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29 October 2014
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James Purefoy plays Mark Antony

Rome - this autumn on BBC TWO - press pack phase two


James Purefoy plays Mark Antony

There was an unexpected bonus for James Purefoy in playing the role of Caesar's general, Mark Antony.


"I had a number of free meals when I was in Rome on the back of it," he grins.


"I wouldn't go in and say 'I'm playing Mark Antony', but if somebody else said 'he's playing Mark Antony' it was like, 'oh, Marco, eh!'


"And they love that, they really like him as a man – even to present day Romans he is considered a great folk hero because to them he's the Italian male personified.


"He's a lover and a fighter, he's a great soldier, and they love that about him. Even in present-day Rome, if somebody's called Marco Antonio it's because they're a beautiful man."


James himself - though he describes himself as a bit of a history buff and was well aware of Mark Antony's story - admits he had no real understanding of the man prior to Rome.


"I had very little idea about who Mark Antony was. I had this notion, a kind of washed idea of somebody who is one of history's great romantics, who is loyal and steadfast.


"These things that have been handed down to us, mainly through Shakespeare: through Julius Caesar and then again through Antony And Cleopatra."


He soon discovered that wasn't quite accurate.


"No, he's not really a romantic," he reveals. "Accounts of the time, documentary evidence, show him as somebody who was brutal, a big drinker, a womaniser.


"He fights well, he lives hard. He's a hunk, he lives his life at 200 miles an hour and I think he's one of those people who are very exciting to be around and to watch.


"He used to ride around Rome in a chariot, dressed as Dionysus, and the chariot was pulled by six lions. He was also fantastically brave and his military judgement was excellent.


"At the battle of Tharfalus he was given the left-hand flank actually to put him out of harm's way a little bit, but when Pompey tried to come round behind Caesar, it was Mark Antony's cavalry which saved the day."


As with most great solders, he could be ruthless when necessary.


"He famously took a legion to a town north of Rome that had mutinied when Caesar was out of the country in Egypt and he gave out an order that every living thing in the town be killed," says James.


"That meant men, women, children, dogs, cats, livestock; the birds in the trees were captured by nets, insects were stepped on. Nothing was left alive."


It seems horrific to us now, but as James says, those were different times.


"It's very hard to talk about him, or any of these people, in Judeo-Christian moral terms. At the time, as Jonathan Stamp [Rome’s historical consultant] kept saying, 'To be cruel was seen as a virtue and to be kind was seen to be weak'.


"Yes, he was headstrong, a bad boy. In a time when people were very earnest about the ideals and theories of the Republic and were deeply serious about all that, Mark Antony was the blithest figure around. He really didn't care."


Unfortunately for him, what he did care about would end up as his undoing.


"The thing about Mark Antony, his big tragic flaw, was his obsession with women," James explains.


"That's what brought him down and his end of the Roman Empire down at the same time. He put a woman, most famously Cleopatra, in front of everything."


Even before his Egyptian adventures, Mark Antony couldn't pass up an opportunity for sex. He stops the troops on the way back to Rome so he can enjoy a quick coupling with a poor shepherdess they run into en route.


"I discussed it with the shepherdess. I said do you think this is rape or would she mind? She said that she was aware that Mark Antony was seen as a demi-god so she felt it was probably quite a compliment to her!" laughs James.


He keeps most of his clothes on for that scene although he does have one completely full-frontal nude appearance in the series – surprisingly, though, not a sex scene.


"It's a massage and an exfoliation," he explains, saying he felt quite comfortable in doing it and that it serves a real purpose.


"I think that particular scene is a very good point to character: Mark Anthony is set up as a man who is blithe about it.


"He may be standing in a courtyard but he doesn't care in the slightest," he says.


"He can then have a long conversation which is nothing to do with his nudity, his nakedness – it's a conversation about Vorenus and Caesar and trying to get him to come back."


There's always a danger when a series features sex and nudity that all the attention will be focused on that, much to James' annoyance.


"eople have been making a fuss about full-frontal nudity and sex on television since Bouquet Of Barbed Wire and that's 30 or 40 years ago.


