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Fox’s upcoming thriller The Following revolves around charismatic Edgar Allen Poe-obsessed serial killer Joe Carroll (played by James Purefoy), and the cult of killers he creates. The only one who can stop his devotees is Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon), the FBI agent who captured Carroll a decade earlier.
The Following isn’t subtle. Throughout the blood-soaked pilot, screened at New York Comic Con, characters were gouged, cut, hanged, shot and more. It’s also surprising and has a number of smart twists that should have M. Night Shyamalan sitting up and taking notes.
Following the screening, the cast spoke with Spinoff Online and other media outlets about the midseason drama.
Bacon plays alcoholic ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy, who’s been called back in to action to help locate Carroll after his escape. The actor said The Following is just as much about Hardy’s person redemption as it is about the pursuit of Carroll.
“A lot of the story is about me coming back to life,” Bacon said. “I’m sort of dead. I’m sort of a zombie at the beginning of the show, and that excitement comes back to life. That’s a very real thing in law enforcement. I’ve talked to FBI agents who really felt the same way, that the highlight of their professional life is when they were tracking and getting close to putting someone in to jail.”
Bacon said he was drawn back to television after seeing his wife Kyra Sedgwick in TNT’s The Closer, and he chose The Following based on its dramatic themes. “What are the shows that I really like? They’re about life and death,” he said. “So I thought to myself, ‘If I’m gonna be in a show, it’s gotta be about life and death.’ That’s what I dig, that’s what keeps me alive. That’s what feeds me. It was kind of a no-brainer.”
He added, “An adjustment that I had to make coming from movies is that I looked at the pilot and thought, ‘Wow, is that all I did? Is that my whole character?’ but of course it’s not the whole character. I’m used to looking at the movie and going ‘well, that’s my performance, that’s the beginning, the middle and the end of it.’”
The core of The Following is the relationship between Hardy and his nemesis Joe Carroll. “The relationship between the two of us is incredibly important to the show, and there’s a lot of elements of Joe’s character that I aspire to, that I admire,” Bacon said. “The number one thing is that Joe Carroll is a people person and Ryan Hardy is not.”
He said the show tries to “break the mold of a procedural, that every time you watch this is gonna happen. That’s a big part of our show.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is that Carroll bases his killings around the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Bacon said he read quite a bit of Poe to research his role. “Poe is great because a lot of the stuff that’s quoted and used are his short stories,” he said. “I’m not a big reader, truth be told. Reading makes me a little crazy. I’m slightly dyslexic and it’s hard, but [Poe’s] short. I’ve got them all on my iPad, the collection. It’s great.”
So what scares Bacon? “Mice,” he said. “I love rats, but mice are just small and creepy.”
Purefoy said he also conducted a lot of research for his role as the charismatic killer Joe Carroll. “I did an awful lot of research in to a.) serial killers and b.) cult leaders,” he said. “Big one for me was that cult leaders don’t have to be charismatic. That actually, for cult leaders, it’s not about the leader. It’s about a lack in the followers of something. The leader is just particularly good at identifying that lack. What it is that person needs to feel whole.”
“I’ve watched interviews with David Koresh,” he continued. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t follow David Koresh on Twitter. Not charismatic at all and yet followed by a bunch of people who thought he was extraordinary. The Kool-Aid killer, Jim Jones, I’ve listened to that final speech of his before, 600-and-something people killed themselves with cyanide and, again, you would have been in that jungle going ‘No way am I gonna do that!’ And yet those people did that. What is it missing in them that he managed to fulfill?”
Purefoy said his performance is based on four specific serial killers, although he would only reveal one: Ted Bundy. “I took four different serial killers, one of whom is dead. Ted Bundy, who is obvious because he was cultured and he was a white-collar serial killer and wore the most immaculate suits, three-piece gray flannel, beautiful ties, great hair, great smile. … So Ted Bundy, and then there are three other serial killers who are alive now, one in England and two in the U.S. All of them, like most serial killers, are crazed, narcissistic egomaniacs, and they would like nothing more than to know that I was sitting here mentioning their names and that they’d be able to watch themselves on TV. So I won’t mention them.”
Purefoy also noted that most serial killers never take personal responsibility for their actions, and Carroll is no different. “He blames anybody but himself,” he said. “I have written quite a long backstory for this character that is, frankly, working itself into a novel now! There’s like 7,000 words so far. It goes way back and, although people have been saying ‘Is there anything good about this character?,’ well probably not. But what there is, as the series goes on and the layers get revealed, an understanding. You might not forgive what he does, but you might understand why he does what he does.”
Natalie Zea plays Claire Mathews, who’s not only the ex-wife of Purefoy’s Joe Carroll, but also the current flame of Bacon’s Ryan Hardy. “Her picker is a little funny,” she said. “We keep saying the alcoholic ex-FBI agent is a vast step up from the serial killer.”
