I love talking to people I call "unexpected" entrepreneurs. Musicians, athletes, actors... they don't start companies, but still: They're in the business of themselves. They are their product or service.

That makes them entrepreneurs -- and that means you have a lot more in common with someone like James Purefoy than you might think.

James is the star of Hap and Leonard: Mucho Mojo, the excellent series currently airing Wednesdays at 10 EST on Sundance. (Season 1 is available on Netflix, so hurry and catch up.)

Hap and Leonard is unlike anything else on TV -- and if that's not enough, Michael K. Williams co-stars. (Yep: Omar. And Chalky.)

In an industry where longevity is often measured in months, James has managed to craft a nearly 30-year career as an actor. And not incidentally: James disproves the adage that you shouldn't meet the people you admire, because they never measure up to your imagination.

I've long been a fan of James the actor, but I'm an even bigger fan of James the person. He's thoughtful, funny, smart... he's a good guy, in the best sense of the term.

So if you're a fan, I promise: You won't be disappointed.

Success is almost always based on a pretty significant "Why?" So for you, why acting?

To begin with, when you're young and dumb, it's to do with wanting to show off. It's cool. You think it will be a great way to pull the girls. (Laughs.)

Like Keith Richards saying he picked up a guitar because he thought it would help him get girls.

Exactly.

As you mature, and gain a semblance of wisdom and a sense of what life is all about... this is by no means true of everyone, but a lot of actors like to escape themselves. Inhabiting another person's persona is often a good way of escaping yourself.

Perhaps there's even a little bit of self-loathing there, because for an infinitesimal moment you get away from you and you're able to empathize with someone else. And if you do it right, you put that "someone else" in the spotlight.

Acting is a way to escape who you are for a short period of time. It doesn't happen all the time , but every now and then the sensation of being "other" is very profound. You get this moment where you are no longer yourself. You lose consciousness of the crew, or the audience... it's a thrilling moment. And even quite spiritual.

That sounds a little like an athlete in the zone.

I would think so. But here's the thing: It sneaks upon you. It only happens when you're not looking for it.

It's like surfing or skiing. If you think about it too much, you fall off, but when you're really in it... there's nothing better than doing it.

Of course when you realize you're in the moment, then the moment is over. (Laughs.)

I've never spoken with an actor who didn't go through lean times. How did you hang in there when jobs were few and far between?

I always took a pragmatic view. I wasn't accepted the first time I tried to get into drama school. I said, "I'll give this one more shot... and if that doesn't work, I won't bang my head against this painful brick wall."

Then when I did get in to drama school I said, "If I don't get a job within a year of leaving, I'll do something else."

There were two periods of unemployment that were both curious periods, because right before they happened I thought the world was my oyster. One was after I worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I finished up and thought every door would open up for me... and I spent ten months unemployed.

The same thing happened after Rome. For whatever reason, I just wasn't going up for things.

You just have to stick in there, keep getting out, keep meeting other actors, keep meeting people... the very worst thing you can do is stay home and hide away because that's a self-defeating spiral you might never pull out of. I always just made sure I got out, even when times were tough. I went out, bought a cheap ticket to a play... get out, talk to people, keep moving forward.

With the lean periods in mind, when did you feel like you "belonged" in the business?

I've never felt that I belong. Never. I still don't feel that way. don't feel it.

I think that's a good thing. When you don't take what you have for granted, you constantly try to re-prove yourself to yourself rather than to other people. You constantly work to re-prove your own validity: "Can I do this job, can I play this character...?"

Like with Hap & Leonard. I thought, "How can I possibly expect to play a blue-collar agricultural worker from East Texas?" That's why you have to do it. Fear of failure makes you step up to the mark and really want to try something.

"Belonging" isn't good for you. You start to expect everything to just come your way, and it never will.

Then where does the confidence come from to do what you do?

Oddly enough I've always been confident. That's different than "belonging."

I credit my confidence to the women in my life. My mother brought me up. I have a very strong mother, two strong elder sisters, a strong stepsister... the women in my life gave me the confidence to be who I am.

I was never a part of the club. I was not a jock. I found solace at the girl's school up the road. I felt more accepted there, and more myself. I was able to be more myself in front of women than in front of men.

When you're going through your teenage years, that confidence kicks you off for the rest of your life, whether in a good way or a negative way if you lack confidence through those years. So I am forever grateful to the women in my life.

Planning ahead in your profession is tough. How do you set goals?

Planning ahead in my profession is impossible. But how do I make decisions about the jobs I want to do?

