Prodigal Son’s Tom Payne on Season 2 and His Time on The Walking Dead

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From show creators Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver, the Fox series Prodigal Son is back for Season 2 and rejoins Malcolm Bright (Tom Payne), a criminal profiler with the talent for getting inside the minds of killers. Malcolm is uniquely talented at this because  his father, Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen), is also a (now incarcerated) killer. Malcolm is covering for the shocking actions of his sister, Ainsley (Halston Sage), but protecting her and their mother (Bellamy Young) weighs on him and threatens to tear their already fractured family further apart.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Payne talks about shooting Season 2 in a pandemic, the magic of the show’s casting, how much protecting Ainsley will affect Malcolm’s life, sharing such a shocking secret with this serial killer father, bonding over trauma, and all of the suits he has to wear. He also talked about his evolution from The Walking Dead and the experience he had on HBO’s short-lived TV show Luck.

COLLIDER: Because you’re having to shoot the second season in a very different world than you did the first season, do you feel like it really worked to your advantage to go into Season 2, knowing the character, knowing his relationships, and knowing the actors? Does that give you a sense of comfort you wouldn’t have had?

TOM PAYNE: Yeah, that’s very cool of you to pick that up. I think it would be really hard, actually, to start a new television show right now and discover those relationships. We only really take our masks off between action and cut, so we’re discovering things in the moment. I think if we were trying to establish characters, that would make it infinitely harder. We’re very lucky that we’ve come back in Season 2 and we all understand our characters so well and our characters’ relationships. We can have more fun with it now because we don’t have to do that groundwork that we did in Season 1. It definitely makes it a lot easier, during this crazy time.

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Image via Fox

This is one of those shows where you guys really did seem to click with each other pretty quickly.

PAYNE: A lot of the magic of TV and film is the casting. The first day I was filming with Halston [Sage], we were walking down the riverside for the pilot and it just worked. In that moment, she just felt that my little sister, and it flowed and worked. It was the same with Michael [Sheen] and Bellamy [Young]. All of the casting was just really on point. Everyone has these natural qualities that feed into their characters, that shine out in the show. We’re very lucky that it just fit, from the beginning. And it’s nice to have people come and join us. All of the casting that’s happened since then, with guest stars, has flowed and works within that cast, which is really nice.

These are not just normally characters with normal relationships. There’s a whole other level of family dysfunction going on with these people, which I would imagine makes it even more interesting to try to navigate, especially in a first season.

PAYNE: Yeah, you use the family relationship as a bedrock. We all have family relationships, and interesting relationships with our parents and our siblings. We have all of that as the bedrock of the show, and then we just put all of this other stuff on top, so it’s all heightened. The show has lots of different gears that it shifts into. We do play with horror and melodrama and comedy. All of these different elements make up our show, which I’m really happy with. Whenever I watch the show, it still surprises me, weirdly. I’m obviously on set, every single day, making it, but when they cut it together, the melody that they thread through the show is always surprising. I think that’s what makes it such a special thing.

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Image via Fox

When you were told about how the first season would end, were you also told, at the same time, about how that would affect things in the second season?

PAYNE: No, but we were all wondering how that was gonna play out. We’re filming Episodes 6 and 7 now, and the storyline is still playing out. We’re still seeing if they’re gonna get away with it and how it might be resolved. It’s been fun. We’ve taken a bit of a step forward in time and we have somehow magic-ed the body away to Astonia, and we will discover some details of how that happened and threads might start to be pulled on that. The situation might start to be a bit more dangerous for Ainsley and Malcolm.

What was it like to get that first script for Season 2? When you were waiting to figure out what would come next, were you ever nervous about the show being able to meet and hopefully even surpass expectations of the audience?

PAYNE: The show is called Prodigal Son, so I was hoping that we didn’t go too far in that direction. Halston is hoping for Ainsley to kill more people. She wants to become a big serial killer on the show, which could happen. But the show is always centered around Malcolm and his understanding of everything and of his trying to keep it together. I spent the whole of the first season at such the end of my nerve because that’s the character and I was just worried that we might be pushing Malcolm even more, and even more to the edge of his nerves, which is very stressful to do. But I’m happy that it’s playing out the way that it is.