"We are surrounded on a daily basis by sex and yet television still gets singled out when there's a little bit of sauciness on. Suddenly it's all over the tabloids again and I really do think it's time we all got over it," he says sharply.


"I'm not embarrassed about my body. I don't really see why anybody should be."


He was more concerned about his image with his troops and spent a week with them to prepare before filming.


"I felt it was important that they knew who was boss on the set. Mark Antony's role was as a buffer between the troops and Caesar – if Caesar gave an order it was Mark Antony who then delivered it to the troops.


"I wanted them to know who he was so I spent a lot of time with them on the parade ground."


He even rallied them with a rousing speech.


"I was quite impressed with my speech, I must say!" he smiles.


"I gave quite a long speech as Mark Antony to Roman troops in terms of their responsibility to their descendants in 2,000 years' time who would reap the rewards of their work now.


"And that's clearly obviously what happened. All those people who built those forums and the Coliseum – the millions of tourists would be rapidly depleted if all that lot wasn't there for them to go and see."


James himself didn't get to spend too much time sightseeing as he returned to London when he had an opportunity.


"I was coming backwards and forwards as my son is in London and I had to come back to see him; I wanted to spend time with my kid."


He claims that back home, away from the lights and cameras, he leads a very ordinary life.


"I'm incredibly dull when I'm in London," he insists.


"I have a weird schizophrenic existence because most of the parts I play are often larger than life, quite big swashbuckling sorts of characters.


"But when I come home it's just about being Mr Regular Dad, because I have a son who I pour my time into when I'm at home.


"It's about dropping him off at school, picking him up, doing his washing."


Though his son, Joe, lives with his ex-wife, James still manages to spend a lot of time with him and has kept on good terms with Joe's mum.


"We only live 500 yards away from each other. We're very close, I speak to her every day."


She was quite happy for Joe to spend time out in Rome with James – to the delight of both of them.


"Joe's eight and he had a Roman legion to play with! His daddy was a general of the legion so when we did a scene with loads of horses, for example, we'd all be out on manoeuvres doing that and he'd be up with me, sitting on the horse, with a mock sword."


You almost get the feeling that Joe has been choosing James' roles for him, as he's just finished work on another boy's dream.


"I've just done Blackbeard for the BBC as well, in Malta. Again, that's great stuff for kids – it's pirates, it's pistols, it's cutlasses, it's galleons and sloops and swords. All that kind of stuff."


Not that James doesn't enjoy it every bit as much as Joe…


"I like doing big roles, I think great fun is key really. I'm not really into being depressed,” he says.


"I like doing things that are expensive and funny and larger than life.


"Folk heroes – I guess I've played quite a lot of them now. The Black Prince, St George in George And The Dragon, Mark Antony, Blackbeard… a number of people who are drawn from history."


Though his credits since beginning his career with the RSC straight from drama school have included a broad range of roles in films including Mansfield Park, A Knight's Tale, Resident Evil and Vanity Fair - plus A Dance To The Music Of Time and The Mayor Of Casterbridge on television - he cites those folk heroes as his favourites.


"There are very good reasons why they're still well-known now. It's because they were larger-than-life characters and I find myself drawn to people like that myself.


"I like reading about those people and watching them and watching movies about them, so playing them is a really big added bonus," he says, admitting the attraction is more acute because there's an excessive element to his own personality.


"I think there's a little bit of me in everything I play," he agrees. "I like to think that I'm not nearly as brutal or as much of a womaniser or as drunk as Mark Antony, but I have been drunk, I have been a womaniser and probably been brutal in my time.


"I think it's only a little bit, but I recognise what it is and what it's about."


So he's quite happy to continue in the role for quite some time yet.


"I've signed up potentially for five seasons," he reveals.


"That depends if the audience likes Rome and goes with it, of course, but I think they will to tell you the truth.


"It's a fabulously well-researched, well-funded piece. It's got something in there for everybody – it's historical, it's a bit soapy, there's a lot of violence, with really good characters that are complex, well-drawn, with interesting dilemmas and contradictions within themselves.


"Those are all the things that make great TV drama. It is event television and that's one of the things that makes it really exciting to do."


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