WNA talks to Tom Cullen of History’s Knightfall!

Interviews, TV

We here at When Nerds Attack were lucky enough to talk to Tom Cullen, star of History Channel’s new show, Knightfall, premiering December 6th right after Vikings. Tom plays Landry, a Knight Templar living in France. 

Q: What was your favorite thing about filming Knightfall?

Tom Cullen: This is the kind of project I’ve always dreamed of being involved in ever since I was a little boy. I grew up in Wales, and I grew up next to a castle. That kind of history is really woven into the fabric of my DNA, and I think it is in many European’s DNA.

When I was a kid, my dad gave me this wooden sword and shield and I used to go up there with my mate. We’d run around pretending to be knights and warriors. I think that the older we get, the more baggage we carry, and I know that I spent a lot of time pining after that kind of innocence. So this job really opened up the gateway to accessing the kid in me again. It felt like every single day I had little Tom next to me, swinging a wooden sword around with his mates in a castle in Wales.

That was my favorite thing about the job; being able to have as much fun as I had while filming this show– I loved it.

 

Q: Did you already know how to use a sword?

Cullen: In drama school in the UK we do a lot of fight training, so I’ve done a lot of sword training prior. I found that I had the propensity for killing people, ironically. [Laughs] So I’d actually did extra exams, and had some practice while studying in drama school– but that was about eight years ago.

However, the stunt team that we had was led by an amazing Frenchman, Cédric Proust. He is a top stuntman and fight choreographer, and he really put us through it. The entire team wanted us to be at a very, very high level. Every day on set they would drill us; I did about three months of physical training beforehand to get myself and my body ready for the fighting portion of my character.

We also did a two and a half week boot camp where we would walk do some circuit training in the morning and then do fighting in the afternoon. Later, we’d go horse riding and do some more sword training and then we would go to the gym. When it came to the actual filming – because there were a lot of fight scenes– I was filming 14 hours a day doing scene work, and then I’d have to do my fight training either on my lunch breaks or on the weekends.

Working on Knightfall was a full-on experience because the team wanted it to look authentic and real. When you watch the fights, they are absolutely incredible. I’m so proud of all of the actors who’ve participated in the battles because we’ve really done a great job and the stunt guys have really trained us well– battles are epic, muddy and gruesome. They feel very real, which I think is something I’m very proud of.

Q: How do you choose a project and pick a role?

Cullen: I genuinely love to do stuff that is different from the last thing that I did, something that really scares me, and something that is new. I think one of the reasons that I wanted to become an actor is because I love to try stuff out. I just say yes to everything in life, such as new experiences and challenges. I think acting is a kind of extension of that, where I get to pretend to be a knight or I get to play a 17th century anarchist like I do in Gunpowder. It’s just an opportunity for me to have fun and play and experience something new.

Knightfall was truly a dream come true for me. I grew up on films like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and Braveheart. Those films had a huge influence on me as a kid, so when I read this script it was like my dreams were coming true. It’s really amazing to be a part of a project like this one.

 

Q: The Knights Templar are known well in pop culture, when it comes to the Holy Grail, and some of their exploits. I was wondering did you do any other preparation for the role; did you read any books or do any research? I saw the first couple of episodes and the clothing looks very accurate and the sets looked very immersive. Did those things help you get into the role as well?

Cullen: When I do a historical piece, I think it’s imperative that you bathe yourself in as much literature as possible to understand the world, so that when you get onto the set, the world is just vibrating inside you. I wanted to know as much about the crusades and about the politics at the time–not just the politics in Europe or in the Middle East, but also Mongolian politics because they had a huge influence at the time.

You just need to immerse yourself in the world and know everything that these men would have known, understand every single situation and the political effects of their reach. It is important to understand where they are at this point, and what drives these men and women to do the things that they do. I think that’s something that you have to do, otherwise it’s just lazy… and in a way unforgivable, because that’s where you make mistakes.

