The first time I met James Purefoy, it cost me £20. A backstreet in Soho, he was between jobs… No, I’m kidding. It was a racecourse – Epsom, I think, wouldn’t swear on it – and this young editorial assistant was wandering the paddock, starry eyed and a little skew-whiff thanks to an afternoon spent in hospitality.

And there he is – James Purefoy! Resplendent in a grey flannel suit, striding around like he owns the place. Mark Antony, Solomon Kane, The Black Prince. The man. I can’t not go up to him, especially as our surroundings offer a conversational gambit rather more sophisticated than “Mum really fancied you in A Knight’s Tale.”

So… I stand beside James Purefoy and ask whether he has a tip for the next race. He grins roguishly, eyeing up the horses that are parading past us. Oh, James Purefoy has a tip alright. He names it with the louche, offhanded confidence of a man whose winnings are already secure in the mental bank.

I thank him, not overly profusely: after all, we’re both men of the world (ahem) and who knows, maybe I’ll share a tip of my own when the right race rolls round. (Unlikely, as I don’t have any, but the combination of paddock and free champagne can turn any bozo into Sky Masterson, at least until the horses come in). Then I scamper off to find my friend. “Lonan! Next race! We’ve got a surefire winner!”

Now I can’t recall the exact fate of James Purefoy’s tip: whether it was put down on the side of the track or merely failed to finish, but lived to fail to finish another day. What I can tell you, with some certainty, is that it didn’t win. Nor did it ever threaten to win. Or place. Or exist in vague if fleeting proximity to the horses that did place. It lost, and lost resoundingly, you might almost say heroically, an equine Eddie the Eagle. But you don’t bet on a horse being an equine Eddie the Eagle, you bet on a horse being an equine Usain Bolt. Which this horse most emphatically was not.

I'd win thousands at the casino. But then I’d lose thousands

Returning to the paddock between races, I spotted my erstwhile tipster, sizing up candidates for the glue factory he must presumably own. “James!” I cried, desolate. “What happened?”

“I know!” he agreed, far less apologetic than I would have liked. “Useless!” And off he strode before I had a chance to canvass his opinion on the next race. Which I obviously wouldn’t have done. Because his opinion would be worthless. Just like my betting slip.

Five years on from our first encounter, I am telling James Purefoy this story and he is laughing. “You didn’t take me seriously, did you?” he says, before offering a consolatory: “I might even have put down more. Who knows?”

That’s horse racing, isn’t it? All winnings across the day are lost on the final race. “Fuck it,” says Purefoy, articulating the voice echoing within every gamblers’ head. “What’s the point of being here unless I go home with some money in my pocket?”

He used to hit the casinos as a younger man, playing blackjack in the Golden Nugget on Shaftesbury Avenue “two or three times a week, for a year. And you genuinely do realise the balance that the house has over you if you go as consistently as that. I would keep a record of how much I lost, how much I made, and it pretty much split into 51% for them and 49% for me.”

Dare I ask his biggest win? “Quite considerable. Thousands. But then I’d lose thousands.” He doesn’t gamble these days – “waste of time” – apart from the occasional flutter on the horses. Just don’t ask him for a tip.

James Purefoy Square Mile Spotlight Cover

Sex and sensitivity 

Time for another wager, just for fun, just between us – I bet you’ve watched at least one film or TV show starring James Purefoy.

Over the past three decades our man has graced every genre imaginable, from Hollywood blockbusters (John Carter) to dystopian arthouse (High Rise), historical epics (Rome) to crime thrillers (The Following, opposite former Square Mile cover Kevin Bacon).

He’s done cyberpunk (Altered Carbon), comedy (Sex Education), even swamp noir (Hap and Leonard). Beloved cult classics (A Knight’s Tale) and failures best forgotten (I wouldn’t dare). Now 56, Purefoy is more prolific than ever – which is good news for both him and his many fans, my mother included.

“You’ve got to try and keep people guessing,” Purefoy will later say of his eclectic CV. “Come out of the corner of the ring with something different, as often as you possibly can.”

Yes, he’s been in a lot of swashbucklers, but then he’s been in a lot of everything. Don’t let the depth of his filmography distract from its breadth. “People go, ‘oh, it’s always you with a sword.’ Well, that’s because you like sword movies.”

