'A Discovery of Witches': James Purefoy and Steven Cree on Season 2

British vampire romance A Discovery of Witches, based on Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy, travels Matthew (Matthew Goode) and Diana (Teresa Palmer) back in time to Elizabethan England for season 2, hiding out as they go on their latest mystical quest to control Diana’s magical powers and look for the Book of Life. But, in signature fashion, not all goes according to plan for the couple — as Diana struggles to manage her powers and Matthew has difficulty reinserting himself back to his past life centuries ago.

It’s in his trip back to Elizabethan London where Matthew comes face to face with his stepfather, Philippe (James Purefoy) and fan-favorite Gallowglass (Outlander‘s Steven Cree), his honorable and warrior nephew. As Purefoy, who is close friends with Goode, and Cree tell ET in a joint interview for the new season, joining a world as complex and beloved as A Discovery of Witches was both exciting and nerve-wracking. But getting the stamp of approval from Harkness was a big sigh of relief for the two actors.

“I’m not going to fit every single person’s mold, probably, of who Gallowglass is,” Cree acknowledged. Purefoy echoed his co-star’s sentiments: “I just hope that they’re giving you a chance… As a whole, they see what I’ve come up with and what you’ve come up with, Steven, that they will go, ‘Oh, I see. Yeah. I can get with it now because there is intelligence there. They understand what they’re doing with that character and they understand the dynamics of that character and what they’re playing.'”

With the new season on deck, Purefoy and Cree chat about joining A Discovery of Witches, how Purefoy’s real-life friendship with Goode (and The Wine Show) helped get him the part and why they hope they don’t “f**k” it up for fans of Harkness’ novels.

ET: James, you’re good friends with Matthew. How did you both come into the world of A Discovery of Witches?

James Purefoy: I hate to say it, but it was a little bit of a fix-up. Matthew and I were sitting in a bar in Portugal because we were shooting a show we do called The Wine Show. His phone beeped and I looked at the message over his shoulder because I’m a bit nosy, and it was from Jane Tranter, who produces the show. She was offering up three actors to play his father and did he have any strong feelings about any of these actors? We had a good laugh because I was one of the names. Of course, we reduced the other two actors to dust in our text back, said they were really way past their best, that their best work was very much behind them. But James Purefoy’s work, his best work, was clearly very much in the future. And so that’s what we did. We conspired so that I could play his dad. He loved the idea of me playing his dad. That appealed to his vanity, obviously. Then, Eduardo Ferreti, one of the producers, and Jane wrote to me and asked me if I would be interested in taking on this very important part, which is a central part within the Discovery of Witches universe, the part of Philippe. Of course was delighted to because I sure did like working with Matthew. It’s the third job I’ve done with him and I enjoy his company.

Steven Cree: I just did an audition for it. I got sent the scripts and some audition tapes. I did a self-tape at home with my wife. My wife is actually a casting director as well, which is quite useful because she’s very honest at telling me when she thinks I’m good and when she thinks I’m being sh**, which was quite useful for this. In the first couple attempts I got on tape, she told me she thought I was sh**. So, I changed it a little bit, and then I got called in to meet the director. A couple weeks after that, I got offered the part.

Were you both familiar with the novels beforehand or did you do a mad dash to familiarize yourselves with the characters you were playing?

Cree: I was aware of it for two reasons. One, when Discovery of Witches season 1 was being made, I actually got asked to go in and audition for Hamish. I was doing a movie at the time called Outlaw King, so I wasn’t available anyway. But I was aware of the TV series. I don’t actually know if I was aware of it being based on a novel or not, but when I got asked to audition for Gallowglass, I did some Googling and some research and quickly discovered it was a really popular book series. And Gallowglass was a very popular character from that book series, which made me more excited at the prospect of getting involved with it.

Purefoy: I wasn’t aware of it at all. I had absolutely no idea about it. I think Matthew had vaguely mentioned that he was going and shooting this show down in Cardiff, and it was about vampires. I’ve played a vampire, so it was at that point when he said, “We need a vampire, you know. How’d you like to play my dad?” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, Matthew. Don’t try and pull that one on me.” But he said, “No, no, no. He’s 2,000 years old, so it doesn’t really matter about the age difference.” As I feel about 2,000 years old, it did seem perfect casting. And also, the idea of playing a vampire. Sadly, I didn’t get to bite anybody in the entire show… and I kind of feel like Matthew gets to do all the biting, doesn’t he?

Cree: Yeah, yeah.

Purefoy: Which is irritating. Again, he’s the one with the biting and the girl, whereas I really didn’t get to do any of the biting. I got to do some fighting, but no biting.

Cree: I got to do some vampire fighting skills in season 2. So, I used my vampire strength a couple of times.

Purefoy: Nice. But you didn’t actually ever get to pull down the collar of a shirt and sink your teeth into the neck.

Cree: No. Disappointing as that was, I didn’t even get fake, sharp teeth in!

Purefoy: I kept saying to the makeup person, “When am I having my fitting for the teeth?” Nothing! But anyway, I lived the part in my heart.

How did you approach your characters? Are there differences in how Gallowglass, who we’re aware of as being a beloved character, and Philippe are portrayed in the show versus on the page?

Cree: Having been in Outlander on and off for a few seasons and being aware of a hugely popular book series being adapted to TV… I’m on social media, so I’m aware of the reaction. The character I played in Outlander wasn’t the same. There wasn’t really any expectation or anticipation around him, whereas Gallowglass is clearly a real fan-favorite from the books. On one hand, that made me really excited at the prospect of getting to play him. I watched season 1. I read the books. I loved the character and I hit the gym a lot. His muscularity is described a lot, so I lived in the gym. I’ve been living in the gym for about the last 18 months. I grew a huge beard, which my wife is desperate for me to shave off. And the thing is, I’m a big fan of the character and of the book, as well. So I’m as keen as any of the book fans for that character to be represented as well and as accurately as it can onscreen.

