"He was an ass . . . and now he's dead."
This confession spills from Dominic Purcell's mouth while we're in solitary confinement. And while it may not pass for the type of solitary he's been accustomed to in his hit Fox series, Prison Break (in which he plays the brooding, wrongly convicted murderer Lincoln Burrows), it sure feels like it.
We're inside a West Hollywood photo studio the size of an airplane hangar, just off the ramp from what seems like a 22-lane freeway. Outside, the sky is perfectly cloudless and copper. To get here, Purcell and I have both endured similar paths: My cab went missing on two freeways, chewing up 90 minutes to complete our eight-mile trip; his car service disappeared in the back roads of West Hollywood traffic, the six-mile trek taking just under an hour. It's not yet 10 a.m. and we've both done the L.A. version of hard time.
And now we've been thrown into the confines of a 10-by-8 concrete room, the door slammed shut behind us. There are no windows, so we must look inward. We chat briefly about the roads that brought us here-Interstates 410 and 10. But then Purcell-thick-necked, stubble-headed, and speaking softly with a vague brogue-begins to trace the longer road that delivered him from an Australian surfing town to the living rooms of 9 million fervent American TV viewers. That road begins with his father: the father from the Norwegian Navy who married his Irish mother, gave him the name Dominic Haakon Myrtvedt Purcell, moved his young family from England to Sydney when Dominic was 2, installed air-conditioning ducts in skyscrapers-and then disappeared.
"He was an ass," Purcell says with practiced acidity, arms folded, averting his round, brown eyes and shifting his sinewy six-foot frame in his chair. "My dad was a bum, and now he's dead. The result of drinking too much alcohol. Coming from a broken home, not knowing my dad, there was a lot of anger there. I'm sure there still is a lot of anger about that, but life rolls on, and you have to move forward."
We've known each other less than an hour, and already it strikes me that Purcell's quiet, tough-guy image-the man's man, the stoic Steve McQueen-is less a product of Hollywood cultivation and more one of bona fide marinated anger, dormant yet lurking just below the surface, tempered only by the wisdom of his 36 years. Purcell, back in his youth, must have been hell on wheels.
"I was an arrogant Neanderthal," he says of his childhood self in Bondi Beach, a surfer's paradise outside Sydney. "I grew up in a very masculine arena-I surfed, played footy, drank a lot, fucked a lot. I did all the guy-guy things. Never once did I think about being an actor. One day, I just woke up and said, 'I'll try that acting thing.'"
And this is the other striking aspect of Purcell that comes into focus after I've spent just a few minutes with him, something that must stir envy in every struggling actor who migrates to Hollywood: As if plucked from a pool, Purcell, with limitless self-confidence, ranks among "the chosen."
The day Purcell inexplicably decided to "try that acting thing," he applied to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, a prestigious drama school whose alumni include Hugh Jackman. The school accepted Purcell immediately, after just one monologue reading. "That was unheard of," he says. "There was a whole series of readings and elimination rounds in front of judges that you had to go through to get selected, but they offered me a slot in the academy that day."
But the unrefined man's man, the boozing, tanned surfer whose previous employment included digging holes and planting shrubs for a landscape-design company, didn't fit in seamlessly among aspiring thespians. "The first day, the teachers told me I had to wear tights for movement class, and I told them I'd never wear fucking tights for anything or anybody," he says. "I'd never been near the dynamic of the arts. Where I grew up, nobody becomes an actor. We thought people in the arts-actors, ballet dancers, musicians, whatever-were weird. But in my life, I've always charged hard into everything I've done. If anything scared me, I never had to have anybody tell me to face it. I've always just wanted to do it. Anything that terrifies me, I find it fascinating. And I like to challenge that fear, and just go and fucking do it."
And do it he did (although without wearing tights . . . for the record). After graduating, Purcell spent time as a whitewater- rafting Marlboro Man in the Philippines before scoring his first role in an Australian TV series. When Mission: Impossible II began filming Down Under, he caught the attention of the film's casting director and scored a role as the evil Ulrich. "The film was a major disappointment for me," he says. "I auditioned for a big group of people, including John Woo and Tom Cruise, and I was under the impression that I was going to have more of a role. But I was really a glorified extra in that movie, and it pissed me off. At the time I wanted to go up to Tom Cruise and say, 'What the fuck is going on, man?'"
Purcell learned a lesson; as a result he packed his bags, his wife, and his young son and moved to Hollywood. "You've got to be there, you gotta be in their backyard competing-otherwise you're going to be treated like a piece of shit, like a piece of dough. I was like, 'Fuck that, that ain't happening to me.'"
Quickly, TV work began to drift his way, and soon he'd signed a development deal with Fox, resulting in a starring turn in the short-lived TV series John Doe. "He's a leading man," says casting director Wendy O'Brien. "He's attractive yet he doesn't alienate anyone; women like him, and men like him. A lot of actors have the tough and the strong, but there aren't many who also have the heart, and that's what allows you to have compassion for him. With Dominic, just look at his eyes-they have that deeper quality that tells so much without him saying a lot."
Between his increasing success and a new start in the U.S., life was good for Purcell-on the surface. He was continuing to earn new roles. His wife had just given birth to their twins. But then, three years ago, something began to gain a stranglehold on Purcell's life-something that posed a threat to his livelihood and his marriage, bringing back ugly echoes of his childhood and the father who abandoned him: alcoholism. "I was drinking way too much, getting into way too much trouble," he says. "It got to the point where it was affecting my health. I'd wake up sometimes, and my face would be blown up like a balloon-a sure sign of liver damage."