“Hap and Leonard” is one part buddy drama, one part caper comedy, and a rich dose of swampy film noir.
Mostly, it’s a spiky exploration of two comrades in the East Texas backwoods of the late 1980s who, each in his own way, have been battered by the 1960s’ broken promises, then get a last shot at the American Dream.
The six-episode season of this SundanceTV series, which premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m., fills the title roles with two actors who have left deep impressions on the audience in past signature performances.
James Purefoy, who starred as deranged serial killer Joe Carroll in “The Following,” takes a decidedly different turn as Hap, a give-peace-a-chance idealist who, in his youth, did jail-time for refusing to be drafted.
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Michael K. Williams, known as the fearsome shotgun-wielding Omar in “The Wire” and then hollow-eyed racketeer Chalky White in “Boardwalk Empire,” plays Leonard – a gay, black Vietnam vet with anger issues.
As the third corner of the series’ fraught triangle, Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”) plays Hap’s dishy ex-wife Trudy, who re-enters the pals’ lives with a get-rich scheme that’s too good to pass up (or be true).
The chemistry between Purefoy and Williams is obvious, and surely draws on their already having worked together in a short-lived NBC drama, “The Philanthropist,” seven years ago.
“We had a really good time on that show. We became very close,” says Purefoy, who in a recent joint interview with Williams reveals himself to be a lively Brit who sizes up his co-star, likewise a cut-up off-camera, as “crazy, extraordinary, like a peacock: something you go to have a look at!”
The two couldn’t be more different.
Purefoy is a middle-class Brit from the countryside; Williams grew up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood – and carries a distinctive scar on his face from a long-ago knife attack outside a local bar.
“Michael was so different from anything I’d grown up with,” Purefoy says with a laugh.
After “The Philanthropist,” the actors stayed in touch. Then when Williams was signed to “Hap and Leonard” and the producers’ first choice to play Hap dropped out, he thought of Purefoy, whose three-season run in “The Following” was coming to a close.
“That was an empowering feeling,” says Williams with a grin – “to recommend my friend for a job.”
Purefoy was game when he heard about the project, which is based on the nine-and-counting novels by Joe R. Lansdale.
“Week in, week out, I had played a psychopath,” he points out. “I thought that playing somebody who has some sunshine in his heart would be a really good thing for me.
“I related to Hap straightaway. He works with Leonard in the rose fields. A lot of the guys where I come from would sit in the pub, guys who worked in a slaughterhouse or at chicken farms, and they would talk about get-rich-quick schemes – things that might happen, but never did.”
Similarly, Williams felt simpatico with Leonard.
“I had some tough times,” he says. “For my own reasons, I was always feeling like the outsider. That was the first thing I identified in his personality.”
As with much about the series, Leonard reveals a host of unexpected twists. He is a macho, Ronald Reagan-loving country music fan who is defiant in his homosexuality (which, by the way, is a non-issue to his straight friend Hap).
Not that their relationship is a smooth one. It is built on volleys of trash talk and fisticuffs, along with demonstrations of mutual support.
That dynamic is reflected in how the actors get along.
“Sugarlips!” teases Purefoy as Williams flirts with the photographer snapping pictures of them. Then Williams pretends to resist her request that he remove his baseball cap: “My hair’s a mess.”
But there’s more to their relationship than laughs.
The series was shot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last year, and when Purefoy’s birthday arrived in June, Williams planned to give him something special.
“I like to make bouquets,” he says matter-of-factly.
“Does that surprise you?” Purefoy grins at the reporter.
“That’s my thing,” declares Williams. “It started with my mom on Mother’s Day, and I realized it brought me joy. I just go to the flower store and I go to work – putting THIS flower with THAT. I like what I create. So for his birthday I made James a gift of flowers.”
The arrangement was waiting for Purefoy in his trailer that morning and was gratefully received.
By noon, the actors had set each other off.
“We were going at it, arguing like crazy,” Williams says. “Our trailers are connected. I slammed my door and you slammed your door.”
Never fear: By dinner time, they were tight again. But in the wake of their squabble, Williams peered into the mirror in his trailer and marveled, “What the (heck) just happened?! Oh, my God! We were arguing like Hap and Leonard!”