Tom Payne | Because An Object Will Not Change Its Motion Unless A Force Decides It So

Via Issue 192, Gettin' Around

Written by

Audra McClain

Photographed by

Yu Tsai

Styled by

Jay Hines

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PERRY ELLIS jacket, shirt, pants, and shoes.

It’s the Thursday before Easter. Actor Tom Payne and his wife Jennifer Åkerman are expecting their second child in just a few days—the due date falls on the holiday. Anticipation is high, but everyday life continues as they prepare for their family to expand. After an afternoon of pre-birth acupuncture, they participate in an Easter egg hunt with their neighbors. Colored eggs are hidden among the grass, their two-year-old son eagerly tries to fill his basket, and an Easter Bunny impersonator gallivants around, a tease for the anthropomorphic hare’s sugary arrival.

But for Payne, the bunny’s presence is a glimpse into the past—or perhaps a glimpse into what could’ve been. The Essex native has had several “breaks” into the industry, The Walking Dead being of the most notable. For four seasons Payne portrayed Paul “Jesus” Monroe in the post-apocalyptic zombie-occupied world. Just days before securing the role, Payne felt his time in the United States ticking. “Before I got Walking Dead, I had two months’ rent in my bank account. I had a $30,000 tax bill that I couldn’t pay. And my visa was about to run out.” Recounting this moment of desperation, “I was about to do a gig where I dressed up for the weekend as a character and handed free stuff out.” But right before he was about to pivot his acting career into playing characters at family-friendly events—much like that Easter bunny, which prodded his memory of this story—he got the call that actors dream of.

GIVENCHY top, pants, and shoes, SAINT LAURENT BY ANTHONY VACCARELLO bracelet, and TAG HEUER Carrera Chronosprint watch and GENTLE MONSTER sunglasses.

Payne was booked to work the character gig on a Saturday but instead confirmed the role of Jesus, the role that would change his life in many ways, the day prior. “I had to leave them in the lurch and go off and shoot the show. But that’s the center of the business, especially in LA, especially in America. That one job that can absolutely change your life. And Walking Dead did that for me.” Perhaps it’s fate or just pure luck. When you think you know where life’s taking you, it can pivot in exactly? He’s not sure. Perhaps it’s simply of himself. But for decades, he has had a feeling of where life would take him. “I don’t pray or anything, but I’ve always kind of known. I’m like, ‘I know I’m going to go to America, and this is going to be good, and this is going to work out.’ And I don’t know why. I don’t know where that comes from.”

He did know. He moved to the United States to pursue a career in acting. He found his wife and has created a family. But though he knew, he had to learn to have faith in the uncertainty that precedes the expectation. “It’s just a weird existence because it involves a lot of trust in the universe, basically. And a lot of people would call that God or whatever, but I don’t. I tend to think that when people pray, they’re really praying to themselves, just using a conduit that they call God. But I think you’re basically just kind of self-helping,” he explains. “A lot of people would call it manifestation, but I would never call it that... I just always kind of knew it and knew it to be true.”

VERSACE jacket, pants, and shoes.

The first few months of 2024 have been a whirlwind. On top of preparing for his second baby, the actor officially became a US citizen, and celebrated the wide release of his Blumhouse horror film Imaginary, which premiered in March. Payne plays Max, the father of a young girl who finds a stuffed teddy bear that turns out to be far more insidious than a fluffy friend. The film’s use of animatronics (to an exceedingly creepy effect) excited Payne and reminded him of old-school horror movies he watched growing up. It also reminded him of the first and only other horror movie he shot over a decade ago in Bulgaria, unapproved by his agent at the time. “She was like, ‘Tom shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing.’ But I was like, ‘I need to eat, I need to make money.’ ” The straight-to-D VD movie might not have been critically acclaimed, but he met some great people on the set, and ultimately helped to usher his decision to relocate stateside. 

PERRY ELLIS shirt, pants, and shoes.