Nonetheless, it must be nourishing to be seen as a man who can plausibly wield a broadsword…

“I know my way around a sword,” he deadpans. “Indeed.”

Suddenly it’s like an avalanche. You’re snowed under by the reaction of the fans

He’s speaking from his house in Somerset, the location of the rather handsome photoshoot that adorns this article. Bearded and brown-sweatered, the Purefoy I see over Zoom and the Purefoy you gaze upon now in all this gloss glory look exactly the same. (Sotto voce: this isn’t always the case with magazine photoshoots.) He’s sitting in front of a well-stocked white bookcase, if you want the full mental picture.

The latest project is A Discovery of Witches, the Sky adaptation of Deborah Harkness’s beloved All Souls trilogy. Purefoy plays the vampire Philippe de Clermont. He knew nothing of the story when cast; now he compares it to “being in a Star Wars” in regards to the size and passion of the fanbase.

“Your episodes come up, and suddenly it’s just like an avalanche. You’re snowed under by people’s reaction to it.

“It’s very satisfying because people clearly like it, there’s no backlash of ‘what have you done? You arsehole!’ They’ve been, generally speaking, complimentary.”

James Purefoy for Square Mile magazine

He made his cinematic debut in the 1995 Merchant Ivory production Feast of July, described by Purefoy as “a singularly depressing film that started miserable and got worse.” (Clearly it required more swords.) This was an era in which every British actor at some point found themselves in a Merchant Ivory – “now and then you’d get a My Beautiful Launderette or a Trainspotting, but I’m not really Trainspotting material.”

Maybe not, but Purefoy proved his versatility in the 1998 comedy Bedrooms and Hallways. The film boasted a cast of bright, beautiful young things – Tom Hollander, Hugo Weaving, Kevin McKidd, Jennifer Ehle – and notably progressive sexual politics, with characters hopping into bed with whomever took their fancy.

“Those weren’t common assumptions for 1998,” says Purefoy. “That sexuality was an entirely fluid thing and you could just go from one to the other to the other, depending on what made you happy and what made you comfortable with yourself. I think it was ahead of its time. Possibly that’s why it wasn’t a huge success.”

Twenty years ago, I imagine plenty of actors might have thought twice before playing the bed-hopping Brendan, a role which saw Purefoy romance his future Rome co-star McKidd. Especially actors very much in the leading man bracket; indeed, Purefoy had recently come close to being cast as James Bond, the leading-est leading man of the lot.

I couldn’t understand why I would behave the way I was behaving with somebody I loved

Not at all. “It wasn’t an issue for me – in terms of, ‘oooh dear, mustn’t play somebody who might be bisexual, what’s that going to do to my career?’ Silly thing to think.”

Like Bedroom and Hallways, the Purefoy of the 1990s was a man ahead of his time. Aged 28, he experienced a bad breakup and spent two years in therapy. “I’d gone through a pretty rough time with a girlfriend, where I’d behaved not well. At all. And I’d really liked her, and I couldn’t understand why I would behave the way I was behaving with somebody I loved. And I needed to figure out why I was behaving the way I was.”

A friend had tried therapy several years earlier, and spoke positively of the experience. “Once you hear somebody properly discussing something as a possibility, you think, maybe I should be doing that.” And so every Saturday morning, Purefoy rolled up to the therapist’s office, frequently nursing a hangover from the night before.

“Which only made it even harder,” sighs the older version, but then all the worthwhile stuff usually is.

On the front line 

Did you know James Purefoy nearly became a mortician?

He was 18, quite gothy, nearing the end of the two-year stint working for the NHS – the final months of which were spent in a mortuary. There was an opportunity to take the exam to become a mortician’s assistant, and from there the career path is straightforward: you become a mortician, then you work as a mortician until retirement. Then you stop. Then, eventually, you return. As a career, it’s pretty much the inverse of acting: minimal glamour but you’ll never want for work.

How did Purefoy end up at the NHS? Well, in his words, “there weren’t many jobs available at the time.”

He left boarding school aged 16, “under something of a cloud.” In Somerset, his brother kept complaining about the lack of viable employment; imbued with competitive spirit, James went down to the job centre and signed up for the Youth Opportunities Programme. The opportunity available was at the local hospital, £25 per week for 40 working hours. After six months he was taken on as a porter and “earned £200 a week for doing the same job.”