But the difference, I think, when you do a film or a TV show that’s not adapted from anything, there’s absolutely zero expectations, which, in a way, is easier. There’s obviously expectations around this. I’m not going to fit every single person’s mold, probably, of who Gallowglass is. And there’s always differences from TV to book, so you have to be able to separate the two entities and, at the end of the day, the book is the book and the TV show is the TV show. I think they did a brilliant job of adapting it for season 1, and I’m sure season 2 will be equally as good, if not… actually, it will be better because James and I are in it.

Purefoy: There you go. Well done. The general response to the thing is slightly unnerving, isn’t it? Because you know the fans of the book have such strong opinions because the picture in your head of a character is always going to be more realistic and more visceral and more interesting than anything I or you can come up with because people’s imaginations, their own imaginations, what they think that the physical attributes of that person should be and how they’re described in the book, it works so well in people’s own heads. But I can only be a disappointment. I just hope that they’re giving you a chance, and, “OK, I wasn’t sure about his first scene, but maybe in his second, maybe… ” As a whole, they see what I’ve come up with and what you’ve come up with, Steven, that that they will go, “Oh, I see. Yeah. I can get with it now because there is intelligence there. They understand what they’re doing with that character and they understand the dynamics of that character and what they’re playing.”

Certainly, for me, the important thing was, having watched the first season of Discovery of Witches, that nobody ever really gave Matthew a run for his money. He was just smarter, faster, stronger, better than anybody in the series. It felt like they needed to have somebody who comes in, who is a bit of a brick wall, who was not going to take his sh** and not going to take, necessarily, his crap. But there’d be somebody who’s going to stand up to him. And his stepfather is one of those people who’s going to stand up to him. I think Matthew and I enjoyed playing those early scenes because Philippe is quite dismissive of him and is tough with him and obviously needs to get one over. So the sense that he’s got to win something in order to move on from me is palpable in the books. They need to have some semblance of coming to terms with each other at the end of the story, that he can then gallop off into the sunset and continue his next adventure. So, yeah, I was very, very aware [of the pressure]. I know that [author] Deborah Harkness sent out a tweet that I was playing the part and my timeline on Twitter, it suddenly was fire. I woke up the following morning and I went, “Oh my god. What have I done? I should never have done this part. There are clearly too many people out there who think I shouldn’t be playing this.”

Cree: Yeah, that’s it. Even before I’d been cast in the part, I came across a lot of fan suggestions of who they wanted to play Gallowglass and they were all about five or six inches taller than me, built like the side of a mountain. But I think the thing is, there’s always a blessing and a curse towards having read the books. From an acting point of view, I like to read the books because it colors in the history and the worlds for me, and the gaps and the things that you don’t see in the script. But probably, similarly to the fans, there’s stuff in the book that you look forward to seeing or playing. And of course, not everything can make it in. There’s just not enough time to cover every single aspect in the book. I think actors get as disappointed as the fans sometimes when certain storylines or certain aspects of the character don’t make it in. Hopefully, as James said, we color the characters enough that everyone’s happy. And if they’re not, I’m sure we’ll hear about it.

James, if I can pivot the conversation to Sex Education. It recently started filming season 3. Can we look forward to Remi’s return when the series is back?

Purefoy: I was just saying to somebody else that one of the trends with our COVID situation is I was shooting another show called Pennyworth at the beginning of the year. We’d only done three episodes before we got shut down, so we had to go back and shoot the other seven over the summer once lockdown was lifted, which was when Sex Ed was shooting. I wasn’t really able to do Sex Ed this season, although I’m quietly confident that he may be making a return in season 4, should that happen.

That series has resonated with young audiences. What’s it like to play one of the adults alongside Gillian Anderson, as these high school kids do crazy, wild things?

Purefoy: Well, Gillian Anderson can do no wrong in anything, can she? And she couldn’t do any wrong in that, either. She’s something of a goddess, and we really just bow down to her.

Circling back to Discovery of Witches, what are you excited for fans to experience this season?

Cree: I think the Elizabethan period, that world of magic and intrigue and vampires and witches and demons, it’s a great backdrop for that story, particularly because back then, it’s more like the Salem witch trials. People really, really bought into the idea of all of that back then. You’ve got a whole host of new characters in season 2. I think the themes just get bigger and more complex. It sure looks incredible. The set design and the costumes and the locations are absolutely fantastic. I go to Prague in episode 7, which was a particular favorite episode of mine to shoot, that I’m looking forward to everyone seeing.

Purefoy: I’m just really looking forward to the flack I get. It’s either people like what I do or they loathe what I do. You just never know, do you? I’ll be waiting on the Twitter feed on the morning after, the night before, with a certain amount of bated breath. And I just hope I give them all they want. But really, all anyone cares about, other than the corona thing, knows that’s about it. I just want them to be happy because I know these books are really dear to their heart. I don’t want to be the one that f**ks it up.

Cree: I definitely concur with James. I’ve still got a fear of that, as well, but I take a lot of heart from the fact that Deborah Harkness, early on, said that she… it’s verification from her for playing the part. She created the characters, so surely that’s half the battle.

Purefoy: You are right. Exactly. Fingers crossed.

A Discovery of Witches premieres Saturday, Jan. 9 on SundanceNow, Shudder, AMC Premiere and AMC+.

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