In its two seasons on TV, The Following has amassed well, quite a following. A cat and mouse game between good and evil, The Following has raised the standard for thrillers on TV. It does this by not only being well-written, but having some amazing on-screen talent as well. With this season all set to wrap up on Monday, we thought it would be a good time to fill you in on the recent Q&A some of us in the media had with The Following actors James Purefoy and Shawn Ashmore. We will also have an exclusive interview with James Purefoy on Monday, with some juicy tidbits about the finale (airing April 28th at 9 p.m) and next season as well.
What’s the research it takes to play a serial killer like Joe Carroll?
James Purefoy: The same as it is for every part you play. It is about what is the thing that motivates this man? Why does he become what he is? What that means is I sat in a hotel in L.A for two weeks and watched every single documentary about serial killers I could get my hands on. No fictional stuff, only nonfiction. Listening to real interviews. Watching real interviews. With Joe Carroll, he is such a complicated man. He is not just a serial killer. He is a cult leader, an expert on romantic poetry, and in the first season, an expert on Poe. So as an actor you need to know about all those things. You read everything Poe has ever written. Study up on cult leaders. This season, for example, we looked at Jim Jones. The cult leader and Kool-Aid killer who killed 900 people in the jungle.
Does your character ever affect you as a person?
James Purefoy: Sometimes. I think if you are living with a character like this, and he is so bleak and dark, you wouldn’t know that he is sometimes incredibly manipulative. You think he is looking after you, but he is actually thinking about how he is going to get you to do what he wants.
Is it easy to get in and out of that kind of character?
James Purefoy: No, it is not easy. He is such a bleak, dark character. He is the angel of Death. He really genuinely believes that death if a gift, and the most precious gift you can give to somebody. It bleeds into your subconscious and sometimes you have strange dreams.
Some actors say they would never play a bad guy. Is that how you see Joe Carroll? Do you see him in those terms of good or bad guy?
James Purefoy: I think one of the first things you learn as an actor is to never judge a character. I don’t play him as a “bad guy”. I don’t think he thinks he is a bad guy.
What would you do if The Following caused an actual cult following of your work?
James Purefoy: You know, it’s not going to happen, is it? Fortunately, people are very sensible, by and large. I really only get positive reactions when I walk around New York. People enjoy the show, but they know it is a piece of fiction. They are aware.
But if there was? Let’s just say there was. What would you do?
James Purefoy: Get police protection? I don’t know. Let’s wait and see. (Editor’s note: An oddly optimistic outlook on a potential cult, I would say.)
Do you ever think your character is like Dexter?
James Purefoy: I think he is bleaker than Dexter. Because there is a metaphysical argument that he is talking about. It’s really not just about the thrill of the kill. It is a philosophy of death. That is what makes him so nihilistic. It is so dark, it is about a love of death.
Speaking of death, if you could choose way for your character to be killed on The Following, what would you choose?
James Purefoy: I wouldn’t want to be killed. I want the show to go on. He is a really great character to play.
Can you tell us a little bit of where the new part of the cult fits in.
James Purefoy: Joe enables his way into another cult, slowly but surely. Like a maggot, he eats his way into the cult and takes it over. I am not giving away too much more. Our show lives and dies on surprises.
What has been your favorite moment of the series?
James Purefoy: I really liked the stuff when he goes to Arkansas, goes to live in the backwoods. He grows a big beard, like the Duck Dynasty look. It was fun doing that.
What have you given to Joe Carroll as a character, and what has he given to you?
James Purefoy: When you play something like this you realize, I’ve got darker reserves than I ever imagined.
What was your relationship to Edgar Allen Poe’s work before The Following?
James Purefoy: I was very aware of him but hadn’t looked into him. He was a very good character for me to look into last season. An alcoholic, a mad man. He had some severe problems of his own.
Do you think there are any big dynamic changes between the two seasons?
James Purefoy: Yeah, I think the dynamic is very different. Last season had a very strong narrative thrust that focused on Ryan Hardy and Joe Carroll. This season feels a little bit more spread out. We got some extraordinary characters who are really scary and spooky. And Joe’s narrative drive has a much wilder feel to it. Also, the lines between good and bad blur more and more as the season goes on.
Well, we are really looking forward to seeing how this whole season wraps up.
(At this point, questions shifted to Shawn Ashmore, who plays Mike Weston on the show)
What is the biggest challenge of playing Mike Weston on The Following?