Her character is the victim multiple times during the pilot episode, but Zea thinks Matthews will eventually stand up for herself, as she’s unlike most wives of serial killers. “What I found was there are zero wives of serial killers who fit the psychological profile, the intellectual profile, the emotional profile, even the socio-economic profile of this character,” Zea said. “She’s an anomaly. What I discovered was that other wives either rarely stick around or they do see what’s going on. They aren’t blind and they’re either so damaged that they’re in denial or they maybe in some way need to be a part of it.”
Hardy’s partner, Agent Mike Weston, is played by the X-Men alum Shawn Ashmore, who, like Bacon, is making a rare switch from feature films to the small screen. “I went out for pilot season this year,” he said. “I wanted to find a television show to be on and I read dozens and dozens of pilots, auditioned for dozens and dozens of pilots, but this one stuck out to me. This one was the one that I had my finger on that if I could be in a show this was the one I wanted to do.”
Ashmore’s character studied the original Carroll case and is put in an interesting position when the it’s re-opened. “This case was in the past, Joe Carroll was locked up and Ryan Hardy was retired,” he said. “[Weston] was reading this story and all of a sudden he’s in the next chapter.”
Just because he’s an expert doesn’t mean Weston is in for an easy time. “Weston is a junior field agent, so by all rights, I don’t think he should be one this case,” Ashmore said. “It’s a little over his head.”
As for what types of stories spook Ashmore, he said nothing scares him more than a good ghost story. “I can watch The Shining pretty much any time, any day,” he said. “I love The Exorcist. I’m not as scared by slasher flicks or even monster movies and stuff like that. I’m terrified by ghost stories. Even recently, Insidious scared the crap out of me, and I watched a movie called Innkeepers that I really like. Just a good ghost story, that’s the stuff that scares me. If I was in a room with a werewolf or a zombie or whatever and you gave me an ax, I could try to go toe to toe. I could at least have a shot. With a ghost or spirit, it’s like you can’t do anything about it.”
Ashmore even claimed to have had his own encounter with the supernatural. “I stayed in a hotel in Romania where I was filming for about six weeks, and I swear, and this might sound crazy, there was footsteps around my bed for six weeks. Little noises,” he recalled.
One character that isn’t in the pilot is Detective Parker, played by Annie Parisse. “I come in in the second episode,” she explained. “I come in to lead the investigation of Joe Carroll and his followers. I am a specialist in cults.”
“Part of Parker’s job is to keep her eye on Ryan Hardy,” she continued. “It’s a big question for her when she comes in whether she can rely on him, given his past and the state he’s in when the series opens.”
“One of the interesting things for her in this show is that she’s been an academic., somebody who does a lot of observation and rarely, rarely, gets to go in to the field and actually interact with cult members and define a cult,” Parisse said. “There’s a little element to her of a scientist discovering a new species.”
Like the rest of the cast, Parisse did a lot of research. “I was surprised to find how hotly debated the term cult actually is between experts, just exactly what makes up a cult,” she said. “The truth is, one man’s cult is another man’s religion. There are a lot of experts out there who would call it a cult and a lot who would say it isn’t.”
The Following is just the latest offering from writer Kevin Williamson and director Marcos Siega, the team behind The CW’s Vampire Diaries. While Williamson couldn’t be in New York, but Siega was on hand to discuss their working relationship.
“I’d like to think it’s a collaboration, but you start with a good script and it’s hard to mess that up, honestly,” he said.” “We did Vampire Diaries together, so you can see that it’s different than that. What I said to Kevin was we needed to shoot this in a way so the experience would be very real to people. It’s all very organic and hand-held camerawork. I’d like to think I put a big fingerprint on it, but story-wise it’s all him and visual-wise it’s all me.”
While The Following has more than its fair share of scares, Seiga said viewers can expect more than cheap thrills. “Manufacturing a scare is really not that hard. A subjective point of view and some scary music, and people are gonna think that something bad is gonna happen,” he said. “The hard part is getting audiences invested in the drama and characters and then surprising them.”
Siega said he’s prepared for the inevitable comparisons to Dexter, TV’s reigning serial-killer drama especially as Siega has also directed episodes of the Showtime series
“I’ve directed 10 episodes of Dexter, and that’s a serial-killer show, and the hard part for me was how do I avoid any comparisons to that show,” he said. “We started from a different place, story-wise, and stylistically we pushed away from what Dexter was, which I think is more of a graphic novel and this is more, I’m not gonna say documentary style but that sort of organic feature-film vibe to it.”
“Story-wise, it’s so far from Dexter, he continued. “I think once they see the pilot they’ll understand. We get more comparisons to Silence of the Lambs. But once you get to episodes two, three and four, you’ll see it’s its own thing. It’s the brilliance of Kevin Williamson.”
The Following premieres Jan. 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.