Tom Cullen Talks Recreating Medieval Times in HISTORY’s KNIGHTFALL

History’s newest original drama, Knightfall, tells the story of the Knights Templar and their quest for the holy grail. Tom Cullen is Templar Knight Landry and recently shared lots of details on the new series, including what it is like to recreate medieval times.

Knightfall premieres November 6th at 10pm ET/PT on History.

What was have you enjoyed most about filming Knightfall?

This is the kind of project I’ve always dreamt of being involved in ever since I was a little boy. I grew up in Wales and I grew up next to a castle. That kind of history is really woven into the fabric of my DNA like I think it is in many European’s DNA. When I was a kid, my dad gave me this wooden sword and shield and I used to go up there with my mate and we just used to run around pretending to be knights and warriors. I think that the older we get the more baggage we carry and I know that I spent a lot of time pining after that kind of innocence. This job really opened up the gateway to accessing me as a kid again and it felt like every single day I had little Tom next to me swinging a wooden sword around with his mates in a castle in Wales. That was my favorite thing about the job; being able to have as much fun as I had while filming this show and I loved it.

What kind of physical training did you have to do?

In drama school in the UK we do a lot of fight training, so I’d done a lot of sword training prior and I found that I had the propensity for killing people, ironically. So I’d actually done extra exams and had some practice while studying in drama school but that was about eight years ago. I hadn’t swung a sword in about eight years, so it was all very new in many respects. The stunt team that we had was led by an amazing Frenchman, Cédric Proust. He is a top stuntman and fight choreographer. He really put us through it and we had a great swordsman called Roman. The entire team wanted us to be at a very, very high level. So every day on set they would drill us and I did about three months of physical training beforehand to get myself and my body ready for the fighting portion of my character and the series. We also did a two and a half week boot camp where we would walk in the morning and do some circuit training and then do fighting in the afternoon. Later, we’d go horse riding and do some more sword training and then we would go to the gym. When it came to the actual filming – because there were a lot of fight scenes, I was filming 14 hours a day doing scene work and then I’d have to do my fight training either on my lunch breaks or on the weekends. Any kind of second in the day that I did have I would fill it by going up to the stables and ride.

Working on Knightfall was a full-on experience because the team wanted it to look authentic and real, and when you watch the fights they are absolutely incredible. I’m so proud of all of the actors who’ve participated in the battles because we’ve really done a great job and the stunt guys have really trained us well and they’re epic battles and muddy and gruesome. And they feel very real, which I think is something I’m very proud of. There is an incredible battle sequence in the final episode which is the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in. We had like 400 guys on a battlefield fighting for about two weeks. And it’s epic and amazing. And the real geek, nerd in me – because I am one – just can’t believe that I’m in it. I’m extremely proud of it.

How do you decide which projects to work on?

Well, it’s such an actor cliché so forgive me if it’s something you’ve already heard before. But I genuinely love to do stuff that is different from the last thing that I did, and something that really scares me and something that is new. I think one of the reasons that I wanted to become an actor is because I love to try stuff out. I’m quite a yes person. I just say yes to everything anyway like in life such as new experiences and challenges. I think acting is a kind of extension of that where I get to pretend to be a knight or I get to be in Harlan Coben thriller like The Five or I get to play a 17th century anarchist like I do in Gunpowder. It’s just an opportunity for me to have fun and play and experience something new. Knightfall was truly a dream come true for me. It’s something that I’ve always dreamt of doing since I was a kid. I grew up on films like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and Braveheart and those films had a huge influence on me as a kid. When I read this script it was like my dreams were coming true. It’s really amazing to be a part of a project like this one.

What kind of preparation or research did you do for this role?

Whenever I have done a historical piece, I think it’s imperative that you have to bathe yourself in as much literature to understand the world as much as possible, so that when you get onto the set, the world is just vibrating inside you. So I wanted to know as much about the crusades and about the politics at the time. Not just the politics in Europe or in the Middle East but also Mongolian politics because they had a huge influence. You just need to immerse yourself in the world and know everything that these men would have known, understand every single permutation and the political permutation that is affected where they reach –where they are at this point and what drives these men and women to do the things that they do. I think that’s something that you have to do, otherwise it’s just lazy and in a way unforgivable because at that point that’s where you make mistakes.

