Adapted from Deborah Harkness‘ All Souls trilogy, the 10-episode second season of A Discovery of Witches follows Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode) and Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) as they hide out in Elizabethan London, which has its own set of dangers and threats. While there, Diana must find a powerful witch teacher to help her control her magic and Matthew struggles to overcome his own demons, in the hopes of getting back to the present day.
Collider recently spoke to actor James Purefoy for his upcoming appearance in Season 2. During this 1-on-1 phone interview, Purefoy — who plays Matthew’s father Philippe de Clermont — spoke about how he came to be a part of A Discovery of Witches, what he likes about working with Goode, their previous on-screen history together, whether he might return to Sex Education, his memories of being a part of the HBO series Rome, and much, much more.
COLLIDER: Before doing A Discovery of Witches, you also did The Wine Show and the remake of Roots with Matthew Goode. How did you end up being a part of this and what do you enjoy about working with him?
JAMES PUREFOY: I got involved with this because I was sitting in a hotel bar with Matthew. We were shooting The Wine Show in Portugal and we were in the bar one night. Suddenly his phone beeped and it was Jane Tranter, the esteemed producer of not only The Wine Show but Succession and a million other things. She was offering up three actors to play his father and wanted his opinion on each of them. He loved the idea of me playing his father and found it hilarious because we’re not really father and son age. And then, it went from there. I got a lovely letter from Tranter and Edoardo Ferretti, who is one of the producers on A Discovery of Witches, laying out exactly how important this character was to them and in the witches’ universe, and how important it was for me to play him. So, I said yes, which meant that I could spend more time with Matthew.
I enjoy spending time with Matthew. He’s a very charming, incredibly talented man, and we work well together. It was just good to carry that relationship on from Roots to The Wine Show, and then to this. The more you work with the same people, over and over, the easier it becomes and the more of a shorthand there is. It was a pleasing experience, all around.
What do you like about Goode as an actor and as a scene partner?
PUREFOY: Matthew is mercurial. You never quite know what you’re gonna get and that keeps you on your toes. That old tennis analogy always works well with somebody like him. You don’t wanna play tennis with somebody who’s worse than you. Playing tennis with somebody worse than you just makes your game worse. When a ball comes over the net, he hits it back, very, very hard, so it’s a competitive and interesting, finely-tuned game between us. I enjoy working with him for that reason. You never know what you’re gonna get, and that keeps you on your toes and makes you feel very alive, at the end of the take.
I noticed that you did Season 2 of The Wine Show, you’ve done Season 2 of A Discovery of Witches, and you joined Season 2 of Pennyworth. Is there some sort of superstition going on there?
PUREFOY: I wait to see how things do before I join them. There’s a lot of product out there and sometimes you don’t want to sew yourself into something until you know what you’re joining. What happened with The Wine Show was that he was showing me rushes on the set of Roots one day and I said, “That is clearly just the best job that you could ever get, traveling around, having wine, having lunch with winemakers, talking to winemakers, going to vineyards, and traveling around with somebody who you’re fond of, you like and you enjoy spending time with. If Matthew Rhys can’t do it ever again, then give me a call.” And Matthew Rhys got a job on a movie called The Post that was directed by Steven Spielberg, which I guess was an all right excuse to pull out of The Wine Show, and they needed somebody else. I don’t think it was really to do with Season 2 syndrome, but I just happened to be available for a few weeks and I could do it, so I did.
How did the period world of A Discovery of Witches compare to the period world of Pennyworth?
PUREFOY: They’re both quirky worlds. Pennyworth is a really cool show. I love the look of it. It reminds me of the kind of TV that I watched when I was a kid. It’s a little bit retro for me, and I enjoy that. And I just like that world of A Discovery of Witches. The character of Philippe is like a knuckle in the show, much like the kitchen is the knuckle of a house. It’s the point from which things come and go. With A Discovery of Witches, Philippe is that guy in the show where everything makes sense when you meet him. Everything makes sense about Matthew when you meet Philippe. He’s the first person on the show who will step toe to toe with Matthew. He’s not scared of him and he’s not alarmed by him. A lot of other people find Matthew rather intimidating, but Philippe does not find him intimidating in the slightest.
You got to do a bit of sword fighting in this and a bit of dancing. What was it like to get to do some of the things you got to do in this? How is it to shoot a sword fight?
PUREFOY: I’ve done a lot of sword fighting on film. I’m going to say assertive when it comes to dealing with fight directors on how to shoot fight scenes. I’ve just done an awful lot of them. I’m not a stranger to the sword. I know what looks good and what looks exciting, and I know how to shoot something like that, so I’m quite assertive on the set about how to do it. Also, when you’re shooting sword fights, you’ve really gotta look like you’re trying to kill someone. If you watch some of the [Three] Musketeer movies with Oliver Reed and you watch him do a sword fight, I knew the fight choreographer very, very well, so I’ve heard a lot of backstories about it, and Oliver Reed would try to kill people between action and cut. It looked like he was trying to kill people and that’s what you need to be doing when you’re doing a sword fight.
