‘Hap and Leonard’ Feels Like Home, Says James Purefoy
It might seem like British actor James Purefoy is a long way from his roots in Hap and Leonard. The drama series, which airs on SundanceTV in the US and is streamed by Amazon Prime in the UK, is set in rural Texas in the 1980s. Purefoy plays Hap Collins, a middle-aged working class man who dodged the Vietnam War draft and has had a series of dead-end jobs ever since. This scenario might not have obvious echoes of English countryside life but there are parallels that resonate with Purefoy.
“I recognised the guys immediately,” the actor explains. “I grew up in the West Country of England, in Somerset, in an industrial-agricultural environment where a lot of my mates worked in the chicken farms and slaughterhouses. I’d be going to the pub most nights of the week and conversations often were about get-rich-quick schemes to get people out of the rut that they’d found themselves in with these low-paid, very hard jobs. Those were the kind of jobs that Hap and Leonard did. So, bizarrely, my upbringing in what others would call bucolic Somerset and this world of these two men in the rose fields in East Texas really struck a chord with me.”
Hap and Leonard is based on a series of books by Joe R. Lansdale. Season 1, which aired in 2016, was adapted from the first of those novels, Savage Season. It introduced Hap and Leonard (played by Michael K. Williams) as two very different men who are, nonetheless, life-long friends.
“One is a white, heterosexual ex-con and the other is an ex-Marine who happens to be gay and is also a true-blue Reaganite with serious anger management issues,” Purefoy explains.
It’s an unconventional friendship for American television but it works, Purefoy says, because the series doesn’t make a big deal out of those differences. “I think it’s really real and an awful lot of people have those kinds of relationships with their male friends. I think men, especially, look at these two and, the gay aspect of it aside, see they’re just a couple of guys and you get their relationship. You get it because guys don’t talk about their relationships too much.”
The “get-rich-quick” scheme Hap and Leonard get caught up in during the first season involves $1 million in a car at the bottom of a river and various quirky adversaries. These include a group of leftist revolutionaries and a serial killer. If this is all you know about the show, it might be tempting to dismiss Hap and Leonard as just another comedy about two small-town hicks who get in over their heads. There is much more to it than that, though, Purefoy says.
“Joe Lansdale came from a very, very poor background and grew up in an area of civil rights and race relations that were serious and difficult. The social aspect of his upbringing is very much threaded throughout Hap and Leonard. You can’t watch Hap and Leonard without thinking about those times. So, it’s certainly not just a Dukes of Hazzard-style thing. It’s about two men but we’re also trying to redefine the masculine relationship on television.”
The influence of Lansdale’s background might be even more evident in Season 2, which takes Hap and Leonard in a new direction. The discovery of a child’s skeleton under the floor of the house owned by the latter’s late uncle leads to a mystery that implicates Leonard. This drives Hap to turn detective so he can clear his best friend’s name. As a result, both characters must tread in uncomfortable territory.
“It’s a very different world,” says Purefoy. “Last season it was all very rural, out in the sticks, in the swamps of East Texas and the world got smaller and smaller as the show went on. This opens up much more into the world of Hap and Leonard and into the world of the fictitious East Texas town of LaBorde. It’s set much more in the African-American community and it’s very much more Leonard’s world.”
Purefoy is now well-established on American TV after having had major roles in series such as The Following and Rome. Currently he is making the futuristic sci-fi series Altered Carbon for Netflix. After that, though, he hopes he will have the opportunity to return to the recent past with another season of Hap and Leonard. In the meantime, he is excited to see how viewers react to the second season of his little slice of rural life in 1980s Texas.
“I can’t wait for people to watch it,” he says. “I think sometimes when you make a show whether people watch it or not you don’t really care. But sometimes you make a show like this one and it’s so rich and textured and lush and surprising in so many ways, you can’t wait for people to enjoy it as much as you enjoyed making it.”
Season 2 of Hap and Leonard, subtitled Mucho Mojo, has its US premiere on SundanceTV on Wednesday March 15 at 10/9C, and streams on to Amazon Prime in the UK on the 17th March 2017. Season 1 is also now airing Tuesday nights on AMC UK at 9pm.