You take history for granted and history should never be taken for granted because it’s essential for us furthering ourselves as a society and as a culture, because the one thing that history teaches us is that it’s cyclical. And so yes, I read a lot and we had a fantastic historian on set. His name is Dan Jones. He’s just released an amazing book that you must read called The Templars which is on the New York Times Bestseller’s List; it’s brilliant. And so he was there on hand at all times feeding into us and making sure that what we were portraying was as accurate as possible.

So anything that would come up in the script that we didn’t know, we would use him as a source of knowledge and he would say, “Go and read this, go and read that,” or just tell us because he he’s a real fountain of knowledge. And that wasn’t just the access that put me in the world of the Knights Templar. Like I said the costume design, the art direction, the production design, makeup, etc. it was all so dense and real that you’re feel like you’re right in it as soon as you turn up on set. It’s just all there for you, you know, and you can really immerse yourself into the world.

The days we spent on set were amazing. We filmed on the biggest sets in Europe at Barrandov Studios. They built medieval Paris. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and in the show I have to do this shot where I’m riding down this nearly 200-meter long street that they built. And there’re 350 extras and each extra has a job, each extra has a name. And it’s live, real world and you just forget that the cameras are there because it’s so extraordinary. And our costume designer, Diana Cilliers, was amazing. I remember the first time we did our screen test, which is where you put on the costume in front of camera and you kind of like pose and walk around, so they can see what it looks like on camera with the makeup and the hair and all of that kind of stuff. And I remember putting the costume on, the chainmail and everything, and it weighed 50 pounds which was like an insane amount of weight. And I struggled to walk down the corridor to get to the studio to do the screen test.

I was like, “Guys, why is the costume so heavy. How are we supposed to move and fight in this?” And the answer was that Diana tried out lighter material such as plastics and other materials but they just didn’t look authentic. And so they put us in the most authentic costume that they could and we just had to deal with it. And we got bigger and we got stronger, and so very quickly we were able to run and jump, get on horses in the 50-pound costumes and do everything that we needed to do to play our parts. But you can see the difference in way that the costumes move and the way that your body moves in them. It’s just authentic and I think it makes for a very real experience when watching the show.

Can you talk a bit about the relationship between Landry and Godfrey?

So the relationship that Landry has with Godfrey runs throughout the entire first season. And so in Episode 1, Godfrey is Landry’s surrogate father. Landry was an orphan and Godfrey essentially took him in and saved him from this orphanage. And so because of the promise Godfrey saw in him, Landry became a Templar at the age of 11 which is very, very, very rare. One of the Templar rules is that you must become a Templar of your own volition because it’s such a monastic lifestyle where you do things like eat your food out of the same bowl as another man. And there’s no vanity, there’s no possessions. It’s completely monastic. And so it’s very rare for a young boy to join the Templars like Landry did.

Godfrey becomes Landry’s father and as the season goes on, in Episode 1 there is a truth revealed to Landry about Godfrey that he didn’t know. And Landry, like a classic hero that we all know, as the protagonist, he hunts and searches for the truth at all costs. And he is like a boar who gets physically beaten, emotionally beaten and he just gets back up by himself and charges towards the truth. Godfrey is pivotal in that circle of truth that Landry is striving towards and it isn’t a very easy journey for Landry to go on throughout the first season. But it’s a very satisfying journey for the viewers. Every time the scripts would come in there would be a new revelation and it would be a new shock and a new turn and it was very cool to read and really fun to play. I hope that the audience enjoys it as much as we enjoyed making it.

Could you talk about the religious aspect of Knightfall and what you think that show has to say about our times today?