The experience opened up his world: “It’s a leveller when you work in a hospital because you get to meet all kinds of people that you’d never normally meet.”

Covid denial is like picking at a scab. You shouldn’t 

Fertile ground for any actor, even an actor unaware he was destined to become one. Hamlet might have claimed, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” but then Hamlet never experienced a British A&E ward at 4am on.a Saturday morning.

Purefoy has been thinking about his former colleagues a lot over the past year. Not just the doctors and ICU nurses but the auxiliary nurses, the porters, the cleaning staff. The unheralded army fighting a war they never signed up for. “They’re the people who have to go round the wards, pick up the dirty laundry, wheel people who have died into morgues.”

He cannot abide Covid sceptics, namechecking the journalists Julia Hartley-Brewer and Allison Pearson. “I wouldn’t call them Covid deniers but they’re people who throw a lot of smoke in the way, and come out with stupid, silly things. I find it incredibly offensive… I’ve met people who go, ‘don’t believe the lie’. Are people actually dying on wards? That hospital looks strangely empty…’ Oh, just fuck off!”

For Purefoy, such conspiracies are an insult to the dead. “It’s denying those people’s lives. You’re denying their pain, their family’s suffering. The people who treat them, you’re denying their problems and how difficult it was. Just don’t. It’s like picking at a scab. You shouldn’t.”

James Purefoy for Square Mile magazine
James Purefoy for Square Mile magazine

The passion is real and righteous, at least until he checks himself with a, “sorry, I just get…” Then he starts laughing. “Ah, you see! You cheeky little journalist! You got me there, you clever little sausage, you!”

Grinning, I quote that line from The Incredibles: “You sly dog! You had me monologuing!”

But in truth I didn’t have James Purefoy monologuing at all: his empathy, decency, and lived experience did the job for me.

Back in the 1980s, young James is contemplating a life among the dead. Fortunately, his father intervenes. Purefoy Snr resides in the town of Weybridge, Surrey. He recommends James move down there and take his A-Levels at the local technical college. So James does just that, discovering acting and socialism in the process.

Both discoveries come via his drama teacher Jonathan Holloway, a young playwright and “out-and-out Marxist” who fed the class a diet of revolutionary theatre – think Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, George Bernard Shaw and the like. “Over a period of two years he managed to make me see the world through a different lens. And that had a profound effect on me.”

I don’t think the essence of socialism has ever left me

Purefoy duly emerged a card-carrying socialist. “For a while,” he admits, “I was a member of the Socialist Workers Party.” The development may have surprised his father, a staunch Conservative, but Citizen James still found paternal acceptance, if not agreement.

“My father was very good in terms of politics. He treated me with a great deal of respect.”

The values of socialism still burn within Purefoy, albeit a little less fiercely than his teenage years. “As I’ve got older I’ve mellowed, as people do, but I don’t think the essence of it has ever left me.”

And like the erstwhile student he so inspired, Jonathan Holloway has enjoyed a prodigious career. Perhaps you caught his 2017 adaption of The Scarlet Pimpernel on Radio Four – starring none other than James Purefoy.

Taking the stage

Before he began his course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, a fresh-faced Purefoy embarked on a gruelling tour of the play Equus. “It was called an Eastern Arts Tour,” he tells me. “In the old days, you could do these tours because the government was shovelling loads of money into the arts.” They sound like good days.

Six months playing every type of venue imaginable: theatres, art centres, libraries, converted barns, village halls. Six months rattling around in the back of a Transit van, jostling for space with a dismantled set “and a bunch of people who used to be your friends”. By the end, you’re yearning for the morgue.

Yet there were still nights of magic – like the one in Ipswich’s Wolsey Theatre, Purefoy standing on stage “suddenly feeling like a total megalomaniac. Because I felt, very profoundly, the power of being an actor – I knew that I had 800 people in the palm of my hand.”

It wasn’t his first onstage epiphany, or perhaps even his most significant. That might be the college performance of Romeo and Juliet – while speculating “what light through yonder window breaks?” realisation struck: I’m good at this! God, I can actually make a career of this!