How did you find the experience of working with Teresa Palmer and exploring the dynamics between your characters?
PUREFOY: She’s a witch, and vampires and witches don’t get on, so he’s deeply suspicious of her and he feels that she needs to prove herself to him that she’s worthy of his son’s hand in marriage. He doesn’t know much of her when she first arrives. The vampires feel that they’re very much above the witches, so he has something of a slightly raised eyebrow when she arrives. He basically says, “Diana, show me. Tell me what you’re worth.”
He needs to be shown that and she needs to prove her worth to him, which she then does. But in the beginning, he’s terribly unimpressed with her. Things change, as things happen, and his mind is changed by her.
You were also in John Carter, a film that has gotten a bad rap following its 2012 release. How do you feel about the way that film turned out? Were you disappointed that none of the sequels ever moved forward, since the director did have big plans for what that franchise would be?
PUREFOY: Yes, of course. It was a really lovely film to work on and Andrew Stanton is one of the kindest, most talented men that I’ve ever worked with, in my life. When he met with me to play that part in John Carter, he said, “It’s only a tiny little part, but in the next film, you and John Carter are like Butch and Sundance. In the second and third films, that’s where your character will really come to fruition.”
Lots of people get cast in those parts and you do it because you want to do the other movies. Something strange and odd happened with that film because the idea that it was bad was just nonsense. It’s really not a bad film. It’s a really cool, good film. Whenever I show it to someone or people see it, they say, “That film was just awesome! What happened there?”
Something strange happened in the two months, maybe six weeks, before it came out. There was something off. I don’t know what it was. I think a book has been written about what happened, but I’ve never read it because it would depress me too much. I think it had to do with who was in charge at Disney, and it took so long to get into production that the executives at the top who had greenlit it were gone by the time it came out, and no one wants to take responsibility for a film that they’ve got on their deck if it costs a lot of money because they can blame it on the people who were previously in charge. Something strange and odd happened, and I don’t really understand what happened, but something weird happened in the two months before it came out that kiboshed it and crippled it before it even got to the screen. It was really strange. That’s what happened. I felt gutted. I wanted to do another retelling of Butch and Sundance. It’s my favorite film. Andrew Stanton had me at “Butch and Sundance.”
There’s such a weird thing that happens when something doesn’t do well at the box office, everybody says it’s a bad movie, and when something does well, everybody says it’s a great movie, when that isn’t necessarily the case, in either instance.
PUREFOY: One has nothing to do with the other. It’s about so many different things coming into a moment at exactly the same time. It’s like a planetary alignment. Everything has got to be absolutely straight and lined up. There was this weird thing that happened on the marketing of the film, so that planet was out of alignment. Before you know it, a $250 million movie is suddenly being talked about in the same terms as Cleopatra or Heaven’s Gate. It starts eating itself until you realize that the film is gonna die a terrible death.
Are you going to be returning for Season 3 of Sex Education, or has your time on that show come to an end?
PUREFOY: I’m not in Season 3. I couldn’t go back to do that because we had to pick up doing Pennyworth. When the lockdown finished here, we still have another six episodes of Pennyworth to shoot over the summer, when they were doing Sex Ed, so I wasn’t able to do Sex Ed. There’s a possibility that Remi may be making a comeback in Season 4. There is a rumor of that on the horizon.
I personally love your work in Hap and Leonard and that show will always hold a special place in my heart, but you were also really terrific in Rome, which was another great series. What are the memories you have from working on Rome, playing that character, and living in that world? Did it feel like that show was a little bit ahead of its time?
PUREFOY: Yeah, I think it was ahead of its time. We’re used to those kinds of shows now, but it was quite radical, at the time, in its cost and in its scope. For me, I love Italy. I love everything about Italy. I vacation in Italy all the time. So, working in Rome for two and a half years, on a gigantic show that was incredibly expensive – it cost over $100 million, which was a lot of money at the time – playing a character who was larger than life and that was somebody who gets away with pretty much anything, with fabulous actors around me, like Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Ciarán Hinds, Lindsay Duncan, Tobias Menzies and Polly Walker, great directors, incredible sets, and Italian food. I was living in Rome and playing Mark Antony. It doesn’t get much better than that, really. Those jobs come along very, very rarely, where everything works. And working with Bruno Heller, he was somebody you could go see. If you felt that a line wasn’t working or you wanted him to write you a zinger, he’d go away and do it. He’s a very collaborative man. I’m very grateful to have worked on that show. It was a special part of my life.
The last time we spoke, you said you’d love to be able to do more comedies. Have you had any luck, in that regard? Is that something you’re still seeking out?
PUREFOY: Well, you’ll have to wait and see. But I believe I’m allowed to say that we’re going into production, if COVID allows, on Fisherman’s Friends 2. We’ll be doing the sequel to that, and there will no doubt be laughs.
A Discovery of Witches is available to stream at Sundance Now and Shudder, with new episodes on premiering on Saturdays.
The film’s conclusion feels icky when placed in a larger context.
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