From co-creators Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver, and executive producers Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter, the Fox drama series Prodigal Son follows Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne), the son of the notorious serial killer “The Surgeon,” who has dedicated himself to helping the NYPD solve crimes and stop killers. With a manipulative mother (Bellamy Young), a TV journalist sister (Halston Sage) and a homicidal father (Michael Sheen) interfering in every aspect of his life, it makes it challenging for him to ever take a break from murder and have a normal life.
While at the Fox portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with British actor Tom Payne about figuring out his next move after leaving The Walking Dead, the appeal of Prodigal Son, jumping right into the material after being a recast for this character, the fun of exploring such a twisted family dynamic, whether Malcolm can truly have a genuine relationship with such a manipulative father, working with co-star Michael Sheen, and whether Malcolm might have any of his father’s tendencies.
Collider: What was it about this show that appealed to you? Was it the subject matter, was it the character, or was it everything together?
TOM PAYNE: It was a lot of different things. I was in a position where I had left The Walking Dead and wasn’t entirely sure on what the next move was that I wanted to do, but I had thought, “I’m not sure if I want to do network television.” I was unsure. And then, this show came along and there were so many plus points to it. It was the lead role, it was Greg Berlanti producing it, it was Lee Toland Krieger directing it, and it was Michael Sheen playing the father figure. Just one of those things would have been a major positive, but to have them all together was a dream come true. So, I leapt at the challenge. And then, the whole rest of the cast fell into place, and I just couldn’t believe out luck, really. It was just a great opportunity, and it turned out to be everything that I could have wished for.
Because you came in late, having been a recast, after the original actor departed from the project, did it all happen really fast?
PAYNE: It was super fast. I flew out on a Sunday night, and we started shooting on Wednesday. It was very last minute. The first few days, ‘cause it’s a very complicated character, I had to lean quite hard on the co-creators, Chris [Fedak] and Sam [Sklaver], and Lee, the director, when we shot the pilot. And also, by the nature of it being a pilot, you’re throwing a bunch of things at the wall and a lot of them don’t end up in the show. It’s quite hard to really get a hold on the character because you’re trying out lots of different things. So, I basically just turned up and said, “Listen, I’ll give you everything you want, and you just cut it together in the edit suite. And then, we’ll figure out who he is.” That was super fun to do, and super freeing. That was more when he’s on his own, doing stuff. When he’s with Michael Sheen’s character, or he’s with Bellamy Young’s character, those scenes play themselves. Every actor has been cast so incredibly well that they just fit into their roles. So, as long as you put your faith in the other actor and the dynamic between you, then it will work, and it does.
This is a family that you don’t want to attend the Thanksgiving dinner of, especially without a lot of alcohol. There’s a very interesting family dynamic among them, and not just between father and son, but also with the mother and sister.
PAYNE: Absolutely, and they all have their own relationships with each other.
Has that been a fun dynamic to explore?
PAYNE: So much fun. In the pilot, I have scenes with each of them. The first scene I shot, on the whole show, was the scene with Halston [Sage], walking down the river, and it worked. She was my younger sister, and it just flowed really nicely. When scenes go well naturally like that, you can relax a bit more. You start to find the character in those little pieces of emotion. It worked, and I’m happy it did ‘cause otherwise we wouldn’t have a show. With the relationships with each character, everyone brings out a different side of Malcolm. And then, he has his NYPD family, and they also bring out different sides of him. In a weird way, the cases that they come across with the NYPD crew and the situations that they’re in are some of the least taxing for Malcolm. His whole life is this crazy stress, and he actually feels more at home on a crime scene than anywhere else.
One of the first things that we hear Malcolm’s father say to him is, “I’ll always love you ‘cause we’re the same.” Does that feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is he trying to set manipulate him, or does he really believe that his son will turn out like him?