But of course, getting into drama school was no mean feat: CSSD had 2,800 applicants for 28 places – as mathematically challenged as I am, even I can work out that’s a one in 100 chance of acceptance. Had Purefoy been among the 99, his acting career might have ended right then. No drama, no worries – he’d have gone off and done something else. “I’m not going to keep banging my head, like some starstruck idiot, against a brick door that’s not gonna open.”

It doesn’t really happen on film. The quality of silence

He’d already found one job, he could easily find another. He was an able young man: “I could fix things, I could drive, I could motorbike, I could garden. I could do stuff. I was good with my hands.”

So there was no sense of destiny, then? Purefoy chuckles at the notion and goes Full Thesp: “‘The boards are in my blood, dah-ling!’ No. It wasn’t like that at all.”

But he got into drama school, and he toured Equus, and one night at the New Wolsey Theatre he discovered what it means to hold the attention of an entire auditorium, hundreds of people silent, looking at you, the woman in row eight, seat four no longer coughing, because she’s looking at you, nobody even shifting in their seats, they’re all looking at you.

“I don’t really know of anything that compares to that,” says Purefoy, a little dreamily. “It doesn’t really happen on film. The quality of silence.”

James Purefoy for Square Mile magazine

During his Equus reminiscences, our interview is briefly crashed by his young daughter walking into the room. As Purefoy rises to repel the infant invader, I spot a photograph of Muhammad Ali behind him – you know the one, standing over a stricken Sonny Liston, yelling at his foe to “get up and fight, sucker!” 

I used to have that poster on my wall at university, I tell him.

“What, Equus?” No, Ali.

“Ah!” He moves the camera so I can see the signature on the bottom of the photo.

Oh, man – you met Muhammad Ali?

“Yeah. Ages ago. Twenty-five years ago.”

Shit. Were you starstruck? “Yeah. Of course.”

There aren’t that many actors I’ve been excited to meet

The only time I’ve ever got starstruck, properly starstruck, was bumping into Argentine goalkeeper Julián Speroni at the 2014 Crystal Palace end of season awards. (Here, Purefoy bursts out laughing.) Jules was my favourite player. Overcome with emotion, I gazed into his beautiful dark brown eyes and stammered out my gratitude for his years of service.

“No need to thank me,” he replied. A generous sentiment, but one that rather curtailed my options. I gave him a big hug instead.

“Sportspeople are much more impressive,” agrees Purefoy, a Yeovil Town fan. “There aren’t that many actors I’ve been excited to meet.”

With sportspeople, however, “it’s like meeting a superhero, isn’t it?”

We swap sporting idols: Tiger Woods, him; Roger Federer, me – plus Julián, of course. Realising the interview has gone slightly off-track – as a journalist, you aim for the relaxed atmosphere of the pub but maybe not the conversational topics – I bring us round to A Knight’s Tale. Let’s pick it up there. 

“I have a strange story to tell you about Heath”

What’s your favourite film?

Yeah, OK, Citizen Kane, sure, Sátántangó, whatever, but what’s your actual favourite film?

Mine might well be A Knight’s Tale. I certainly couldn’t make a list of my favourite films and not include A Knight’s Tale. It’s the ultimate comfort watch: a dashing hero, a beautiful love interest, a wonderfully wicked villain, supporting characters who are actual characters, jousts, sword fights, romance, Geoffrey Chaucer, medieval dances set to Golden Years – and of course James Purefoy as an impossibly dashing Edward the Black Prince.

“When you’re making it, you’re not really aware of what you’re in,” reminisces Purefoy. “It didn’t do hugely well when it first came out. I think people didn’t really understand it. Are they really dancing to Golden Years? Is that band actually playing We Will Rock You?”

Subsequent years saw the film achieve “this extraordinary, cult-y kind of status. People just love it.” Including the Black Prince himself. “It’s certainly one of those films where, if I’m flicking through the channels, I’ll always give it five minutes. And then I will watch the whole thing.”

Is it weird when the younger him shows up? “Yeah, it’s a bit weird.” But not for his kids, who never recognise him on-screen. He was showing his daughter John Carter. “Big close-up of me. Lovely scene. She sits there watching it. Nothing!”

