7 Questions with… Prodigal Son’s Tom Payne: ‘I’m someone who loves taking a swing. I don’t want to play it safe, ever’ - Exclusive

You might recognise him from The Walking Dead, but British actor Tom Payne is making waves playing Malcolm Bright in Prodigal Son, which continues Tuesdays on Sky One with NOW TV.

By Sophia Moir Published: 2 September 2020 - 1.25pm

Prodigal Son continues Tuesdays at 9pm on Sky One with NOW TV

You might recognise him from his long-running role in The Walking Dead, but British actor Tom Payne is making waves on both sides of the pond for something very different.

The Chelmsford-born talent, 37, currently stars as criminal psychologist Malcolm Bright in American crime drama Prodigal Son, alongside Michael Sheen as a murderous surgeon.

And the twist? Sheen's character, the homicidal-yet-oddly-loving Dr Martin Whitly, is Malcolm's dear old dad.

The 20-part series enjoyed rave reviews when it premiered on Fox in the United States late last year and recently had its UK premiere on Sky One and NOW TV.

To celebrate its hugely successful launch, we caught up with Payne during lockdown from his Los Angeles home to chat all things Prodigal Son. 

Here, he answers seven burning questions about the show - including how Malcolm would be coping in lockdown, what the response has been from UK fans to the show, and how he and Michael Sheen nailed that father/son dynamic in season 1...

1. How would Malcom cope in lockdown - would he be watching serial killer box sets?

Tom Payne: I think he’d be coping pretty well. I think he’s one of those people who’d enjoy the excuse not to see people, and he has a huge apartment to be hanging out in, so I’m sure he’d be finding fun things to do with his time. I think there’s a plethora of [serial killer] documentaries and movies out there that we’ve all been watching for years, which is helping our show a lot. 

I think he’d maybe be watching Dexter, that’s a good one. I think Silence of the Lambs is a bit too close to home. He’d be watching a lot of documentaries and listening to a lot of podcasts actually, as there’s loads of podcasts now about all different cases. I think he may try and solve some of those crimes!

Prodigal Son key art Berlanti Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television and FOX Entertainment

2. Have friends and family been watching the show now it's on in the UK?

It’s been great. I’ve had people from way in my past, like my old manager who I worked with in Haagen-Dazs when I was 16, who messaged me to say his wife was really enjoying it - he didn’t say that he was really enjoying it, but his wife was!

My parents have finally been able to watch it. I had a private link that I could send them to watch the first few episodes, but it’s really nice that they can just turn on the TV and watch it. 

We’ve been doing really well, we’ve had amazing numbers on Sky One, which is great! I’m really excited by that. If people are messaging me now saying they’re really enjoying it, I’m like "Well we’ve got 17 more episodes for you to enjoy!" I think the show gets better and better as we go along. But the show is just bonkers, that’s how I’ve been describing it, because it is! 

It’s funny because I can tell that some people just don’t take to it, and they want it to be like Hannibal, a little bit more serious, but one of the best things about our show is that it is unique and it does have amazingly emotional moments but it does have comedy.

I think it really works because it’s anchored by great performances by everyone, I think the show’s been cast really well. We have a great anchor with Michael [Sheen] as well, and his scenes at the prison. 

I’m someone who loves taking a swing. I don’t want to play it safe, ever. I felt like on The Walking Dead, it was a bit like "OK this is the show, this is how it goes", but on our show I have no idea where we’re gonna go each week, and that’s exciting and I love it. It’s really fun. We even have this horror movie aspect in all of Malcom’s dreams and nightmares and hallucinations, which is quite scary at times. I love how it mixes genres. 

3. Have you kept in touch with any of the cast since you filmed season 1 last year?

Yeah, especially during these times, because everyone’s trying to get any information they can out of anyone [about the new series]. Being the lead of a show like this, you are weirdly kind of the dad of the show, you’re kind of responsible for everyone. People do look to you for guidance and leadership. 

So yes, absolutely. Halston [Sage, who plays Malcolm’s sister Ainsley] is my little sister now, so she calls me to talk about things, it’s really sweet. We’re always checking in on each other all the time, because it’s a tight group. 

I can see now, having started a show from the beginning, how bonded you can get with each other, and how important that dynamic is. I’m very accessible to everyone, they all have my phone number, and we talk a lot. 

