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A cult hit

YOU'D expect most actors preparing for a difficult role to load calming music on to their MP3 player, to soothe them in their downtime and take their mind off the person they're attempting to become.

Not James Purefoy. As he researched the role of Joe Carroll, the malevolent genius at the heart of creepy new US drama The Following, his ears were assailed not with music but with something very different – audio files of serial killers being interviewed about their crimes. "It is," he deadpans, "an interesting thing to have on your iPod."

It wasn't just the 48-year-old Briton's ears that were assailed either. "The research I did was into serial killers and cults," he says. "I locked myself in a room and spent a week looking at every documentary and every interview I could find." Of particular interest was the case of white-collar killer Ted Bundy, a charismatic necrophiliac who murdered at least 20 women in the 1970s and was executed in Florida in 1989. Purefoy also found time to read the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe .

Carroll, as you might have guessed by now, is a handsome, Poe-obsessed English professor-turned-serial killer who has been jailed for his crimes. His nemesis, former FBI agent Ryan Hardy, is played by Kevin Bacon and the show was created and written by Kevin Williamson, the man behind Dawson's Creek and the Scream films. Clearly it has a lot more in common with the second than the first.

Episode one begins with Carroll's escape from a high security prison and the growing realisation among the police tasked with catching him that it isn't just one serial killer they have to deal with now. It's an army of them: in the terrifying world Williamson has created, Carroll has developed a cult-like following among the 300 or so serial killers the FBI estimates to be active in America on any given day and – here's the zeitgeisty bit – is using a battery of websites and social media services to control and manipulate them.

With a blood-soaked opening and a high body count thereafter, The Following isn't for the faint-hearted. But for Purefoy, an RSC veteran best known for playing Marc Antony in HBO blockbuster Rome, bloodshed is a recognised aspect of the dramatic art.

"It's been going on for hundreds of years," he says. "I don't feel it's anything new. I've done so much classical theatre and there is so much unspeakable violence in that, if you think about Gloucester's eyes being ripped out in King Lear or Titus Andronicus killing Tamora's children and baking them into a pie."

Interestingly for a British actor in a US TV drama, Purefoy gets to use his own accent in The Following, proof that the Americans still fish on this side of the pond when they need a baddie with just that bit extra. To be fair to Williamson, says Purefoy, Carroll wasn't initially intended to be a Brit "but as soon as we started doing it British, it felt right. We tried it American first but we weren't sure it worked. It needed a cold, calculated precision".

The Following was developed for the Fox network in the US, where it makes its debut on January 21. It airs a day later in the UK, on Sky Atlantic, and with Purefoy and Bacon on board and a concept and script by one of US TV's golden boys, both networks are expecting a hit. Purefoy is two-thirds of the way through filming the 15-part series in New York when we speak but is quietly optimistic of a second season, given the marketing clout Fox is putting behind the show.

The actor was most recently seen on British screens alongside Patrick Stewart and Jeremy Irons in the Sam Mendes-produced series The Hollow Crown, a prestigious BBC Two production of Shakespeare's history plays, but while praising it for being "a big and bold thing", Purefoy's experience of US TV leaves him in no doubt as to where the ambition and the opportunities lie.

"I find it very frustrating," he says. "If you can sell 13 episodes of Mad Men over seven years to the world market, I don't understand why you can't do the same thing here. People say it's lack of funding. Well, it's not really.

"Right now the Americans are doing House Of Cards [a remake of the BBC's 1990 political drama, airing next month on Netflix]. Here we did it as a four-parter – there, it's a $100-million, 26-episode series directed by David Fincher."

This presumably explains why a great many of his acting friends and former RADA colleagues are now also plying their trade Stateside – people such as Jason Isaacs, godfather to Purefoy's son and currently starring in Awake; old friend Damian Lewis, lead in the Emmy award-winning Homeland; and Jonny Lee Miller, now playing Sherlock Holmes alongside Lucy Liu's Dr Watson in CBS drama, Elementary.

"They're all people who were coming through with me in the 1990s," says Purefoy. "They're people I've known for 20 years. It's bizarre. A lot of them are people who have sat around my kitchen table and had Sunday lunch."

Another actor who isn't an old friend but feels like one is Purefoy's co-star, Kevin Bacon. "Watching Kevin is always a masterclass," he laughs. "I look at him sometimes and think, 'How old are you? I'm nearly 50 but I feel you've been around all my life. I remember smoking weed and watching you in Animal House when I was 17'."

For which activity the soundtrack of choice would be Louie Louie, not the collected ravings of America's most notorious bogey men.

The Following starts on Sky Atlantic on January 22

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