PAYNE: I think there’s continual manipulation, when there’s the possibility for it, from Martin. It’s a weird dynamic. Malcolm wants a father-son relationship, like anyone else would have, and vice versa. But at the same time, Martin loves to mess with Malcolm and manipulate him. It’s just who he is. Malcolm has to get through that and through the history that they have, just to try to get to the core of who he is and what his relationship with his father can be.
Can Malcolm have any kind of genuine relationship with his father?
PAYNE: I don’t know, and that’s what he’s trying to get to the bottom of. In investigating serial killers, which he has made his life’s work, he hopes to find out what makes them tick, how they are born, and how it happens, in an attempt to get to the bottom of his father. If he finds that out, then maybe he can approach that subject and get close to his father.
What do you enjoy about working with Michael Sheen?
PAYNE: Michael is just a brilliant actor. It’s just super fun to know that you can step into a room with someone else and you can do anything you want, and there will be a natural response, and you can push each other and pull each other, in different directions. That’s been really fun, and I know that Michael’s been having fun with it, as well. We go far in one direction, and then pull it back and go in another. It’s like two animals, stepping around each other, in those scenes. They’re very fun to play, and very fun to watch. You go outside of the scene, and make-up and hair are watching on the monitors, and they’re like, “Oh, my god, it’s so scary!” And it is. Those scenes, even before they start, when I’m just walking down the corridor to the room, they have tension, before anyone says anything, and that’s a gift. And then, when you put an amazing actor in the middle of that, it’s pretty hard to mess it up. That’s the biggest interest in the show, really.
What was it like to transition to this show, after The Walking Dead, and step in as the lead? Do you feel a certain sense of responsibility?
PAYNE: Yeah. It’s a lot of different things. It came at exactly the right time, in my career. I’ve led movies before, but not a TV show, and it’s a different beast. You have to pace yourself more. There’s no more having a beer, at the end of the day. I just can’t ‘cause I’m working from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, every day. There are lots of different situations and lots of different lines, so it’s challenging from that respect, but it’s also a responsibility to lead the cast and lead the crew, set the tone for the show. I’ve watched other people do it really well. I think one of the reasons why The Walking Dead has been such a successful show is that Andrew Lincoln led that show so incredibly well, from the front, and treated everyone so amazingly, behind the scenes and in public. I think that’s why that show has succeeded, and I look to do the same with this show. I’ve always said that I don’t understand why anyone who’s lucky enough to do what we do could be a dick. You set the tone and environment, and what a gift to be able to do that, and to make it really lovely for everyone to come to work. We have people that returned to the crew from the pilot because they couldn’t wait to work with this team again. That makes me feel really good.
When you work on material that’s this intense and heavy, do you like to keep things light on set, or are you somebody who likes to isolate yourself?
PAYNE: It depends on the scene that we’re doing. Honestly, a lot of the time, I’m like, “Oh, my god, I’ve got so many lines to learn,” that I have to focus and get in into a bit of a zone, but there are always moments to have some fun. I was just reading one of the scripts the other day, and it was a real page-turner that was really funny in one moment and then shocking in the next, and that stuff is exciting to play. That comes with the being number one thing, as well. There’s a certain amount of being more focused because the whole thing is resting on your shoulders, so you have to make sure it works. That comes with an added stress, but having worked for the time that I have now, I felt ready for it. I hope it works.
It seems like there’s a lot of mystery with the things going on in this show. Are you someone who likes to know what’s going on, and do you try to get as many answers as you can?
PAYNE: Yeah, I’m always trying to find out the answers. I’m Mr. Google, so I’ll find the answers, if I can find the answers. But at the same time, I’m willing to accept that there are things that we don’t know the answers to.
Do you think Malcolm has any of the tendencies of his father inside of him?
PAYNE: I’ve thought about it. Who knows? There are things that happen, at different times in your life. You go through natural changes in life, when you reach your 30s, mid-30s and 40s, and you go through these different stages. If you’re related to a serial killer, like he is, then there will be a fear, in the back of your head, that one day something will change. That’s a constant battle that he faces. It’s a constant trauma. It’s hard.
Prodigal Son airs on Monday nights on Fox.