History will debut the new dramatic series Knightfall on December 6, 2017 at 10pm ET/PT. The series follows the Knights Templar and the search for the Holy Grail, with Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey, The Five) starring as Templar Knight Landry. In support of the show’s upcoming premiere, Cullen took part in a wide-ranging conference call to discuss what viewers can expect when Knightfall joins History’s primetime lineup.
Cullen began the call by explaining why he was so attracted to the series. “This is the kind of project I’ve always dreamt 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, like I think it is in many European’s DNA,” said Cullen. “And when I was a kid, my dad gave me this wooden sword and shield and I used to go up there with my mate and we just used to 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.
This job really opened up the gateway to accessing me as a kid again and 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, and I loved it.”
Tom Cullen Knightfall Interview:
Did you have to do any extra training or had you already known how to use the sword?
Tom Cullen: “In drama school in the UK we do a lot of fight training, and so I’d done a lot of sword training prior. And,I found that I had the propensity for killing people, ironically. (Laughing) So, I’d actually done extra exams and had some practice while studying in drama school but that was about eight years ago. I hadn’t swung a sword in about eight years, so it was all very new in many respects.
The stunt team that we had was led by an amazing Frenchman, Cédric Proust. He is a top stuntman and fight choreographer. He really put us through it and we had a great swordsman called Roman. The entire team wanted us to be at a very, very high level. Every day on set they would drill us and I did about three months of physical training beforehand to get myself and my body ready for the fighting portion of my character and the series.
We also did a two and a half week boot camp where we would walk in the morning and do some circuit training 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. Any kind of second in the day that I did have I would fill it by going up to the stables and ride.
Working on Knightfall was a full-on experience because the team wanted it to look authentic and real, and 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. The stunt guys have really trained us well and they’re epic battles and muddy and gruesome. And they feel very real, which I think is something I’m very proud of.
There is an incredible battle sequence in the final episode which is the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in. We had like 400 guys on a battlefield fighting for about two weeks. It’s epic and amazing. And the real geek, nerd in me – because I am one – just can’t believe that I’m in it. I’m extremely proud of it.”
How much research did you do?
Tom Cullen: “Whenever I have done a historical piece, I think it’s imperative that you have to bathe yourself in as much literature to understand the world as much as possible, 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.
You just need to immerse yourself in the world and know everything that these men would have known, understand every single permutation and the political permutation that is affected 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 at that point 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 furthering ourselves as a society and as a culture, because the one thing that history teaches us is that it’s cyclical. And so, yes, I read a lot and we had a fantastic historian on set. His name is Dan Jones. 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 was there on hand at all times feeding into us and making sure that what we were portraying was as accurate as possible. 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’s a real fountain of knowledge.
And that wasn’t just the access that put me in the world of the Knights Templar. […] The costume design, the art direction, the production design, makeup, etc. it was all so dense and real that you 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. And there are 350 extras and each extra has a job, each extra has a name. And 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, which is where you put on the costume in front of camera and you kind of like pose and walk around so they can see what it looks like on camera with the makeup and the hair and all of that kind of stuff. 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 and other materials but they just didn’t look authentic. And 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 so 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. But, you know, you can see the difference in the way that the costumes move and the way that your body moves in them. It’s just authentic and I think it makes for a very real experience when watching the show.”
Can you talk about Landry’s relationship with Godfrey, played by Sam Hazeldine?
Tom Cullen: “So the relationship that Landry has with Godfrey runs throughout the entire first season. And so in episode one, Godfrey is Landry’s surrogate father. Landry was an orphan and Godfrey essentially took him in and saved him from this orphanage. And so because of the promise Godfrey saw in him, Landry became a Templar at the age of 11 which is very, 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. And 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, in episode one there is a truth revealed to Landry about Godfrey that he didn’t know. And Landry, like a classic hero that we all know, as the protagonist, he 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 throughout 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 would be a new shock and a new turn 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.”
Is any particular theme or aspect to Knightfall you think will really resonate with the viewers?
Tom Cullen: “Yes, sure. I think what I’m very proud of in the show is that you can kind of 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, dissecting and breaking down the politics and the machinations of political interplay, which 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. It kind of grew into this thing that we had no idea it would become. The show 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.