Actually, a lot of the stress in the first season for Malcolm was meeting his father again, after all these years, and seeing how he was gonna be able to cope with that. Coming back into the new season, he has definitely come up with coping strategies for dealing with his father, and so the issues that he has with his father are now more centered around this issue that we have with Ainsley and this body, and the fact that Martin is the only other person who knows about it. Also, that serves as a distraction for Malcolm’s own personal feelings about his relationship with his father. He’s able to push things off a little bit, in that regard. He’s had a lot of time, trying to deal with all of that stuff, so he’s come up with various ways to do that. Now, it’s become more about protecting Ainsley, so it’s taking things a little bit more away from his own trauma and creating new trauma.

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Image via Fox

It seems like his father is not the best person to share a secret with.

PAYNE: No, absolutely not. His father happened to call him in that horrific moment, at the end of the first season, but he’s also probably one of the only people who would understand. Malcolm can try to get some answers out of him, as to when his murderous tendencies started to arise and how his first murder happened. All of these questions that he has for his father are now brought to the forefront again, but not because of something that he’s done.

What’s it like to explore a family dynamics in a family that seems to bond over trauma?

PAYNE: Our show is heightened, but life is about that. It’s about the traumas of your parents and the emotional difficulties of our parents and how much they’ve dealt with them before they end up bringing a child into the world. It would be wonderful if we could have these deep-hearted conversations with our parents, but unfortunately not many of us manage to get there. In some of the scenes that I’ve had with Michael and Bellamy, some of my own stuff comes out and there are some of my own emotions that I’d like to profess to my parents, but never get the opportunity to because it’s too hard to do that. So, it’s hard, but at the same time, there is a catharsis in playing this role. It’s so extreme that you get to go to extremes with it, which gets a lot out at once.

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Image via Fox

What’s it like to explore that dynamic with Michael Sheen and have a relationship that is always so intense when they’re together? How does he most challenge you, as a scene partner?

PAYNE: When I got the part, I knew Michael was going to be playing the father and I was incredibly excited about that because I know Michael’s career and I admire him, as an actor. Now having personally worked with him, everything I’d heard to be true was true. He’s completely present, and completely in the character and in the scene. It’s all there, which is just such a gift for another actor to be in a scene with a person like that, especially if you’re of the same type. All you do is you do your preparation, and then you walk in the room and see how the scene goes, which is just so fun. Those scenes that I have with Michael are mostly just me and him in that room, and there’s already electricity in the air. As soon as Mr. David closes that door, we’re left in there on our own, which is actually torturous and exhausting, but it’s so fun because you know that it works and that it’s all there, and you just have to let it happen. After I’d been on The Walking Dead, there are some wonderful actors on that show, but I never really felt that I stretched myself and had an opportunity to really get involved in some storylines that pushed me as an actor. And then, I got this job and it was like, “Okay, have all of it at once, and have it with one of the best actors alive.” So, it’s been a real pleasure and a real gift.

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Image via Fox

Did it also feel like an interesting shift, going from The Walking Dead, where you were part of an ensemble, to Prodigal Son where you’re leading the ensemble? Was that also something that you had to adjust to?

PAYNE: Just purely based on hours, yeah. I work all the time and if something goes wrong with someone else, there’s always something to do with me. And now, when the show is airing, I’ve been doing loads of press. I went and did Kelly & Ryan on Monday, which then meant that the week was really long and went really late because that pushed everything. And now, I’m spending my weekend talking to you, not that I mind it, but that’s part of the responsibility of being number one on the show. I welcome it and I’m happy that it’s happened now, in my career and in my life. I’m in my late 30s now and I’ve seen people doing it and I’ve wanted it, and I’m actually prepared for it now and everything that goes along with it. I’m much more settled in my private life, and all of those things that you can that can derail you. I’m there for it now. It’s been good. It’s definitely grown me, in a few different ways.