I think you have to be curious. You have to have a sense of openness. You have to want to shed light on a person.

That's true for Hap. I grew up in Somerset, England. If you're driving through the countryside it's a very beautiful part of England, but if you live there you see its industrial-agricultural nature. It's a lot like east Texas, where the show is set. I used to live behind a slaughterhouse, and what I remember most about growing up in the country is the sound of cattle lowing in the night as they were waiting to be offed. A lot of my friends used to work on industrial chicken farms; these weren't free-range chickens wearing silk slippers. (Laughs.) A lot of what I grew up with is the flip side, the hidden world.

Hap was written in a way that there was so much more to him than just a country boy. I really wanted to play this man, because I felt like I knew him.

That's what you do. You find parts you really want to play and you try to make it happen. Sometimes you fail, sometimes you're successful.

I have to re-apply for my position 3 or 4 times year. There's no security in it at all. You're flying by the seat of your pants at all times. Even when I was doing The Following, I knew there was a certain amount of money coming in... but only for a year, because we never knew if the show would be renewed.

Even after doing this for, next year will be 30 years... you kind of know you're going to be all right, but then again, you never know. It would be a surprise if it all dried up and stopped tomorrow... but it happens.

Since you can't really plan ahead... how do you set goals? And how do you define success?

It all comes down to your criteria for success. Mine comes from age and having kids. When you're young, your neuroses and paranoia are all wrapped up in yourself. (Laughs.) When another life comes along that is utterly dependent on you, all that falls away from yourself and you place it on them -- which is perfectly right and healthy.

That means you're caring for someone else. Success, to me, is being able to take care of the people I love -- not just financially, but in every way.

That's the perfect lead-in to work-life balance, something that everyone struggles with. How do you balance yours?

That's hard for everyone, especially when you have a family.

One of the difficult things for me is that a lot of my work is in the U.S. and at the moment in moment in Canada, but my home is in the U.K. One of the things I have to decide is whether my work justifies being away from them for periods of time.

How I define success, and blending that with work-life balance, is absolutely crucial. If we go back to determining what success means, some people think the answer is obvious: Flashy cars, big homes, a public profile... but that's not how I define success. Those things are nice, but they aren't important.

What matters to me is making sure I love my wife until the the day I die, making sure I support her, making sure I cherish and nurture my children... and then getting the chance to play complex characters the audience can empathize with and understand.

Those are the things that make up my criteria for success, particularly the first two. When you define success that way it makes figuring out your work-life balance a lot easier.

I have to go back to your dry spell after Rome. You have to apply for your job 3 or 4 times a year, and I would have assumed that your performance as Marc Antony was like the perfect acting resume.

Tell my agent that. (Laughs.)

Antony was a very rich character, but here's the thing about characters. I'm looking out my window at the street below, and every single person walking by has a fascinating story. Whether it's Antony, or Joe Carroll, or Hap... they all have interesting stories.

Of course Marc Antony was somewhat inflated. After all, Shakespeare wrote about kings and queens because their actions have a reverberating effect across all of society.

But that's also true for Hap. He inhabits a small world, but the actions he takes are hugely important to the people in that world.

That's true. Like Antony, the things Hap does ripple out and affect the world he is part of. That's why I'm only too keen to play him. Hap's ripples may not have an effect like important people in history, but they have an effect on the people he's close to. He's a big fish in the little pond of his world, and everything he does has an effect.

We're all like that. We are all big fish in our ponds, and that's why everyone's story is interesting.

I asked people on LinkedIn to submit questions for you. Here's one, paraphrased: Actors are often asked what they bring from real life to the roles they play. Flip that around. How have your acting experiences influenced you in real life?

That's a great question.

One of the things you learn from being an actor is a highly-developed sense of empathy. You have to be other people all the time, you have to put yourself in that position... and that's the definition of empathy.

As an actor you watch how other people react and behave, and you develop a hyper-sense of empathy of what other people go through. You experience it all the time, onscreen or onstage... and I'm very grateful for that. Empathy really is the be-all and end-all of being a person.

And if I can expand on this, one of the reasons we do this job -- or at the very least, why I do this job -- is that it makes us all feel less alone. That's why we go to the theater. That's why we watch movies. Some of it is to do with spectacle, but also because it can make you think, "Oh, I was feeling this. I thought I was the only one. But now I'm watching another person who feels that way..."

Whether you're an actor or in an audience, great stories help you realize you're not alone in the ways you feel. That connects us and makes us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves.

I think that's how everyone wants to feel.

Published on: Apr 12, 2017
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