I saw Bellamy [Young, who plays Malcom’s mum Jessica] and her partner recently. Everyone’s been very quarantined really, and Michael’s in Wales.

Some people like Lou [Diamond Phillips, who plays Gil Arroyo] and Frank [Harts, who plays JT Tarmel] stayed in New York, Aurora [Perrineau, who plays Dani Powell] is here in LA, and so is Halston. We’ve all been a bit spread around, and now we’ve got to figure out how we’re all gonna get to New York. 

4. What do you know about filming plans and the script for Prodigal Son season 2?

We’re going to start filming Prodigal Son season 2 hopefully in a couple of weeks, in October. We’ve got to figure out how we’re gonna get there. [My fiancée] Jennifer wants to drive maybe because she’s not sure about flying, but then driving it’s like "What do we do on the way? Do we stop?". It’s a whole journey across America that has to happen before we can start shooting again. 

We’re all doing the same thing really in that we’ll all have a test wherever we’re coming from, and then we’ll travel, and then we’ll have another test, and then quarantine for a couple of weeks. Then we have prep to do, like costume fittings and that kind of stuff. There’s lots of guidelines, and they’re changing all the time. Everyone’s just trying to do their best really. 

I haven’t [seen the script], but there was something I was quite excited about happening in season 1, and I was like "Well this has to happen at some point [in season 2]". I’m not going to reveal what it is, but there was an unutilised part of Malcolm’s apartment, and I texted one of the writers and I said "It would be great if this happened" and they were like "You mean in episode 1 in season 2?!" and he sent me the page in the script where this sequence was happening. It’s so fun, I’m so excited to get into it! 

5. Had you and Michael Sheen been able to do any pre-filming bonding?!

Well no, I think that was the nice thing about it really is that we [our characters] had not seen each other for a long time, like 10 years. I had seen him just before I went off to FBI college, but then I cut all communication. So for me, and for him, it was actually useful [for Michael and I] to not see each other. We’d see each other casually, before we would say ‘action’. 

We wouldn’t talk about the characters or discuss anything in depth because the nicest thing is to rediscover that relationship on screen. We do all of our prep and understand our characters, and how our relationship has been, and then just play it out on screen. It is really fun and exciting to do it that way, because we were in control of what we were doing, but it was nice to make discoveries in the moment. 

Michael Sheen Tom Payne NOW TV Berlanti Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television and FOX Entertainment

Those scenes are quite stressful, because you’re always on the edge of your emotions for many different reasons. That’s also a fun place to be because anything could set you off. So I find myself in some of those scenes, doing quick head turns, or he says something that really touches me, or touches on a nerve, and it’s fun, it’s really fun to act like that. 

You don’t get that opportunity to get into your emotions. They’re very deep, heartfelt things, because he’s scared of his dad, he hates his dad, but at the end of the day he just wants a hug from his dad. It’s such a weird push and pull energy in all of those scenes. It’s a lot of fun to play.

6. Is season 2 going to be set in the coronavirus world, or will it ignore it?

No, it’s not going to ignore it. In some ways, it’s kind of a gift because it’s something that the whole world understands, we don’t have to introduce that world. This is something that everyone gets. It happened. We have to reference it. 

Unfortunately, there are still crime scenes happening in this world right now and I think Michael [Sheen]’s character, as a doctor, would be intrigued by the whole thing. Obviously prisons are a big deal with how it’s going down in prisons. 

I think it would be foolish and almost impossible to ignore it, and a bit silly. It’s kind of a cool thing that the characters on the show are dealing with what people in real life are dealing with. I think that just makes it easier to identify. 

7. I saw on Instagram that you had to postpone your wedding due to coronavirus. Have you managed to rearrange it?

Yeah well this is the whole, ongoing thing now. We pushed it back by a year, to next April, and we were glad we did because we had other friends who pushed back to September and that’s not gonna happen. Even April now, we’re a bit worried about, really. 

We were gonna do it in New York, we’ve kept all the bookings and everything, but we have a lot of people travelling from Europe, including our parents, who aren’t massively old but they’re getting on in age (I don’t want to do them a disservice!) so we don’t really want them gallivanting around the world. 

So we’re kind of weighing up our options right now. But Jen got very annoyed when people would say it’s cancelled, because it’s not cancelled, it’s just postponed! We might elope or something...

Watch the Prodigal Son trailer

Prodigal Son continues Tuesdays at 9pm on Sky One with NOW TV.

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