British actor Tom Payne spent 3½ years feeling like there were zombies around every corner and having dreams of the undead. That was a reaction to working on the popular cable series “The Walking Dead.” Now there’s a real potential he will be having dreams about serial killers because of his new job.
“Prodigal Son,” scheduled to debut Monday on Fox, features Payne playing gifted crime solver Malcolm Bright. The question is whether his abilities to know exactly how killers think and how their minds work is a blessing or a curse. The doubt comes from being the offspring of a notorious serial killer called “The Surgeon” (Michael Sheen). Instead of following in the family business, Bright uses the skills passed down to him to help the New York Police Department stop killers while facing an uncomfortable relationship with his father.
Playing Jesus Monroe on “The Walking Dead” and preparing for the new dip into darkness has given Payne a plan that might help him avoid the haunting moments that came with his last job.
“I think you have to play a bit of a balancing act with how involved you get in the material you’re dealing with. But you can’t help it. I’ve been working all day every day on this show. So it’s physically and mentally exhausting anyway,” Payne says. “I think my brain’s too tired to hold any more of that kind of stuff in it even anyway. I have a pretty good imagination and I can put myself in and take myself away.
“The emotions are there, but they’re not so closely allied with the character’s actual feelings that it will damage you. Not with me anyway. But it’s a lot of fun to go there.”
The most draining emotional scene Payne has had to film for “Prodigal Son” had nothing to do with dead bodies. In the first episode, Bright finally admits he’s the son of a notorious serial killer, a scene that was one of the most moving moments he had ever played. And Payne has several acting credits beyond “The Walking Dead” and “Prodigal Son.” Payne made his feature film debut in “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” and followed that with roles in “Luck,” “The Physician,” “Skins,” “Waterloo Road” and “Agatha Christie’s Marple.”
Payne found plenty of research material to use in creating his role for “Prodigal Son.”
“I think we’re really lucky in that there’s a wealth of material out there, fictional and true to life, to draw from. From my experience for the characters of the show, there are a few pockets out there of people who are in the same position as me in the show,” Payne says. “There’s one in particular called Happy Face about the daughter of serial killer and it follows her and her journey to talk to people who were affected by her father, directly and indirectly, and with her mother, and her relationship with her father, and the fears that she has and the intense pain that having a father who’s a serial killer caused.
“So that was really helpful to me. It’s really hard to listen to and made me cry many times, because there’s a lot of pain and hurt there. And the character in the show is in pretty much the same position and has a lot of walls up, but is intent on trying to understand his father and the similarities that may or may not exist between them.”
Another element Payne has to play is whether or not his character is truly connecting with his father or is just being used by the serial killer. The moments play out the most vividly when Payne and Sheen are together.
The way Sheen sees the relationship is the question at the heart of the whole father-son dichotomy. Sheen’s first inquiries regarding the role had to do with just how dark the character was going to be, as he could play him as pure evil or as a father looking for redemption.
“Is it a heart of darkness that can feel love, or is it a heart of darkness that can’t?” says Sheen. “And you very quickly start getting into very deep conversations about what is love? And is a simulation of love anything essentially different from what we consider genuine love? And all those kind of things. So that’s fascinating.
“I’m not going to tell you what I think about that, because that’s my performance. But that’s certainly, I think, the thing that obviously, hopefully hooks an audience onto what is going on in the dynamic in that relationship.”