'Hap and Leonard': Inside TV's New Pulp Fiction Buddy-Comedy

How a British actor, a 'Wire' veteran and an indie director brought a Lone Star crime-lit classic to the small screen

James Purefoy, left, and Michael K. Williams in 'Hap and Leonard.' Credit: James Minchin/SundanceTV

Joe Lansdale will bust that ass," says Michael K Williams, his face turning serious. "Don't get him twisted." Sitting across the glass conference table, British actor James Purefoy nods. "Have you seen his fights on YouTube?" he asks. "On set, we'd just ask him how to do the right moves." It's mid-morning in SundanceTV's sleek wood-and-glass offices in Manhattan, and Williams and Purefoy — stars of the new southern noir series Hap and Leonard, based on Lansdale's novels and premiering tonight on the cable channel — are describing the three months they spent shooting down south with the 64-year-old East Texas author. "Poison oak, poison ivy ..." Williams trails off. "Copperhead snakes, spiders, gators," Purefoy finishes. "One guy got bit by a brown recluse and ended up with a hole the size of a golf ball in his shoulder." Williams shakes his head: "Joe will fuck you up."

Lansdale's novels are raw, outlandish, and always centered in rural East Texas — and Hap and Leonard does it best to bring his world to the small screen. The show is based on 1989's Savage Season, the cult writer's first novel about a happenstance crime-fighting duo: straight white ex-hippie Hap Collins (Purefoy) and gay black conservative/Vietnam vet Leonard Pine (Williams). They meet while working blue-collar jobs — rose fields, bouncing bars, etc. — in the meth-lab poor wilds of 1980s East Texas, bonding over that most common of rural denominators, hard-luck poverty. So when Hap's ex Trudy (Christina Hendricks) saunters back into the skeet-shooting picture with a quick-rich scheme involving $1 million buried at the bottom of a river, the pair decide to try their hand at private investigating — and soon find themselves in a mess of cops, gators, neon-clad killers and a band of backwoods revolutionaries.

Rarely, if ever, has a show been set in East Texas. (And technically, neither is this one – they shot it in nearby Baton Rouge.) A region of dense pine forests, humid swamps, and bible-belt dry counties, the Pine Curtain is a completely different world from Hollywood's typical depictions of the Lone Star state – more Yoknapatawpha County than Cormac McCarthy. This is where the South meets the West, a unique gumbo of Stetson-wearing independence and cotton-plantation slave legacy, and nobody nails this culture like Lansdale, the son of a Nacogdoches auto mechanic. In over 40 genre-bending novels that run the gamut from horror to western – pumping out one or two a year – he has used the piney woods as a backdrop to explore small-town people in outlandish situations: a unique talent adapted twice for film in 2002's Bubba Ho-Tep and 2014's Cold in July. (Peter Dinklage also has Lansdale's novel The Thicket under development.) "I grew up in small-town Pennsylvania and always liked stories that don't have metropolitan polish," says Hap and Leonard's writer-director Jim Mickle, who also helmed the latter Texas noir starring Michael C. Hall. "Joe has a great way of capturing stuff that doesn't fit neatly into any box or specific genre."

The Hap and Leonard novels seem a perfect fit for cable TV – fast-paced combinations of action, compelling characters, and sharp dialogue that also manage to skewer small-town prejudices. (Savage Season begins with a telling epigraph from Mark Twain's 1894 detective story/indictment of slavery Puddn'head Wilson: "Put all your eggs in one basket and – WATCH THAT BASKET.") While wrapping up Cold in July, Mickle wasn't looking to adapt another piece by Lansdale, but then SundanceTV came calling with the opportunity to do a show. "We were talking about doing a smart, slightly off-center genre series," he says, "and it just so happened that Hap and Leonard came up. If you were going to do Joe for television, then this was it." Mickle liked the story’s vintage setting – "Cell phones, social media and the Internet just make everything less cinematic" – and the basic premise. "What’s great about Joe's stories is that you take very believable grounded people – the sort I grew up with – and then throw 'em in these completely over-their-heads pulpy crime settings."

Above all, Mickle was interested in depicting the realities of male friendship. "Hap and Leonard are fascinated and terrified by and also respect the differences in each other," he says. "But I love how they just exist with that and don't spend time discussing those differences, as much as they do giving each other shit – most guys' relationships are like that." Williams agrees. "The writing definitely attracted me to the piece," he says. "My imagination went all over the place. Like, 'Who would they get to play these fucking people?'"

"We'd have a fight about something and then slam our doors, turn up our music and, woosh, it's all over. We're like an old married couple. Without the sex."—James Purefoy

Luckily, the director didn't have to ask himself that same question. After Williams signed on to play Leonard, the former star of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire immediately suggested Purefoy for Hap. Turns out, the two actors are old friends dating back to the short-lived 2009 show The Philanthropist. "He's my brother," Williams says. "I didn't have to work at it with him." Again, Mickle got lucky. "Sam Shepard and Don Johnson clicked like that in Cold in July – they had known each other going back decades," he says. "You spend a lot of time writing chemistry or whatever and then when you just have that in real life it completely comes through on the screen." In the show, Williams gives a standout performance, subtly portraying the vulnerabilities beneath his character's tough exterior. And Purefoy captures the hard-luck desperation of a man who can't keep from pursuing an old flame that can only lead to trouble. Hendricks rounds out the trio with a nuanced portrayal of a femme fatale striving for something better than her truck-stop waitress gig. Yet despite the performances, when Hap and Leonard works, it's largely because of the natural bond between its two leads – an odd-couple casting coup of a scraggly bearded Shakespearean-trained Brit and nattily-dressed former Madonna backup dancer that just clicks.

To hear them tell it, the show's best moments may have happened off-screen. While shooting in Baton Rouge, the two leads regularly went bar-hopping in nearby New Orleans. "We had different bars," Williams says, grinning, "depending on day and mood."

Purefoy nods: "There are a couple good bars in Baton Rouge, but it's like mining for gold."

Even this morning in Manhattan, fresh off the previous night's premiere party in a Texas-style barbecue joint – "I'm doing the gin thing right now," Williams says when asked if he drank any Lone Star beer, "but the ribs were awesome" – and an impromptu foosball match they played on a crack-of-dawn talk show, these guys still look ready for trouble. "We even shared a trailer on the show, a double banger," Purefoy says. "We'd have a fight about something and then slam our doors, turn up our music and, woosh, it's all over. We're like an old married couple." He pauses. "Without the sex."