who went to an English public [i.e., private] school in the 1970s will have had some kind of a gay experience. You bang 500 adolescent hormonal boys together at exactly the time when theyre exploring their sexuality, and dont be surprised if some shenanigans comes out of it. Or shocked.
With Rome coming to an end, Purefoy has signed up for the pilot of Manchild, Darren Stars male Sex and the City, with John Corbett, Kevin Smith, and Paul Hipp: Four blokes in varying degrees of fucked-upness who are trying to deal with the various crises that we at 40ish have.
Purefoys character is reportedly a 40-something who sleeps only with girls under 25. In real life he is a serial monogamist. He is currently involved with an art historianshes supersmart and very strong-mindedand has a 9-year-old son, Joe, from his relationship with English actress Holly Aird. Joe is too young to see much of what his dad gets up to.
I wouldnt show him Rome, Purefoy says. I dont think he wants to see his dad do that. There are some scenes Ive shown him, but I keep my hand hovering over the pause button. I know whats coming. Theres gonna come a time when he will watch them. And then hell go, What did you do?
Hes always saying to me, Is he the baddie or is he the goodie? Im always saying to him, its never quite as simple as that. There are baddies and goodies in Star Wars, but I dont really do Star Wars. In some things there are bad people whove got good hearts, or good people whove got bad hearts, and its just a little bit more ambivalent and ambiguous. Life isnt always black-and-white.
Mark Antony, he concedes, is mostly bad: Hes flawed, but hes human. I think the audience can tell that theres hot blood running through those veins.