The Following is a psychological thriller from creator and executive producer Kevin Williamson. The series follows a notorious serial killer called Joe Carroll (played by James Purefoy) and a former FBI agent called Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), who was responsible for Carroll’s capture in 2003 after the murderer claimed the lives of 14 female students on a Virginia college campus where he taught literature.
When Carroll escapes from death row and embarks on a new killing spree, it becomes clear he’s been covertly communicating with a network of killers in the outside world. However, Carroll has more planned than just a prison escape – and there’s no telling how many additional killers are out there.
As a walking textbook of all things Carroll, Hardy is called back to the FBI to work alongside a team of agents, which includes young, razor-sharp Mike Weston (Shawn Ashmore) and FBI specialist Debra Parker (Annie Parisse), who is brought in to lead the investigation of Carroll and his followers.
The intense, spellbinding drama follows Hardy and the FBI as they are challenged with the ever-growing web of murder around them, masterminded by the devious Carroll. The re-invigorated Hardy will get a second chance to capture Carroll, as he’s faced with not one, but a cult of serial killers.
We catch up with acclaimed actor James Purefoy to find out more…
How would you describe your serial killer character in The Following?
Joe Carroll is very charismatic. He’s incredibly smart and he’s incredibly manipulative. If there is one-millionth of a percent of a serial killer in you, he will find it, groom it and grow it – and he will turn you into the serial killer that you always knew you wanted to be. He’s very clever, very smart and brutally violent. He uses the internet to create websites in order to pull out other serial killers, as well as potential serial killers. It’s fascinating and it’s very dramatic. At the end of the first episode, I’m sure you’ll sit back and think, ‘Oh my God… What would happen if somebody was able to do that?’ That’s a really scary thought.
How much do you know about your character’s back-story throughout the first season of the show?
One of the difficulties about doing press for a show like this is that an awful lot of answers are not in my head; they are in the head of [show creator and executive producer] Kevin Williamson. We’ve discussed a lot of Joe Carroll’s back-story, but there are also things that Kevin wants to reveal as time goes on. Playing a part like this on a network show is often quite tricky because you want to talk to the creator and ask, “Help me here. What is it? Why is he like this?” But I’m sure everything will be revealed as the show progresses.
Did you draw inspiration from any iconic television and movie serial killers for this role? For example, Hannibal Lecter casts a large shadow on the landscape when it comes to highly educated serial killers…
I didn’t look elsewhere because I wanted to come to the role fresh and with a clean slate; otherwise you’re just regurgitating. I don’t want to regurgitate other bits of popular culture because the show will end up becoming a second-hand drama.
How did you approach the role?
I had to create the character exactly from what Kevin Williamson had written in the script. I have a pretty good understanding of where he’s coming from because I feel there are certain things that a lot of serial killers have in common. They usually have a sense of powerlessness as they’re growing up. They are often incredibly pathetic individuals who think of themselves as ‘super men’ but clearly they are not. They are weak and sad individuals.
Joe Carroll is a former literature lecturer who is obsessed with the author, Edgar Allan Poe. How much Poe did you read in order to research the role?
All of it. All of it! What was my favourite piece? To be honest, I like a lot his letters; they are really fascinating. Edgar Allan Poe was a very complicated man, but he’s a writer that I was not terribly familiar with until I sat down and read his work. I love a lot of his short stories and his poems are terrific – but I like the letters the most. The letters really give you a real insight into who he is as a person.
Did you also research into serial killers for this intense role?
I spent a lot of time researching serial killers because I wanted to look at why people behave in that way, although I’m not sure if we have any answers to why people step outside the norms of usual human behaviour in this way. Serial killers seem to have an empathy bypass in their head somewhere, which I find terrifying. I think that’s probably why we find violence so fascinating. I think there is a real fascination and interest in serial killers.
What surprised you the most about the serial killers in your research?
To tell you the truth, I felt a bit sick watching them.
Do you find any sympathy in them?
No, I don’t have any sympathy. People who hurt other people are bad, full stop. That’s not good.
Is the audience going to have any sympathy for your character in the show?
If they do then they need to ask themselves some serious questions!
Why do you think your character’s followers are so attracted to him?
Joe Carroll is a very charismatic man. He’s got an incredible energy to him. It’s interesting you ask this question because there have been many serial killers in the past, but I don’t want to mention any names because they read newspapers and they like the fact that they are talked about. The idea that an actor might be basing a character on them gives them enormous pleasure – but I don’t want to give them that satisfaction. I don’t want to give them any more power than they already have. We know that there have been serial killers who have used other people to kill. We know that there have been serial killers who have been heads of cults, who have managed to convince hundreds of people to commit suicide, for example. They are often enormously charismatic. It’s the way they look you right in the eye that often appeals to people who have very low self-esteem. Those people also want to feel powerful. It’s kind of a terrible symbiotic piece of power play that’s worked.
Are you concerned about spending 15 episodes a year in the head of a serial killer for your role in The Following?
Generalising, British actors have quite a good skill at turning on when they yell ‘action’ and turning off when they yell ‘cut’. That’s the way I remain sane. I guess I’m not a big method actor in that way – but actors use whatever they can to get a performance together. I’m not somebody who will be taking this character home with me at the end of the day. I’ve got kids! That’s not for me.
Why do you think shows and movies about serial killers such as Dexter, Silence Of The Lambs and Psycho are so popular?
It’s kind of the obverse to the 50 Shades Of Grey phenomenon going on right now. On the one hand, everybody is fascinated by spanking – and on the other hand, everybody is really fascinated by serial killers. Are these two events connected? [Laughs] That’s what we want to know. No, in all seriousness, I think serial killers are fascinating. However, my character isn’t your average serial killer. The thing that really terrifies me about him is the fact that he’s super objective. He’s been building a cult of serial killers, so layers of his ‘onion’ will be revealed more and more every week about how far he sees his reach going. He’s incredibly maligned, which is fascinating to play. I look forward to everyone seeing the show and discovering more about him.