You take history for granted, and history should never be taken for granted because it’s essential for us to further ourselves as a society and as a culture;  the one thing that history teaches us is that it’s cyclical. So yes, I read a lot and we had a fantastic historian on set. His name is Dan Jones, and he’s just released an amazing book that you must read called The Templars which is on the New York Times Bestseller’s List; it’s brilliant. He on hand at all times, feeding us information and making sure that what we were portraying was as accurate as possible.

So anything that would come up in the script that we didn’t know, we would use him as a source of knowledge and he would say, “Go and read this, go and read that,” or just tell us because he he’s a real fountain of knowledge.

Also the costume design, the art direction, the production design, makeup, was all so dense and real that you’re feel like you’re right in it as soon as you turn up on set. It’s just all there for you, you know, and you can really immerse yourself into the world. The days we spent on set were amazing. We filmed on the biggest sets in Europe at Barrandov Studios. They built medieval Paris. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

In the show I have to do this shot where I’m riding down this nearly 200-meter long street that they built. There are 350 extras, and each extra has a job, each extra has a name. It’s live, real world, and you just forget that the cameras are there because it’s so extraordinary.

Our costume designer, Diana Cilliers, was amazing. I remember the first time we did our screen test, and I remember putting the costume on, the chainmail and everything, and it weighed 50 pounds– which was like an insane amount of weight. I struggled to walk down the corridor to get to the studio to do the screen test. I was like, “Guys, why is the costume so heavy. How are we supposed to move and fight in this?” and the answer was that Diana tried out lighter material such as plastics, but they just didn’t look authentic. So they put us in the most authentic costume that they could, and we just had to deal with it. We got bigger and we got stronger, and very quickly we were able to run and jump, get on horses in the 50-pound costumes and do everything that we needed to do to play our parts. It’s just authentic and I think it makes for a very real experience when watching the show.

Q: Can you expound on Landry’s relationship with Godfrey?

Cullen: So the relationship that Landry has with Godfrey runs throughout the entire first season. So in Episode 1, Godfrey is Landry’s surrogate father. Landry was an orphan, and Godfrey essentially took him in and saved him from this orphanage. Because of the promise Godfrey saw in him, Landry became a Templar at the age of 11 which is very, very rare.

One of the Templar rules is that you must become a Templar of your own volition because it’s such a monastic lifestyle, where you do things like eat your food out of the same bowl as another man. There’s no vanity, there’s no possessions– it’s completely monastic. So it’s very rare for a young boy to join the Templars like Landry did.

So, Godfrey becomes Landry’s father and as the season goes on, there is a truth revealed to Landry about Godfrey that he didn’t know. Landry, like a classic hero that we all know,  hunts and searches for the truth at all costs. He is like a boar who gets physically beaten, emotionally beaten, and he just gets back up by himself and charges towards the truth.

Godfrey is pivotal in that circle of truth that Landry is striving towards, and it isn’t a very easy journey for Landry to go on through in the first season. But it’s a very satisfying journey for the viewers. Every time the scripts would come in, there would be a new revelation and it was very cool to read and really fun to play. I hope that the audience enjoys it as much as we enjoyed making it.

 

Q: There is a lot of religious strife going on in Knightfall, and in the first episode Landry does prevent a massacre from occurring despite religious differences. So I was just wondering if you could talk about the religious views in the show, and what you think the show has to say about our times today.

Cullen: The one thing that history will always do is prove itself cyclical, and that human beings have very short memories. We forget very quickly what we’ve already been through. I think it’s really important to remind ourselves of those mistakes. Knightfall is a show that is about the Templars and you’d be remiss to not talk about the holy wars; though the show actually doesn’t take place during that period of time– it takes place 15 years after the holy wars. The show is about the Templars being disbanded and rounded up.

But the Templars were a very interesting group of men because they were founded to protect pilgrims on the road– that was their purpose. Not to fight wars, but to protect people who were going to pray and they were very respectful of all faiths.

They’re a very interesting group, and I think the show touches on what faith is, and how faith can be manipulated to one’s own needs– and how faith is often used for political games which has nothing to do with religion. The Holy Grail in our show is used as a pivot of power in which people circle around it, and use it in order to gain political favor. It doesn’t pit religion against religion, but it talks about how religion can be manipulated to man’s want and need for power.

