Boxing and surfing — Dominic Purcell somehow finds peace of mind in both. But it’s a degree of anxiety that he now embraces as an uncomfortable but familiar sign that all systems are normal and he’s ready to perform.
Known for playing tough guys in all stages of mental and physical fitness — from prisoner Lincoln Burrows in the critically acclaimed FOX series “Prison Break,” to a retired SAS operative in 2011’s “The Killer Elite” — Purcell says it took some time for him to accept his brand as an actor who plays physically intimidating characters.
He grew up in Australia and attended the prestigious Australian Theater for Young People, then extended his classical training to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) alongside fellow alumni Hugh Jackman and Francis O’Connor.
Before that, Purcell says, “I was a very shy kid, but I was good at sports and that was my ‘go’ pass in the social world of school.” He wasn’t quite sure what he’d do once he graduated, but acting was never on the list. When he picked up his girlfriend from a casting call and the agent offered him a part that only required Purcell look “smoldering,” he thought he’d found an easy wage.
His first audition, however, made him realize he needed a more formal education: “It was terrible.” Once Purcell enrolled in drama school and immersed himself in history and art, what had seemed like a viable trade became a personal investment, and then a passion.
At six-foot-one and 190 pounds, Purcell says that being physically capable of his roles is “paramount.” It’s an expression of his passion for his craft. In “The Killer Elite” with Robert De Niro, Clive Owen and Jason Statham, Purcell’s character has more or less spent his retirement in a pub in England. “My imagination was lit. I like to be as authentic as possible and I didn’t see my character as ripped. After sitting in a pub for 15 years, he’s fat.”
Purcell says he’s blessed with the genetics to gain or lose weight for his roles. While the weight came off from his role in “The Killer Elite” in a matter of weeks, Purcell acknowledges that dramatic weight reduction for a part is a “massive sacrifice. When you’re asking your body to sacrifice, it’s hard work.”
When he needs more muscle, Purcell works out solo. “I’m big on compound movements. I stay away from isolation moves and focus on deadlifts, squats — power movements that increase testosterone production [for muscle growth].”
His go-to activities are surfing, boxing, running and lifting. “I have a pretty structured routine in my life — I keep a timetable in my brain. If it’s a boxing day, I will box in the morning, including jumping rope, shadowboxing even before I start training; then I hit the bags; then I do some sparring. Later, I’ll go surfing.”
BOXING AND SURFING: MEANS TO AN END
The combination of boxing and surfing makes perfect sense for Purcell. “I’ve always loved boxing and have always dabbled in it.” Purcell’s recent, nuanced performance as an aging boxer who takes on one last fight in “A Fighting Man” brought him the opportunity to train intensely for the part, bringing home his passion and love for the sport. “Now I can get into a ring and hold my own in a match — it’s very satisfying.”
And cathartic: “It’s important to get the energy I have out of my system, and boxing does that. You walk out [of the gym] so at peace, so calm.” Which brings Purcell to surfing. Just as he’s at peace after a round in the ring, “There’s not a place on the planet I feel more relaxed than when I’m surfing or sitting on the beach after a surf.”
Boxing and surfing have something more in common for Purcell. “The water is the waves and conditions and you have to adapt — and you have to adapt in life, as well. Boxing is a metaphor: you have to keep fighting. When I’m in the ring, I have to anticipate my opponent — if I’m going to throw a jab I have to watch his right so I’m not countered.”
fears and anxiety come with every new role. I’ve come to realize with age that that’s part of my process
While he appreciates the mental aspects of sparring and riding the waves, Purcell says his mindset in professional pursuits comes down to preparation. It’s the precursor to a breakthrough performance. “I’m big on preparation — I have to know my dialogue and lines. If I know them, I’m free to play. Some actors kind of know their lines and kind of feel it out in front of the camera, and their logic is that it makes it spontaneous, but I find I can’t act that way.”
It turns out that another important factor in Purcell’s process is anxiety. “I’ve learned no matter how good I think I am, I’m only as good as my last performance, and fears and anxiety come with every new role. I’ve come to realize with age that that’s part of my process.”
He adds, “Personally, I think there’s too much emphasis on positivity, and not enough on accepting real emotions that are just as valid as happiness — emotions like fear, anger and so on. ‘Balance’ is an interesting word I try to play with.”
For Purcell, “balance” is a measure of acceptance — and responsibility. He’s candid about what it means under much more mundane circumstances than on set. “Beating yourself up because you ate a giant cake — that happens. The trick is not to do it every day… if you eat the whole cake, you have to take responsibility for it and work your ass off to get it off.
“Balance also ties into letting go. I try to do that. I’m human and I’m not going to let go every day of the week; I know that and I’m aware of that. It’s ongoing — some days I feel like a punk, other days I feel like I’m kind of getting it together.”
He concludes, “I’m a work in progress and I’m okay with that.”
Dominic Purcell can be seen playing “Heat Wave” in the smash hit series “The Flash” and is continuing the role in the upcoming series “Legends of Tomorrow,” due out in early 2016. In “Legends of Tomorrow,” Purcell’s “Prison Break” co-star, Wentworth Miller, plays time-traveling rogue Rip Hunter (aka Captain Cold), and Heat Wave is one of Captain Cold’s recruits in a disparate group of both heroes and villains that he has assembled to confront an unstoppable threat — one in which not only is the planet at stake, but all of time itself.