And, so 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, and it’s very moving. 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.”
What do you like about the medieval time period?
Tom 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. And, actually, 800 years isn’t that long ago and that this is the time really 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 and dirty and dangerous. The line between life and death is so thin, it’s really interesting to learn about. And 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 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.
So, our choices aren’t as drastic. But if you have a lifespan of 35 years, every choice you make is loaded. And so I think that the world of the Medieval period is one of very high octane and people making life and death choices every single move. And that, for me, is an exhilarating period of time to make a drama in.”
How do the scenes in Knightfall resonate in your own life? How do you draw on your own life to play the part of Landry?
Tom Cullen: “That’s such a good question. On the paper, it isn’t necessarily very easy to draw on myself, and I think that I like to work as an actor from the places of truth instead of drawing on myself as an empathetic being. Well, I’ve had some experiences personally that I put it into Landry but not many. I worked in an empathetic way, anyway where I try and put myself into the character’s body and some kind of lose myself as much as possible. And so my thoughts and my character’s thoughts were somewhat separate as opposed to my own.
I don’t really like to draw on my own experiences. I feel that’s confusing and muddied and I don’t think it’s very healthy. So, it wouldn’t have been very healthy for me to continue working in that way and it’s not why I’m an actor. But the themes that were very resonant with me in the show, that resonated with me as a reader and as a viewer and as an actor, are ones of brotherhood and loyalty, love and lust, and denying one’s own happiness, complexity in relationships with a father and feelings of abandonment. All of that stuff really resonated with me.”
Do you believe that because Landry became a Templar at such a young age that’s why he was able to rebel against that part of his vow and enter into a romantic relationship?
Tom Cullen: “I think that when we first meet Landry at the top of episode 1 he is 20, and 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 one is his entire life flipped upside down when they lose Acre, the last Templar stronghold in the Holy Land and they lose the Holy Grail. And so we flash forward 15 years and when you’ve been brought up as a as a warrior, and that’s all you know, everything you know, it’s a tough reality to deal with. He’s like a caged animal, unable to fulfill what he thinks is his only purpose and duty which is to fight.
And so when we meet him, he is this very, very complex, pulled apart guy in episode one. He is battling with his humanity and 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 having an affair with a woman yet he is a monk. 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 where your hero is so full of contradiction and battle and personal complications. And throughout the first season, we see him work through that and battle 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.”
Did you discuss what would happen moving forward with the series, where it might go in seasons two, three or four? Were you given an idea of Landry’s entire arc beyond the first season? And if so, to what degree does that influence your approach to the character? How much are you able to build into the character as the series goes on?
Tom Cullen: “We love the show and we really hope that we can continue making it for as long as possible because we’re a real family and we’re very, very proud of it and we love making it. There’s also still a lot of the Templar history that has yet to be told. We have an idea of where the show will go and where it will take us. But what actually happens is that while you’re making a show, it becomes this dialogue that happens between the writers, the actors, directors, the costume designers, the art director, the production designer, makeup artists, etc. where you’re constantly kind of feeding into this pot which is the show. It evolves and changes and moves in ways that you would never expect it to.
It’s like a living organism but that surprises you. And so though we have an idea of where this is going, actually the truth is that we don’t in many respects. We have the structure of history and what actually happened which we have to stay with but in terms of the characters, and their fuels and wants and needs and how they navigate their way through that history is something that we’re constantly being surprised by with the characters. And that’s a really exciting place to work with.
And especially as an actor, I don’t want to know where the character is going because in life I have no idea what I’m doing tomorrow or how it’s going to pan out. I can only be in the present and I can only make choices in the present, and so that’s what you want your characters to do. And so the writers actually withheld scripts from us and didn’t tell us what was happening later in this first season so that we could be surprised in the moments whilst we were making the episode, which is a really fantastic and authentic way to work. And then once we get the script, we kind of talk about them and collaborate on them.
Dominic Minghella is an incredible showrunner. He is a force of nature and an amazing man and a brilliant writer, and he really values the actors’ input. He is always very good at fielding ideas and whether he takes them or not is up to him, but it feels like a very collaborative process where everybody is feeding into it and we all have ownership over the show and that’s really exciting.”