One hopes the casting director of A Knight’s Tale is enjoying life on their private island. The film is packed with talent. Paul Bettnay, Alan Tudyk, Mark Addy, Laura Fraser, Bérénice Bejo – yes, I only just discovered this! Oscar-nominee and César Award winner Bérénice Bejo, The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo, has a minor role as Jocelyn’s lady-in-waiting. (God, it better be a big island.)

And of course there’s Heath Ledger, square-jawed and stoic as the protagonist William Thatcher, the squire who dares to be a knight.

James Purefoy for Square Mile magazine

“I have a strange story to tell you about Heath,” says Purefoy. It goes like this: A Knight’s Tale was filmed at Barrandov Studios in Prague. Here, Purefoy first met Ledger to shoot the scene in which the Black Prince rescues William from the stocks. “He may appear to be of humble origins, but my personal historians have discovered that he is descendent from an ancient royal line…” Great scene, especially enjoyable for how Purefoy sells the line: “This is my word, and as such is beyond con-tes-tation.”

Several years later and Purefoy is back at Barrandov Studios, being crucified for the Jacobean fantasy Solomon Kane. “It’s chucking down with rain, and then we’re going to use rain machines on top of that. I’m up there on the cross. And a bloke comes up.” He smiles, murmurs, “Heath would appreciate this’’, and continues.

“A bloke comes up on a cherry picker to bang the nails between my fingers. He’s there in his high-vis jacket, and he goes, [Purefoy slips into a Czech accent]: ‘Have you heard the news today? Heath Ledger died.’

“I met Heath on the backlot of Barrandov, and then I heard that he died within ten paces of where I first met him. The coincidence is bizarre…” For a moment, I sense Purefoy has slipped back in time to be with the man on the cherry picker, with Heath. “But yeah, lovely man. A lovely, lovely man. And a terrible, terrible loss.”

The film turns 20 this year – any plans to commemorate the anniversary? Table reads are very popular at the moment. “They are, aren’t they? I’d be very happy to do that. I think the difficulty, obviously, is with Heath dying – the main event, if you like, is not there. It would take a brave person to step in.”

Roman Conquest

Five years after A Knight’s Tale, Purefoy played Mark Antony in the groundbreaking Rome – a performance viewed by many (including this writer) as not only Purefoy’s greatest work but one of the great TV performances full-stop.

A co-production between BBC and HBO, the screen was the only thing small about Rome: the blisteringly expensive show combined the writing of the first season of Game of Thrones with the budget of the eighth.

For an idea of where the money went, let us consult a helpful fact sheet provided by the BBC’s press office:

  • Rome boasted the largest standing set in the world, comprising five acres of backlot and six soundstages at Cinecittà Studios.
  • Rome’s Forum was approximately 60 percent of the size of the original Foro Romano. Twenty-five percent of the set was made up of invisible wiring, pipes and gas to fuel its working braziers and torches.
  • The costume department created more than 4,000 pieces of wardrobe, designed by Oscar-nominated costume designer April Ferry; 2,500 pieces were used in the first two episodes.
  • Two hundred and fifty chainmail tunics for soldiers, each weighing 36 pounds, were made, as well as 40 leather cuirasses for legionary officers.
  • Rome employed an international crew of 350, plus more than 50 Italian interns. Moreover 55 Italians were cast as “special ability” extras and sent to a two-week boot camp to train as Roman soldiers; 43 completed it.

The crew became a problem, says Purefoy, owing to an Italian law that required any trainee who worked more than two months be taken on full-time. Production on season one of Rome – from set construction to wrap – lasted 18 months. The set was filled with “hundreds of people not doing very much” and collecting a healthy salary for what they weren’t doing. As a result, there was even talk of relocating to Belfast, future home to, yes, Game of Thrones.

To the presumed devastation of the cast and crew, production remained in Italy. Purefoy recalls his commute: “You get picked up by your Italian driver first thing in the morning. You drive through the Forum, you drive past the actual Colosseum. You arrive at the new version at Cinecittà Studios and you’d do scenes in places that you’d just driven through, on the way to work.” Filming “was like being at a cocktail party, most of the time. The scenes were a rude interruption between anecdotes.”

