Tom Payne | Relax, kick your feet up, and forget the hurdles that lead you here
“Down-to-earth” is a cliché descriptor for any actor, but after a quick scroll through Tom Payne’s Instagram, it’s the only phrase that comes to mind. For one, his feed is refreshingly de- void of facetune. The usually requisite red carpet photos are few and far between, even after a deep dive through the grid. There are a few studio shots of him on set, but they’re mostly selfies alongside his fiancé, singer and model Jennifer Åkerman. Most recently, they’ve focused on past and present projects, like his three-year stint on The Walking Dead as Jesus, hence his cheeky bio: “Used to play Jesus. Now the Prodigal Son.”
On Prodigal Son, Payne plays Malcolm Bright, the mislead- ingly optimistically-named criminal profiler on FOX’s most recent crime series. With the series’ pilot airing late September, the show proposes a bingeworthy new angle on an otherwise oversaturated genre. “At the center of it, it’s about the family dynamic: between the parents and the two kids,” Payne explains. Malcolm and his sister’s relationship is as normal as it gets: if his relationship with his mother, Jessica (played by Bellamy Young), is strained, his relationship with his notorious serial killer father, Martin (known as “The Surgeon” and played by Michael Sheen), is an all-out catastrophe.
Payne’s enthusiasm about working on the show—and alongside megawatt co-stars—was difficult to contain. “When I found out I was going to be doing scenes with Michael, I literally jumped around in my living room,” he remembers. “Micha- el’s a bit of an acting hero in England. He’s really good—and also lovely.” Payne, also from England, studied acting at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama before landing a few roles on the BBC, and eventually moving to Los Angeles to pursue TV and Film acting in a greater capacity.
“After The Walking Dead, I didn’t know what the next move was,” he says. “I actually said I wasn’t going to do network television, and then this role came along. Michael Sheen was cast at that point, and I was just excited to do some great acting work. It felt like the right time to challenge myself, first, with the hours of working, and second, to really go into a character that would require a lot of me.”
His roles’ needs have been tough at best: constant filming hasn’t left room for much else, aside from rest on Saturdays and preparing for the next days of filming on Sundays. “I don’t really have time to recover, so the most relaxing thing to do is to do nothing,” he admits. “I try to take it one day at a time.” The actor says that working and living in New York is half the battle. “When we shot the pilot, it was kind of crazy, filming on the streets of New York,” he recalls. “I have no idea how you can be uber-famous and shoot in New York City. People can come right up to your trailers and knock on your door. You’re right in the thick of it.”
“In London or New York, you’re really putting on this metaphysical armor every time you leave your front door,” he states, adding, “you’re just hit down with sights, sounds, smells, and people all the time. Even though it feels great, it’s stress!” The emotional im- pact of playing Malcolm doesn’t help Payne’s current bicoastal setup. “I have a house in L.A. that I’d love to be in!” In the scenes with Michael, Malcolm hates him, he loves him, and he’s scared of him. And all these emotions come out when he’s with his father. When he’s with his father, that’s the core of every- thing that’s affected him up to this point.”
Malcolm’s fear of turning into his dad is what ultimately propels the show forward: cleaning the streets of everyone who reminds him of where he came from, or who he could become. As for Payne, he’s pushed forward by his own schedule, mak- ing time to feature on his fiancé’s dark-pop musical project, Final Child, in between takes for Prodigal Son and other related commitments (before this interview, he trekked back to Williamsburg on a bike after a hair appointment). Evident from his performance in the show, he’s acclimated pretty well. “I get thrown in and it’s just like, ‘Okay, here you go, sink or swim,’” he says. “I think we’re swimming, and I’m learning a few different strokes.” One thing’s certain: obstacles aside, Payne finding his way upstream.