I touched on it a little bit when talking about the history. The one thing that history will always do is prove itself cyclical and that human beings have very short memories and we forget very quickly what we’ve already been through. We tend to make the same mistakes. I think it’s really important to remind ourselves of those mistakes. Of course, Knightfall is a show that is about the Templars and you’d be remiss to not talk about the holy wars; though the show actually doesn’t take place during that period of time, it takes place 15 years after the holy wars. The show is about the Templars being disbanded and rounded up. That’s essentially what the show would be over three or four seasons.

But the Templars were a very interesting group of men because they were founded to protect pilgrims on the road, that was their purpose. Not to fight wars but to protect people who were going to pray and they were very respectful of all faiths. There is a very famous story of [some] being held captive in the Templar temple. They made space for them so that they could pray with ease and they gave them their space because they respect faith. They’re a very interesting group and I think the show touches on what faith is and how faith can be manipulated to one’s own needs and how faith is often used for political games which is something that has nothing to do with religion. And the Holy Grail in our show is used as a pivot of power in which people circle around it and use it in order to gain political favor. That for me is really a very interesting world to live in. It doesn’t pit religion against religion but it talks about how religion can be manipulated to man’s want and need for power.

What do you think will resonate most about the show with viewers?

I think what I’m very proud of in the show is that you can kind of look at the show objectively from the outside having not seen it and say, “Oh, this is about guys swinging swords and that’s what the show is about,” but the show is so much more than that. The show is about politics. We have a lot of stuff that takes place in the French Court at the time, dissecting, and breaking down the politics and the machinations of political interplay, which I just love that kind of stuff. It has a fantastic central spine through the show; an amazing love story which I’m surprised at how strong and moving that story was as we were filming it. It kind of grew into this thing that we had no idea it would become. The show talks about revenge and betrayal, brotherhood, loyalty, faith, humanity and mortality. It raises really big questions about who we are whilst at the same time being really kind of fun and entertaining. So that takes you on a really wild journey. I truly believe the show has something for everybody. It is by no means a gendered show. I think that women would love it as much as men will love it and that is something I’m really proud of too. It has fantastic strong female characters. They are actually probably stronger than all of the male characters and they’re just as complex and rich as the male counterparts, and it’s very moving. I’ve watched the last episode three or four times now and I’ve shed many tears every single time. It’s a great rollercoaster.

Were you at all nervous or scared about taking this role?

There’s so much that scared me about this role. The size of it and the responsibility of playing a lead in a show as big as this, it was terrifying. But also just the physical and emotional commitment that was required to make this show work. If I wasn’t committed 100% to the show, it wouldn’t work. They really, really put me through it in the best way possible making sure I became the best Landry I could be. That was a terrifying challenge and terrifying to have to pull off. I was learning new skills like horse riding and fighting. The biggest thing that was terrifying for me was that – and this is something that I’ve been dealing with my entire life – I was doing something that I love. I read the script and I wanted it so badly because I thought it was so good. That really terrifies me. I’m much more comfortable in that way. I come from a poor area of Wales where I’m much more comfortable with rejection than not. And so what terrified me was that I wanted to do it and doing something that you love and that you want is often the scariest thing that you can do because if you fail at it, that’s a big journey to go on.

Other than sword fighting, what do you like about the medieval time period?

I’ve always been obsessed with the medieval time period because I think it’s a time that we can look back on and learn from. Actually 800 years isn’t that long ago and that this is the time really when the world that we live in today was created and formulated. We’re still feeling the repercussions of the actions and choices the people made in the medieval period today. It’s also a period that is grimy and dirty and dangerous. The line between life and death is so thin, it’s really interesting to learn about. I think that’s a fantastic place to make a drama in. It’s a very rich world since life and death was so next to each other and it’s world rich in terms of human wants and needs.

Nowadays our lives are reasonably comfortable for certain people. Especially in America. And we typically don’t have that kind of life and death threat every single day where we are going to drop down with scurvy or have to go into battle, and so our choices aren’t as drastic. But if you have a lifespan of 35 years, every choice you make is loaded. That the world of the medieval period is one of very high octane and people making life and death choices every single move. And that for me is an exhilarating period of time to make a drama in.

