Iron Grip: James Purefoy Goes Medieval

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James Purefoy has built his career on intense, brooding, period warrior roles--American audiences probably know him best from his work as Mark Antony in HBO's Rome.

But talking to Purefoy on the phone, it's easy to imagine his steely gaze softening and his firmly set jaw loosening into a smile. In real life, the guy laughs. A lot.

The good-humored Englishman calls Art Attack from a London park, where he's taken his energetic mixed-breed terrier for a stroll. When we introduce him to the word "chiweenie" (yeah, we have one), he guffaws into the phone. "That must be tiny!" he exclaims.

In his latest film, Ironclad, which opens today, Purefoy takes on the role of Marshall, a Templar Knight engaged in rebellion against King John of England (Paul Giamatti), who continued to wage war against his barons after signing the Magna Carta in the 13th century. Civil war was pretty much the family business with John's Plantagenet line, and the film is accordingly gory.

"You're a woman, I'm already nervous to talk to you about it," he jokes. "It's a film about a bunch of guys just kicking the shit out of each other."

Well, yes and no. There are plenty of appendage-cutting scenes, but Purefoy, who tirelessly researched the Templar Knights in preparation for his role, found a strange dichotomy in that branch of the Church: They were highly trained killing machines who were allowed into heaven if they stuck to their vows (they were also monks).

"They were fundamentalists with a capital F," he says. "They took three vows: One of chastity, one of poverty and one of obedience to the church no matter what happened. They committed appalling acts of violence, and they got a get-out-of-jail-free card."

In one scene, even Marshall's horse is granted amnesty, when a siege to the castle he is guarding causes starvation. Templars' horses are only meant to die in battle, and Marshall's horse is the only one that goes uneaten.

"It's that 'thou shalt not kill, but you'll still be admitted to heaven,' that's what I think is so interesting," he says.

Ironclad begins today at AMC Studio 30, 2949 Dunvale.

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