 

Q:  There are a lot of themes in Knightfall, like faith, duty, honor, and revenge. But I just wondered if there is any theme or aspect that you thought would resonate with the viewers the most and keep them coming back for more.

Cullen: I think what I’m very proud of in the show is that you can look at the show objectively from the outside having not seen it and say, “Oh, this is about guys swinging swords and that’s what the show is about,” but the show is so much more than that. The show is about politics. We have a lot of stuff that takes place in the French Court at the time, and breaking down the politics and the machinations of political interplay– I just love that kind of stuff. It has a fantastic central spine through the show; an amazing love story which I’m surprised at how strong and moving that story was as we were filming it. The show also talks about revenge and betrayal, brotherhood, loyalty, faith, humanity and mortality. I think that it raises really big questions about who we are, whilst at the same time being really kind of fun and entertaining. So that takes you on a really wild journey.

I truly believe the show has something for everybody. I think that it is by no means a gendered show. I think that women would love it as much as men will love it, and that is something I’m really proud of too. It has fantastic, strong female characters. They are actually probably stronger than all of the male characters, and they’re just as complex and rich as the male counterparts. I’ve watched the last episode three or four times now and I’ve shed many tears every single time. It’s a great rollercoaster.

 

Q: Other than sword fighting, what do you like about the medieval time period?

Cullen: I’ve always been obsessed with the medieval time period because I think it’s a time that we can look back on and learn from. Eight hundred years isn’t that long ago, and it’s the time when the world that we live in today was created and formulated. We’re still feeling the repercussions of the actions and choices the people made in the medieval period today.

It’s also a period that is grimy, dirty, and dangerous. I think that’s a fantastic place to make a drama in. It’s a very rich world, since life and death was so next to each other and it’s world was rich in terms of human wants and needs.

Nowadays our lives are reasonably comfortable for certain people. Especially in America. We typically don’t have that kind of life and death threat every single day where we are going to drop down with scurvy or have to go into battle, and so our choices aren’t as drastic. But if you have a lifespan of 35 years, every choice you make is loaded. So I think that the world of the medieval period is one of very high octane, and people making life and death choices in every single move.

 

Q: Can you talk about how the costumes a bit more?

Cullen: Unfortunately, I only ever had one costume, which is either with chainmail, or without chainmail– but most of the time with chainmail. [laughs] But Diana [the costume designer] made it so that it was completely authentic even in terms of the undergarment underneath the chain mail. We had a very, very heavy muslin undergarment with leather underneath and then the same on our bottom half as well. The chain mail was real metal and so it gave that kind of weight and movement to it. The tunics were made in the same way that they would have made the fabrics at the time. With the crosses they spent a lot of time discussing what cross to use. Templars used many different crosses depending on where they were based, and later in the series, we meet another group of Templars and they have a different cross than what you see me wearing.

Diana talked about how they would have dyed the clothing, the wreaths, the crosses and how they would have stitched them and sewn them on, and how the draper would have done it. They stitched in the same way that they would have stitched then.  They had a huge workshop at our studios, Barrandov Studios in Prague, with the most incredible costume teams who worked tirelessly. I don’t think people realized how much work it took– because I certainly didn’t realize it.

When you have 400 extras on set, the costume team starts work at 2 o’clock in the morning to start dressing all of these men and women so that we’re ready to start filming at 7:00 am. Then they wash all the costumes and they go to bed at an insane hour; they do it in shifts. The work that goes into making 400 beautiful costumes is unprecedented. In terms of the court costumes, I was really jealous, because their costumes were incredible. Queen Joan and Princess Isabella played by Olivia Ross and Sabrina Bartlett, their costumes were inspired from real medieval images and fabrics that they had used, and they are just unbelievable. Every time I saw Olivia, she was in this new extraordinary costume that Diana fashioned and they’re just stunning works of art really.