If there anything from your own life that you bring to Landry?

On the paper, it isn’t necessarily very easy to draw on myself and I think that I like to work as an actor from the places of truth instead of drawing on myself as an empathetic being. Well, I’ve had some experiences personally that I put it into Landry but not many. I worked in an empathetic way, anyway where I try and put myself into the character’s body and some kind of lose myself as much as possible. And so my thoughts and my character’s thoughts were somewhat separate as opposed to my own.

I don’t really like to draw on my own experiences. I feel that’s confusing and muddied and I don’t think it’s very healthy. So it wouldn’t have been very healthy for me to continue working in that way and it’s not why I’m an actor. But the themes that were very resonant with me in the show, that resonated with me as a reader and as a viewer and as an actor are ones of brotherhood and loyalty, love and lust, and denying one’s own happiness, complexity in relationships with a father and feelings of abandonment. All of that stuff really resonated with me.

Can you talk a bit about the costume work that Diana Cilliers has done for the show?

Unfortunately, I only ever had one costume really which is either with chain mail or without chain mail but most of the time with chain mail. But Diana made it so that it was completely authentic even in terms of the undergarment underneath the chain mail. So we had a very, very thick heavy muslin underneath like a linen dresser with leather underneath and then the same on our bottom half as well. The chain mail was real metal and so it gave that kind of weight and movement to it. The tunics were made in the same way that they would have made the fabrics back then at the time. And with the things like the crosses they spent a lot of time discussing what cross to use. Templars used many different crosses depending on where they were based, and later in the series, we meet another group of Templars and they have a different cross than what you see me wearing.

Diana talked about how they would have dyed, the wreaths, the crosses and how they would have stitched them and sewn them on, and how the draper would have done it. They talked about your mom doing it like for when you’re going to school, it isn’t completely perfect, and I love the attention to detail. They stitched in the same way that they would have stitched then. And so they had a huge workshop at our studios, Barrandov Studios in Prague, with the most incredible costume teams who worked tirelessly. I don’t think people realized how much work it took because I certainly didn’t realize it.

When you have 400 extras on set, the costume team starts work at 2 o’clock in the morning to start dressing all of these men and women so that we’re ready to start filming at 7:00 am. And then they wash all the costumes and they go to bed at an insane hour and they do it in shifts. The work that goes into making 400 beautiful costumes is unprecedented. In terms of the court costumes, I was really jealous because their costumes were incredible. Queen Joan and Princess Isabella played by Olivia Ross and Sabrina Bartlett, their costumes were inspired from real medieval images and fabrics that they had used and they are just unbelievable. Like every time I saw Olivia, she was in this new extraordinary costume that Diana fashioned and created out of seemingly thin air in no time and they’re just stunning, stunning, stunning works of art really.

But what is amazing is that the way they were made is the way that they would have made them back then. And Diana was really collaborative as well. I think each of us wanted to have our own unique way in which we wore our costume or we wore our belt or the color of our cross. And so she allowed me to choose the color of my cross and how I would have dyed it. We talked about how they would have washed their clothing and how dirty they would have been. Diana and I found this article about how The Templars would have kept their tunics white. They would have washed it in urine and chalk and then hung out to bleach it on the line. And all of that really detailed history and information about The Templars is fascinating and we loved going there and making it as authentic as possible.

Earlier you mentioned the love story and because Landry became a Templar at such a young age, do you think that’s why he was able to rebel against that part of it and enter a relationship?

I think that when we first meet Landry at the top of Episode 1 he is 20. He is brash and young –he is a maverick, incredibly cocky and is kind of emboldened by the fact that he has God on his side and he thinks that he’s invincible, which I think a lot of 20 year olds think, regardless of whether they have God on their side or not. I know I certainly felt like that.