What Payne’s wanted from life hasn’t always been straightforward, evolving with him instead along the way. When he was younger, his goals were to be a lead in a television show and to be part of a big movie. The two happened within just a few years of each other. From 2011-2012, Payne starred in HBO’s Luck, a series about individuals involved in horse racing. It was his first break and the job that brought him long term to the United States. He remembers the naivety of being a newer actor in the scene and the optimism that comes with it. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, we’re going to win every single award, and it’s going to be amazing. It’s on HBO; this is my first American job; Oh, my God.’ And we got shut down after a season. That was a big wake-up call. Like, oh, you can’t really ever get complacent and think, ‘This is it.’”

This heartbreak ended up being a blessing in disguise. With the series canceled, the star was able to take on a leading role in his first big budget feature, The Physician. Payne played the main protagonist, a destitute orphan who travels to Persia to study medicine with a famed healer. Near the same time, he met his wife, and the last item on this list of aspirations was checked off. “When I met my wife, I was like, ‘I’ve kind of done everything I wanted to do, which was a weird place to be.’”

That’s when The Walking Dead came in and shook things up once again. The series took him around the world and threw him into the fan-crazed world the show birthed. When that chapter felt ready to close, another opened. “When I was on The Walking Dead, I was getting a little bit bored. As much as it was an amazing show, I was very happy to be on it, and I had a really great part; I was a little bit creatively stifled on that show. And then the universe gave me Prodigal Son and said, ‘Okay, hey, go do all of this acting and see how you deal with that.’” Starring in Prodigal Son, a series focused on Payne’s character Malcom Bright—a twistedly intelligent criminal psychologist who aids the police in murder investigations—equipped him with skills that helped round out his acting abilities. This combination of film and television and lead and supporting characters has allowed him to step into the next stage of not only his career but also his life.

LOEWE jacket, tank top, and pants, SAINT LAURENT BY ANTHONY VACCARELLO shoes, GENTLE MONSTER sunglasses, and VAN CLEEF & ARPELS watch.

Growing up, Payne had an active imagination, (though luckily not as active as his daughter’s character in Imaginary). His sister is six and a half years older than him, and his brother six years younger, so there was little toy and game interest overlap. “I remember playing a lot on my own as a kid,” he says. “We used to live in a house in the countryside, close to some woods, and we had a decent bit of land. So, I remember just going off on my own and inventing different games to play. Maybe that’s why I still have a really strong imagination.” With the time spent drumming up worlds and ideas in the woods, he developed one of his strongest skills as an actor—his ability to really tap into the emotions his characters are feeling. “When I play a part, and it requires emotion, or it requires anger or whatever, if it’s well written, then it’s not very difficult for me to empathize with the character and play whatever emotion is in the scene.”

One of the games he’d play as a kid was cops and robbers. Fast-forward to 2024, and Payne has another film premiering, Horizon: An American Saga. Horizon, the long-developed brainchild of Kevin Costner, an American epic western. As Payne describes it, it is “a tapestry of stories in the 1800s.” The film was shot in the mountains of Utah. For once, he didn’t need much of his imagination to place himself in the scenery of the story. The rawness of the film’s subject matter and location made his character’s wagon trek from the east to the west feel real. “From a very pure standpoint of telling a story and acting, you can’t wish for more really, you’re not having to fabricate anything.

It was kind of as far away from a superhero film as it could be.” Within the ethereal mountains of the Western US, the actor’s younger, creative self relished in the beauty of the scenery and his ability to make cinema for a living. “It was very surreal and actually made me quite emotional because it was really everything that the teenage Tom thought making a movie was. And to find myself actually there, stood on set looking around me was a real kind of, ‘Wow, you’re here.’”

Undoubtedly over the years, Payne has learned to trust himself, his globetrotting creative vision, and the universe. When one door closes, a window opens. When one aspiration is accomplished and crossed off the list, another seems to write itself below. Still, sometimes, this is what needs to happen to get where you’re supposed to be. 


Photographed by Yu Tsai

Styled by Jay Hines at The Only Agency

Written by Audra McClain

Grooming: Kiki Heitkotter at The Wall Group

Producer: Trever Swearingen

Flaunt Film: Isaac Dektor

Flaunt Film Editor: Camryn Spratt

Styling Assistants: Gabriella Lane and Jai Simmons

Location: Kimpton Everly Hotel

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 192, Gettin' Around, Tom Payne