As an actor, you’re very transient and you’re traveling around. Even when I was doing The Walking Dead, I would be in Atlanta, but I wasn’t working all the time, so I would fly back to L.A. and my apartment in Atlanta just felt more like a crash pad. Whereas with this job, I’m living and working in New York for eight months out of the year, so it feels much more grounded and much more like a job. There’s much more of a sense of responsibility, which I welcome, actually, and I really enjoy. I’ve led a couple of movies, but those are shorter shoots. I enjoy being the person who sets the tone and coming into work with a smile on my face every day because I’ve loved my job and I know that it helps a lot, if the lead of the show is happy to be at work every day. It brings good energy, and I like being the person that does that.

Before doing The Walking Dead, you did the HBO series Luck. What do you remember about that experience and getting to work with a writer and creator like David Milch?

PAYNE: That was a crazy, wonderful experience, really. That was a very Hollywood experience because that was Michael Mann, David Milch, Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, and all of these amazing people, and they had these enormous bus trailers permanently parked in the parking lot of the race track. We used to have these wonderful read-throughs with all of these amazing actors, who sat around the table at Michael Mann’s production studio. It was like reading Shakespeare. Milch’s writing is just so wonderful, but very dense. That was probably the issue, in the end. It was quite a hard show to get your head around, but once you got into it, it was great. It was hard for people to immediately latch onto, but it was a great experience. That was the show that had me move to L.A., and I stayed.

At the end of Episode 2, Malcolm tells his father that, now that he’s aware of his presence inside of him, he can lock him up, tune him out and even leave him behind. How much is that going to eat at Martin?

PAYNE: I’m not sure how much that’s true. I think that’s wishful thinking for Malcolm. He’s definitely further along that road than he was before, but he absolutely knows that’s the most painful thing for Martin. One of my favorite scenes in the first episode of Season 2 was Martin being really annoyed at his new cell mate, when he threw the shoe at Malcolm’s head and made him leave the room. You can tell that it’s so important to Martin to spend time with Malcolm that he was willing to kill his cell mate, in order to spend more time with him. And then, at the end of the episode, he’s talking about Malcolm saving Ainsley and how important that is. That’s the depth of the show. This is your father, telling you that he’s proud of you, but he’s a serial killer. The first time my dad told me he was proud of me, I cried my eyes out. It’s a huge thing to hear that, and he wants to hear that, but it’s also awful. That’s the show, in a nutshell. He wants to have this relationship with his father, but he also knows that he can’t and he shouldn’t.

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Image via Fox

We’re also starting to hear Martin want to be back out in the world and out of prison. Should we be worried about that?

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PAYNE: The writers play with that a lot and absolutely there are possibilities of him being out in the world, but I’m not sure where the show goes when that happens. I think we could go on the road, but that would be a completely different show. I think the magic of the show is having Martin stuck in that cell and seeing what he can do from there. But I don’t think it’s beyond the realms of possibility that he could find himself somewhere else, at least for a short amount of time.

Have you had a favorite twisted crime so far this season?

PAYNE: I liked Episode 2 because that was an episode that was actually a hangover from the end of last season. We had two episodes that we didn’t get to shoot because we broke early. That was a really fun case that we then ended up reusing, with the creepy exorcism. And I love Christian Borle, who came in to play Friar Pete, Martin’s friend in prison. Doing the scenes with those two together was so much fun. And Christian played Michael’s brother in Masters of Sex, so they had a previous relationship and they knew each other, and I know they had a lot of fun together. It’s nice to see Michael play off of other people, especially people who are having fun. Most of the time it’s me, so it’s really fun to see how he is with other characters, and how he’s either using them or his environment to help himself.

When you’re on a hit show that’s as creepy and dark as the show can be, especially when it comes to the weekly crimes, how does that affect what fans want to talk to you about?