Shawn Ashmore: I think the big challenge this year is certainly the emotional stakes that I have to maintain throughout the season. I have some really juicy and amazing arcs to maintain this season. When we started the second season, Mike was in a pretty dark place and that escalates and continues throughout the season.
How do you feel being around so much death and murder? Is it hard to switch that off when you come home?
Shawn Ashmore: That’s a really good question. We actually have a lot of fun making the show. At the end of the day, we are making entertainment, even if that entertainment is supposed to be scary. I love scary movies and I know what the audience goes through when they are at the edge of their seat. When we shoot a scary scene, a picture how an audience would react. That’s the way I approach the show. But it does make you think. For me, it makes me think about the actual jobs these people do. F.B.I agents and first responders. That is a job I don’t think I could do.
What is the reaction of family and friends to the show? It is a dark show that not everyone can stomach.
Shawn Ashmore: Not everyone can watch it. The people I know who watch it, love it. But I know some people just can’t do it. My mom, for example. If I was not on the show, she would probably not watch it because she scares very easily. But once she started watching it, she got pulled in. That is what it does. People want to see how these character persevere and how they make it through. When we started the show, we were told there were 300 active serial killers in the U.S. It’s terrifying, it’s scary, and it’s real. It’s an interesting sort of world to live in and investigate.
What’s it like to play a moment when you know your character crosses a line and can’t go back?
Shawn Ashmore: For Mike Weston, my character who has had several people try to kill him and has had two partners die, that lines starts to vanish. That’s a very interesting boundary to play with him. I think Mike knows where the true North is, morally, but he is constantly tested. And sometimes, revenge takes over.
Now on the show, it seemed Ryan Hardy is a vigilante of his own. How does this affect your character?
Shawn Ashmore: Makes it harder for Mike. A vigilante willing to do the right thing. Yet, is it the right thing, or is it the wrong thing?
Shawn Ashmore: I rationalize it as the people he is torturing are torturing and killing other people. It is a fine line, but a line that needs to be crossed by Mike this season.
Do you think that Mike is a “Follower” of Ryan?
Shawn Ashmore: Yeah, sure. But the reasons he is following him are different. The people that follow Joe have a propensity towards violence and also need to be loved. Joe manipulates each follower into feeling that so they do his bidding. It is what serial killers do. They way Mike follows Ryan is quite different. I think Mike looks up to Ryan. He is the rock star in the F.B.I world. The guy who put Joe Carroll away. In season one, he gets to work with his hero, so he looks up to him in that way. As season two evolves, I think he sees they are more like equals. I realized halfway through the first season that Mike’s story arc is actually Ryan’s. There is no need for flashbacks, because Mike is what Ryan was. How Mike started off very innocent, and as the seasons go on and he goes through more loss, he becomes more like Ryan. Essentially, these guys in a weird way, are becoming the same person.
Do you think your character of Mike would somehow take over if Ryan unexpectedly died?
Shawn Ashmore: I don’t want to give anything away, but after something happens in the second season, Mike will NOT stop until these people pay. There is no stopping Mike Weston at this point.
What’s it like to work with Kevin Bacon?
Shawn Ashmore: Working with Kevin is amazing. This is an actor I have been watching since I was a kid, and he is amazingly talented. We had good chemistry right off the top, and we continue to play with that.
What has been the highlight of the second season for you?
Shawn Ashmore: The highlight for the second season for me has been the entire arc of my character. From where he is when the season begins, to where he will be when the season ends is just so dramatically different. Mike was put through the meat grinder, emotionally and physically, from the first season into the second season. So it is fun for me to get to explore that. To go down the rabbit hole. There are clear F.B.I guidelines in the first season that clearly deteriorate in the second season. Mike sees how far Ryan is willing to go, and begins to think that might be the best way to do things. It’s an interesting journey.
Can you tell us a little bit about your disillusionment with Hardy this season. Your reaction to some of the darker stuff he has done.
Shawn Ashmore: A lot of people think Mike is really upset or angry with Hardy, but I don’t think that’s what it is. He knows in the back of his head something is wrong, yet he is suspicious that there is something more going on. Mike just wants to know what is going on. You see Mike and Ryan’s relationship begin to immediately repair once Ryan begins to let him in again. Ryan is the only one who knows what Mike is going through. Mike doesn’t let go of that. He’s lost everybody and needs Ryan.
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. We are genuinely looking forward to seeing how this dance between Mike, Ryan, and Joe concludes this season on The Following. You can feel it building up to something big, and we would be lying to say we weren’t equal parts scared and excited to find out what it is.
Tune in to Fox on Monday at 9 p.m to catch the season finale of The Following.