James Purefoy strolls over to the breakfast buffet in a London hotel, pours himself an orange juice and saunters back to the table. “Nobody knows who I am here,” says the 58-year-old actor in a hushed, appreciative tone. To be fair, nobody knows who he is anywhere. Sure, there were times when he had phone cameras shoved in his face in New York during his three-season spell between 2013 and 2015 as a serial killer and cult leader opposite Kevin Bacon in The Following, which was watched by 11 million viewers in the US. And shoppers at the supermarket near his home in Somerset (“not the fashionable part”) once approached him to praise Fisherman’s Friends, the 2019 hit about real-life Cornish lobster fishers whose sea shanties won them a recording contract.
Mostly, though, he has spent the past 30 years in constant employment and near-anonymity. He has twice “pulled away” from offers to play James Bond. “I was worried about what would change. Could you still sit in a pub with your mates? Could you knock a ball around in Ravenscourt Park [in west London]? You really can’t.”
He has seen the perils of fame up close. “It affected some of my friends so badly, especially during the phone-hacking stuff.” Was he hacked, too? “Ah. Well. Hmm. We’re looking into it. But the effect on the level of trust in my friendship group was cancerous. When people become famous, it’s exhausting.”
Instead, he has zigzagged from costume dramas (Vanity Fair, Mansfield Park) and historical epics (Rome) to fantasy adventures (Resident Evil, Solomon Kane, John Carter), bawdy comedy (Sex Education) and superhero origin stories (in Pennyworth, about the early years of Batman’s butler, he plays a kind of blue-faced, steampunk Tin Man). “Part of the reason I do so many jobs is to hide behind them,” he says.
His latest film is a sequel to Fisherman’s Friends. “You saw it, right? You probably hated it, but anyway …” Woah there: why would he assume I hated Fisherman’s Friends: One and All? “No, no, I shouldn’t judge,” he says, apologetically, rubbing his salt-and-pepper beard, which is several days past stubble. “But you watch incredibly complex, interesting, textured stuff, so this must have seemed rather … simplistic. I’m sorry. I get into this self-defeating whirlpool of anxiety and neurosis.”
Perhaps that is to be expected. For such innocuous Britcoms, the Fisherman’s Friends movies come with more than their share of serious undertones. Both pictures take place before the EU referendum, but in their stories of Cornish voices trying to make themselves heard in the modern world, they contain the seeds of Brexit. “When the first one came out, the country was highly polarised,” he says. “Here was a very simple story about family, community, friends. It was a comfort blanket. And diversity is not just about people of colour. It can be about working-class lobster fishermen, too.” He gives a doleful smile. “Maybe the film is the only good thing that came out of Brexit.”
With the second film out this week, there is still a lingering question of racism surrounding the promotion of the first. “I’ve been instructed not to discuss the Noel Clarke situation,” he says, through gritted teeth. “Suffice to say that everything is complicated.” Did he feel that Clarke, as the one lead actor of colour in the original film, had a point when he objected in May 2020 to the poster, which named seven lead actors, but featured only six white faces ? Purefoy raises an eyebrow and makes a kind of “frrrp” noise with his lips, as though blowing a raspberry. “It was quite a long time after release,” he says.
Clarke also tweeted at the time that “not one of these other actors spoke up for me”, meaning Purefoy, Daniel Mays, Tuppence Middleton and the rest. “Maggie Steed wasn’t on the poster either,” Purefoy says. “Are we saying we’re being sexist and ageist because she’s not on there? And did Maggie shout about it?” He changes tack. “It’s up to the distribution people. They’re selling a movie, not trying to represent it.” Then he adopts another angle: “If our producers really were racist, they’d have [put Clarke on the poster] as a cynical exercise to get more people to see the film. Wouldn’t they?” He thinks he has said too much. “I can’t go into it … Hmm.”
The consequences of Cornwall’s 56.5% vote for leave, which led to the withdrawal of £100m a year of EU funding, hangs over these films. However upbeat the tone, we know we are watching characters ambling toward a precipice they can’t see. “A lot of fishermen did vote leave,” he says, sadly. “Some of them probably regret it now. So many people were conned into thinking their lives were going to get better. Those lives will be blighted for a good couple of generations now. I find that difficult to get my head around. As do they, I expect, under the darkness of the duvet.”
Speaking of improving lives, Purefoy – who was bullied at school – prides himself on standing up to bullies wherever he finds them. “It’s become a thing for me,” he says. There was the time he witnessed a director humiliating an extra and informed him he had behaved appallingly. “He screamed at me: ‘Where in my contract, James, does it say that I am not allowed to bully?’”
Then there was the stage production early in his career during which he overheard a well-known actor viciously berating a female co-star, telling her exactly what he was going to do to her if she dared to upstage him that night by getting a laugh: “I pulled him against the wall and told him: ‘If you do anything, I will be right behind you on stage and I will deck you. I will take you out in front of that audience.’ When the moment arrived that evening, I was meant to be downstage, but I stood right behind him.” He doesn’t reveal the bully’s identity, although it takes me less than a minute of searching online to find him.
This is all highly commendable, but it transpires that Purefoy is no angel. He was contacted not long ago by a former classmate from his boarding school, Sherborne in Dorset, who had heard him speaking about the abuse that went on at the institution. The correspondent remembered the young Purefoy not as a victim of bullying, but a perpetrator. “I had no recollection of this,” he says. “I felt mortified and appalled. I don’t know what form my bullying took, but it troubled me.”
How did he respond to his accuser? “I wrote him a letter of profound and heartfelt apology. I didn’t know what else to do. He wrote back and thanked me. Maybe he thought: ‘OK, I can have a little bit of closure.’ It must have been very hard for him. Every time I popped up on screen, perhaps it triggered him.” He looks fretful. “Being bullied and then discovering I’d been a bully, too, made me feel sick.”
Purefoy doesn’t need to police showbusiness colleagues so much now that sets have become safer places to work. “Safest in the world!” Then a pause. “Not quite as much fun. Not quite as interesting.” What is missing? “They were a bit messy, weren’t they? When you could flirt. Although, obviously, fun to some people is not fun to everyone. So, the best thing to do is just cut out all that stuff and shut the fuck up.”
The subject of men modifying their behaviour comes up in the new Fisherman’s Friends film when the fishers attend a sensitivity training course to learn how to address women respectfully. “A lot of men struggle with that,” says Purefoy. “And there are things women have said to me which they wouldn’t say now. Back when I was young and very beautiful, a casting director in LA said: ‘Oh my God, you’re so cute!’” He gives a pout. “You’d never say that now. Though I was delighted by it. I thought it might get me the part.”
He believes today’s cultural tumult is temporary; he is certain that calmer times are waiting around the corner. “The pendulum has been shoved so far the other way, but eventually we’ll find equilibrium. Some people are resistant to diversity in casting. Being a white man, you often get other white people secretly talking to you about things. They make assumptions that you are going to agree with them and you go: ‘Hmm, well …’ Especially down in Somerset. People try to feel you out: ‘Are you on my side?’” It doesn’t help when politicians exploit those anxieties. “The whole anti-woke thing,” he sighs. “Being woke is just being well mannered. Why would you want to upset anyone?” Spoken like a fisherman’s friend.