PAYNE: Most of the fan stuff has been about looking after Malcolm and making sure he’s okay. It’s not really been about the crimes, actually. That’s interesting. Our show definitely pushes the boundaries of the gross-out factor. I love Keiko [Agena]’s character, Edrisa, because she always comes in and adds this light tone, which is seemingly completely out of place, but Malcolm enjoys that, as well. They can geek out over all of the murder stuff, which is a really fun part of the show. But most of the fan stuff is just about looking after Malcolm and making sure he’s okay.

Could you ever have imagined that you would have an acting job that would require you to perform an exorcism to get out of a situation?

PAYNE: No, and that’s what’s so fun about the show. We get to do all of these things in these fun situations, in every episode. That was like the end of a movie, screaming at the guy while holding the candle. Holding the candle was actually something that I did on impulse while we were shooting. I was like, “I should be holding something. There should be something that I’m threatening him with, like a cross or a Bible.” And all of the candles were there, so I was like, “This is good. Does this work for camera?” And they really liked it. So, I ended up holding that in front of me to ward him off. It’s so fun. I had a scene yesterday where I said a line where I thought, “Wow, this is on the verge of parody, what I’m saying right now,” but that’s the show. I love that we lean into those things and we can do it because we’re underpinned by this really deep, emotional stuff, in the family and with the police side of things. We have these storylines that come from deep, meaningful things in real life, so when those are played effectively by the great actors that we have, we can afford to go the other way as well and really play with situations and add the comedy. I really love it when people are surprised by the show, and I’m constantly surprised when I watch it. I like when people are like, “I laughed a lot, and I’m not sure if I should be laughing.” That’s great. That’s the show.

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Image via Fox

You’ve talked about all the suits that Malcolm wears. Do you ever wish that he could just have casual Fridays, or something of that nature?

PAYNE: I love it when I’m in my apartment and I’m just wearing my pajamas. The times that I have spent tying and re-tying my tie, in the mornings at work and on days when I have costume changes, I get OCD about that because I want it to be in the right place. I have tied my tie hundreds of times, at this point. But it is nice to play a character that wears suits and looks good because I don’t, in my private life much. It’s nice to show that side of myself and be doing that. The last time I wore a suit regularly was when I was in school. They do make you look good, though.

What sort of work do you feel that Malcolm would need to do on himself, before he should get into any sort of romantic relationship that could actually be a healthy one?

PAYNE: That’s really hard. One of the things that you learn as you grow up is that you’ll never find your happiness completely in another person. You have to do the work on yourself. I was actually surprised that they went with that, so early on in the first season, but I understand. Hurt people fall into relationships because they need that love and they want that. But I don’t think he’ll be going near that again, anytime soon, because it didn’t end very well.

How do you think this secret will change how Malcolm sees his sister? Will he start to notice more similarities between her and their father?

PAYNE: I think he’s definitely looking for that. That’s another really interesting dynamic now. It’s about wanting to look after her and her mental, but also being afraid of her and not knowing if she’s been communicating with Martin and what’s been going on. We know our siblings, but after we leave home, we don’t spend a lot of time with them. Who do they end up becoming? I think Malcolm has got a lot more questions about who his sister really is. What’s happening in the show now is that she doesn’t remember anything, so his fear is that she will remember, or that maybe she’s lying. There are lots of things going on there. He’s trying to solve that mystery, as well as the crimes of the week.

Do you feel like you understand Malcolm better than Malcolm understands Malcolm, or do you think he has a pretty good handle on himself?

PAYNE: I think he has a pretty good handle on himself. You can know where your pain comes from, but to try to fix it or come to terms with it is a whole other battle. Sometimes there are conversations that you want to have, but you can’t have because you can’t change other people and you can’t necessarily receive from them what you need. A lot of the time, you just have to come to terms with it. I don’t think he will ever really get the answers that he wants because the answers that you really want are, “Why? Why would you do this to me?” Sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know. It’s just who I am.” I think he understands himself pretty well, but that doesn’t mean that he can easily fix himself.

Prodigal Son airs on Tuesday nights on Fox.

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