'Knightfall' actor slays doubt with every role
You'd never guess by looking at him today that actor Tom Cullen was one angry young man. After all, he played the elegant Lord Gillingham, who courted Lady Mary in “Downton Abbey.” And now he's the heroic Knight Templar in the History Channel's “Knightfall.”
How does that jibe with the dyslexic and surly teen who was kicked out of his first drama school for being a rebel? “I was angry for lots of reasons, but mostly just being a young man in Britain,” he says in a sunny hotel room.
“I went through a lot when I was in my teens and I acted out a lot,” he says. Just exactly how he acted out, he won't divulge. “There isn't that much to say — just a young kid on the wrong side of the tracks.”
Cullen's parents divorced before he was born. And part of his troubled boyhood resulted from the separation of his siblings. “My mom had another family, my brother and sister who I loved dearly,” he says, perched on the edge of a beige leather couch.
“But I lived with my father, and he decided to move away from where we were. So I grew up in the mountains in Wales, in farmland. And he was moving to the capital city, Cardiff. And so I had to leave my brother and sister behind and my mum — that was a big change for me. I was 11.
“It was a traumatic experience, not something that I was aware of at the time, but in hindsight when I look back on it, I wish I'd gown up with them because they're some of my best friends, my brother and sister. I just wish I'd had a closer relationship with them growing up. I think it was a life-changing experience.”
Acting is a life-changing experience for Cullen, 32, who toyed with countless other projects before he vowed to be an actor.
A second drama school proved more successful. “I was in trouble all the time, but I had teachers that were very nice to me and believed in me, and eventually I calmed down and chilled out, and acting was the thing that really saved me, I think,” he nods.
“It gave me a real purpose and understanding of the world. They gave me that opportunity and believed in me and told me I could do it, which was always a battle inside my head whether I could or whether I couldn't.”
Doubt still haunts him whenever he starts a new project, he says. “I feel every role is beyond me. You just have to go for it and trust that whatever you do is OK. I think as soon as you stop trying to do things right is when you necessarily don't get things wrong. I think taking risks and being bold and brave and making choices in your life and in your art and in your every day, I think if you do that with integrity and honesty, I don't think you can go wrong necessarily,” he says.
“You might be bad. I've done some bad acting and bad life choices, but it was what it was and I'm still alive.”
One of the things that enhanced his life is actress Tatiana Maslany, famous for her multi-roles in “Orphan Black.” “Meeting my girlfriend really changed me,” he says. “I was a wild boy, and I met her, and she is an exceptional human being. And she taught me a lot about life.”
For Cullen, landing the role of the indomitable leader of the Templars in their quest to recover the Holy Grail was another hurdle he wasn't sure he could make. “It was about five auditions with a screen test at the end. The first audition, I turned up and everyone had gone home. It was just me and the assistant who was like, ‘Hello, who are you?'
“I thought, ‘Oh, God, they're definitely not interested in me.' But luckily I did an OK job. And the second audition, there were a few more people. And the third, a few more people. By the fifth, they were all there.”
He was offered two other jobs while he was waiting for the go-ahead on “Knightfall.” Uncharacteristically, he turned them down. “I'm not a gambler,” he shakes his head. “I'm terrible at gambling. I think the thing is about gambling you don't necessarily mind losing if I feel pursuing the thing I want is worth it.”
Though he and Maslany have landed in Los Angeles, Cullen insists he does not long to be famous. “I'm not somebody who wants to be a movie star, and hungrily pursues that idea of who I am. I'm very happy just being me. And I'm very lucky to be working. That's kind of how I feel. Any job I have I'm incredibly grateful for. The only thing I search for is something that challenges me, and as long as it's very different to anything I've ever done before, then I'm satisfied.”
The 10-part historical thriller “Knightfall” premieres Wednesday.
Luaine Lee is a California-based correspondent who covers entertainment for Tribune News Service.