James Purefoy for Square Mile magazine

In a show that traded in scale, there was nothing bigger than Purefoy’s Mark Antony. Man, he killed that role. A bombastic id in a breastplate, a force of nature you’d follow into battle yet never leave alone with your sister, Antony strode through scenes with joyous abandon, firing off one-liners, snarling threats. Achilles would have thought him a bit much. He was the masculine ideal simultaneously toxic and totemic; a player who loved the game but couldn’t master it; both hero and buffoon.

Great moments abound. Here’s one, a verbal exchange between Antony and the implacable Octavian, son of Antony’s lover Atia. Negotiations are breaking down. “I had hoped you’d learnt some humility and discipline,” says Octavian in a voice of ice. “I see now that you’re still the same crude, arrogant leach you always were.” Exit Octavian. “That’s right!” bellows Antony as his rival disappears down the corridor “Just the same! And still fucking your mother!”

“It’s an OK performance,” says Purefoy, “It was just beautifully written. It really was.” He mined the historian Plutarch for details of Antony’s life. Every day brought fresh discovery. Such as: “Mark Antony genuinely rode around Rome in a chariot pulled by six lions. How cool is that?”

Excited, Purefoy would take the latest tidbit to Bruno Heller, the show’s creator. “Any way we can get this in?” Sometimes Heller assented, sometimes not. “I’m not sure we’re allowed to have you being pulled around by lions. What happens if they try to eat you?”

Despite awards and critical acclaim, Rome was cancelled after two seasons of a planned five. (Take a wild guess why.) The series remains a TV landmark, one that supplied some truly epic moments and an Antony for the ages. Some day we’ll create a time machine, and a money tree, and finish the thing off.

Ageing well

Towards the end of our interview, Purefoy misconstrues a question. Here’s what I meant to ask: during Purefoy’s stint on Rome, his friend and fellow Englishman Dominic West was also etching his name into the TV annals across five seasons of The Wire. Like many of his fellow cast members, West may never quite escape the shadow of that iconic show; he will always, to some, be Jimmy McNulty – whereas Rome ended too soon for Purefoy to be forever Antony. Is he grateful for this, I wonder, or does he envy West for landing such a definitive role?

It’s clumsily phrased, but it’s a damn sight better than the question Purefoy initially hears – which is, do you envy the career of Dominic West? Yet rather than tell me to piss off, he gives an answer, a thoughtful, measured answer: yes, I envy Dominic, he’s landed plenty of parts that might have gone to me – but then I’ve landed parts that might have gone to other actors. Thus the game. “It’s swings and roundabouts, but I’m not somebody consumed by bitterness and anger.”

The mixup is quickly resolved, but I doubt many actors – many people – would have offered such an equanimous response if asked whether they coveted the success of their contemporary. Not even the merest hint of a bristle. His answer to the intended question, incidentally, is the earlier quote about wanting to keep people guessing. “Come out of the corner of the ring with something different…”

Mission accomplished. Over the past five years alone, Purefoy’s roles include a stockbroker, a futuristic billionaire, George VI, a Southern labourer, a singing fisherman, a profligate English plantation owner, and a vampire. (I’ll let you match the characters to the titles, big screen and small.) Expect the next half decade to serve up a similarly diverse bunch.

Our allotted time has overrun by ten minutes but I still have a few wine-related questions. Purefoy plays the part of “useful idiot” on The Wine Show along with fellow actors Matthew Goode, Matthew Rhys, and Dominic West. They drive around Europe and sample different vintages. Filming appears a boozy blast. 

Then Purefoy, very apologetically, says he must be off. His father recently died and he’s one of the executors of the will. “Never been an executor,” he tells me. I’m more than slightly mortified – why didn’t he mention this sooner? Please, go! Forget the wine questions – go and fulfil your filial duty.

Oh, go on, he says – give me the wine questions. Again, I tell him not to worry, but he insists and so I reel off the questions as quickly as I possibly can. Unlike Purefoy, who considers his answers and never betrays the inconvenience I must now be causing him.

Yes, he has a wine cupboard. Under the stairs, as it happens. Always full. “I like opening the cupboard and seeing the bottles – it makes me feel safe.”

He’s a man who enjoys the finer things in life, without losing sight of the important ones. A skilled actor, great company but, most impressively, a good person.

Fucker still owes me £20 though. 

A Discovery of Witches is out now on Sky One.