Behind every science fiction dystopia in film or on television is a mysterious, imposing, usually wealthy character with a critical connection to whatever horrors are happening on screen. The Alien franchise has Peter Weyland and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The original Blade Runner had Dr. Eldon Tyrell overseeing the creation of the synthetic, humanoid replicants. Now, with Netflix’s upcoming science fiction series Altered Carbon, we have Laurens Bancroft, a 350-year-old man looking for whoever is responsible for his own murder.
Based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon takes place in a future where human consciousness has become digitized and stored in individual cortical stacks, and can be downloaded into a potentially infinite number of bodies, called sleeves. Bancroft sets the series in motion when he forces Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), a former rebel soldier, to find the person who killed Bancroft’s previous sleeve. Kovacs enters an unfamiliar world where human lives have been commodified, all under Bancroft’s watchful eye.
Below, English actor James Purefoy, who plays Bancroft, talks to Rogue about his character, his experience working on the new series, and what dystopian science fiction stories can do for all of us living in the bleak present.
Rogue: How did you get involved with Altered Carbon?
James Purefoy: I was finishing up on Hap and Leonard for Sundance TV when [Altered Carbon creator] Laeta Kalogridis offered me this great part in her astonishing script. The world in the first episode alone was so ambitious, so epic, so damn big. And the key players were so smart with such great track records that you’d have to have been an idiot not to do it if you could.
Rogue: What can you tell us about your character, Laurens Bancroft?
JP: Laurens is around 350 years old, give or take. He’s one of the wealthiest and post powerful people in the known universe. He has 21 children. He has witnessed firsthand the 6th Great Extinction. He has died twice. The second time, he was murdered. Without being reductive, the series is, in essence, a whodunit of this murder. And he’s complex. Really bloody complex.
“I figured that one of the many benefits (of being 350 years old) would be an ability to read people like books. Your skills of manipulation would be off the charts.”
Rogue: What’s it like playing this man who’s lived for so long but remains so powerful? What does that do to a person’s worldview?
JP: It was a fascinating experience for me to consider the implications of what it does to a person to live for 350 years. I figured that one of the many benefits would be an ability to read people like books. Your skills of manipulation would be off the charts. And one of the drawbacks would be that intensity of experiences would be dulled, leading you to require more intensive experiences to be able to feel anything that you hadn’t felt before.
Rogue: Did you and the other actors stick strictly to the way Richard Morgan originally wrote the story, or did you have relative freedom to interpret it in other ways?
JP: That’s really a question for the showrunners and writers. As actors, we are there to make flesh and bone the characters they wrote into the script. Very expensive, narratively complex shows like this with many moving parts always give actors less room for maneuver as the butterfly effect of an improvised line may well have unintended and ill-considered consequences to something or someone else way down the line. They were excellent writers spinning many plates. With this show, it was best to stick to what they wrote.
Rogue: You share a lot of key scenes with Joel Kinnaman on this show. What was it like sharing the set with him?
JP: I think Joel may have secretly been a sleeve himself as his workload on this show was just phenomenal. And to imagine a regular human being could achieve what he achieved is simply unfathomable. He was always on point with me, full of ideas, energy, humor, talent, and dignity. To be able to do that with everyone he did scenes with—in addition to the considerable requirements of the stunt work he was involved with, whilst simultaneously being totally on top of every nuance of an incredibly complex narrative—is no mean feat. And he looked pretty damn good, too. As I suggested, is he human?
Rogue: We know that Miguel Sapochnik, widely acclaimed for his work on Game of Thrones, directed the pilot for this. How is he as a director?
JP: I loved working with Miguel. The big library scene in episode one was originally three times longer than what we ended up with, and he encouraged us to play with it in many different ways. Like all the best directors I’ve worked with, he doesn’t allow the stress of his job to squeeze out sideways, which often manifests itself in lashing out at cast or crew in a way that can only be described as being a small man in the body of a big bully. Miguel was coolness and grace itself, under considerable pressure to get this show off to a good start. In my opinion, he succeeded admirably.
Rogue: What kind of vision does Laeta have for this series?
JP: Laeta is extraordinary. As I’ve already said, Altered Carbon is a big, ambitious show with a complex narrative and many moving parts. And she is the person at the apex of that pyramid, keeping all of those parts spinning beautifully, elegantly, and without appearing to be daunted or stressed by the task of getting it on screen. She is prodigiously talented and fiercely intelligent. She always made time to discuss a scene or a problem and I never felt as if I was being brushed off or my point of view was not being respected. I’d walk 10 miles barefoot over broken glass to work with her again.
Rogue: As early as now, a lot of people are comparing Altered Carbon to other cyberpunk media like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. How does this promise to be different?
JP: Well, the basic premise of the show is fundamentally different—the sleeves, the stacks. It’s also for television, a story told over 10 hours, so the paradigm of its narrative can be vastly more expansive than what you can achieve in a movie. The characters themselves have much longer story arcs and so, within those arcs, more complexity can be achieved. Simultaneously, there are always going to be similarities in our collective vision of the future, aren’t there? Flying cars, check. Holograms, check. Synthetic drugs…
Rogue: Speaking of Blade Runner, you played Rick Deckard in the BBC’s radio adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? What is interpreting Richard Morgan’s future like, compared to interpreting Philip K. Dick’s?
JP: Both writers have extrapolated from where we are today to where they think we might be in the not-too-distant future. The gap between rich and poor, in some countries, continues to grow at what seems to be exponential levels. And with that comes wildly different ways of living the life we have on Earth. Both writers envisaged the rich living rarified lives, untroubled and unconcerned by the realities of what was going on with the poor at ground level, and amply protected by their vast wealth. Dick’s vision, of course, ended when he died in 1982 so there is bound to be a difference in terms of the technology that we now know is available in comparison to pre-82. But in general terms, they are similar as they both take where we are now and imagine a world from this point on.
Rogue: How are these dystopian science fiction stories valuable in our present reality?
JP: As a warning! All very well if you’re on the well-off side of things. Not so if you’ve been sentenced by the rich to a life in the gutter. If we don’t do something about the gap between rich and poor, the majority of us will be condemned to these dystopian futures. The truly well-off in our world will need to be forced to live with less or there will be hell to pay for the rest of us. As the [Earl] of Gloucester says in King Lear, “So distribution should undo excess, and each man have enough.” Wise words indeed.
“So distribution should undo excess, and each man have enough.”
Altered Carbon premieres on Netflix on February 2.