What is amazing is that the way they were made is the way that they would have made them back then. Diana was really collaborative as well. I think each of us wanted to have our own unique way in which we wore our costume, or we wore our belt, or the color of our cross. So she allowed me to choose the color of my cross and how I would have dyed it. We talked about how they would have washed their clothing and how dirty they would have been. Diana and I found this article about how the Templars would have kept their tunics white. They would have washed it in urine and chalk, and then hung out to bleach it on the line–all of that really detailed history and information about The Templars is fascinating and we loved going there and making it as authentic as possible.

 

Q: Earlier you mentioned the love story and because Landry became a Templar at such a young age, do you think that’s why he rebelled and broke his vows?

Cullen: I think that when we first meet Landry at the top of Episode 1 he is 20. He is brash and young –he is a maverick, incredibly cocky and is kind of emboldened by the fact that he has God on his side and he thinks that he’s invincible, which I think a lot of 20 year olds think, regardless of whether they have God on their side or not. I know I certainly felt like that. But what we see at the top of Episode 1 is his entire life flipped upside down when they lose Acre, the last Templar stronghold in the Holy Land, and the Holy Grail. So when we flash forward 15 years he’s like a caged animal, unable to fulfill what he thinks is his only purpose and duty, which is to fight.

He is battling with his humanity; he is secular yet he is also still mentally devout. He is very loyal to his brothers, his family, yet he is lying to them. He is the bravest, most fearless warrior, yet he’s starting to feel a sense of his own mortality. I think that’s why he kind of falls in love with this woman. It’s not that he’s doubting God, or that he’s doubting the Templars or religion, but that he’s doubting himself. He is in a conflict, in a battle with himself, which are the stories that I love to watch. Throughout the first season, we see him work through that, and try and find out who he really is. It’s an awesome journey for me to play and to take viewers on.

Q:  Do you have any fun behind the scenes stories from the set?

Cullen: We had a lot of fun on set. Because we shot in Prague, we were all away from home, so you kind of inherently just become a family. You bond really tightly because you’re not only working together, but you’re living together and eating together. We had a lot of fun everyday, but without a doubt my favorite story actually came on the first day of shooting.

I’ve already told you about how heavy our costume was, about 50 pounds. Our first three days were real trial by fire in terms of wearing and fighting in these costumes; we were shooting in Croatia in about 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It was insanely hot, and we were just sweating and fighting, and the adrenaline was going. We were becoming more and more exhausted.

Simon Merrells who plays Tancrede, he is a fearless actor. He is the oldest of the Templars and he is also the oldest actor of us Templars, but without doubt the fittest, strongest, and meanest guy of all of us. There is a scene where they built this jetty and boats. Simon is having to carry this box, run down this jetty, and there is a cannon ball hitting the water next to him as explosions go off.

He begins running up to the boats and because the jetty is very long, he is getting into deep water. So everyone’s a bit scared because of the costumes and everything. Anyway, he runs up to the jetty – and this is on the rehearsal, and there are some supporting artists and stuntmen in front of him, and they jump into the boat, and it goes off without a hitch.

So then they go for a take, and the adrenaline kicks in. The explosions start going off and he’s running up the gangplank. As he gets to the gangplank, he is sprinting, and one of the supporting artists pauses on the gangplank and doesn’t get straight into the boat. So Simon has nowhere to go and so he just falls, like he stops suddenly, and with the weight of the costume and he falls into the ocean.

He is in 50 pounds of chain mail and he just sinks to the bottom of the sea. I was watching from afar and I was absolutely terrified. I said, “Oh my God. Simon, he is sinking, what the fuck?” Suddenly, the safety crew, like ten men, dive into the sea like dolphins and they pull him out. Everyone really panicked. The director’s got a loudspeaker, and he speaks to Simon and says, “Simon, Simon, you okay?” And Simon said, “Yes”,  completely calm and collected. “It was beautiful actually. It’s kind of peaceful.” Then the director comes over the loudspeaker and says, “Simon, are you good to go again?” He says absolutely and just starts again.

That really set the tone for our show.

Be sure to catch Knightfall, premiering December 6th on the History Channel!

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