But what we see at the top of Episode 1 is his entire life flipped upside down when they lose Acre, the last Templar stronghold in the Holy Land and they lose the Holy Grail. And so we flash forward 15 years and when you’ve been brought up as a as a warrior, and that’s all you know, everything you know, it’s a tough reality to deal with. And so he’s like a caged animal, unable to fulfill what he thinks is his only purpose and duty which is to fight.

So when we meet him, he is this very, very complex, pulled apart guy in Episode 1. He is battling with his humanity and he is secular yet he is also still mentally devout. He is very loyal to his brothers, his family yet he is lying to them. He is having an affair with a woman yet he is a monk. He is the bravest, most fearless warrior yet he’s starting to feel a sense of his own mortality. I think that’s why he kind of falls in love with this woman. It’s not that he’s doubting God or that he’s doubting the Templars or religion, but that he’s doubting himself. He is in a conflict, in a battle with himself, which are the stories that I love to watch where your hero is so full of contradiction and battle and personal complications. And throughout the first season, we see him work through that and battle through that and try and find out who he really is. And it’s an awesome journey for me to play and to take viewers on.

You mentioned a potential three or four season run for the series. Was that something that was discussed with you when you first took the role?

We love the show and we really hope that we can continue making it for as long as possible because we’re a real family and we’re very, very proud of it and we love making it. There’s also still a lot of the Templar history that has yet to be told. We have an idea of where the show will go and where it will take us. But what actually happens is that while you’re making a show it becomes this dialogue that happens between the writers, the actors, directors, the costume designers, the art director, the production designer, makeup artists, etc. where you’re constantly kind of feeding into this pot which is the show.

It evolves and changes and moves in ways that you would never expect it to. It’s like a living organism but that surprises you. And so though we have an idea of where this is going, actually the truth is that we don’t in many respects. We have the structure of history and what actually happened which we have to stay with but in terms of the characters, and their fuels and wants and needs and how they navigate their way through that history is something that we’re constantly being surprised by with the characters. And that’s a really exciting place to work with.

Especially as an actor, I don’t want to know where the character is going because in life I have no idea what I’m doing tomorrow or how it’s going to pan out. I can only be in the present and I can only make choices in the present, and so that’s what you want your characters to do. The writers actually withheld scripts from us and didn’t tell us what was happening later in this first season so that we could be surprised in the moments whilst we were making the episode, which is a really fantastic and authentic way to work.

Then once we get the script we kind of talk about them and collaborate on them. Dominic Minghella is an incredible showrunner. He is a force of nature and an amazing man and a brilliant writer, and he really values the actors’ input. And so he is always very good at fielding ideas and whether he takes them or not is up to him but it feels like a very collaborative process where everybody is feeding into it and we all have ownership over the show and that’s really exciting.

Do you have any fun behind the scenes stories from onset?

We had a lot of fun on set. Because we shot in Prague, we were all away from home and so you kind of inherently just become a family and you bond really tightly because you’re not only working together, but you’re living together or you’re eating together, you’re going out for drinks together, etc. And so you become very close over the seven months that you’re shooting. We had a lot of fun everyday but without a doubt my favorite story actually came on the first day of shooting.

I’ve already told you about how heavy our costume was, about 50 pounds. And our first three days were real trial by fire in terms of wearing these costumes and fighting in these costumes and we were shooting in Dubrovnik in Croatia in about 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It was insanely hot and we were just sweating and fighting and the adrenaline was going and we were going at it. And we were becoming more and more exhausted.

Simon Merrells who plays Tancrede, he is a fearless actor. And he is the oldest of the Templars and he is the oldest actor of the Templars, but without doubt the fittest and strongest and meanest guy of all of us. There is a scene where they built this jetty in Dubrovnik and they built these boats. And he’s having to carry this box, run down this jetty, this kind of long wooden jetty. And there is a cannon ball hitting the water next to him and explosions going off. He is running up to the boats and because the jetty is very long, he is getting into like deep water. So everyone’s a bit scared because of the costumes and everything. Anyway, he runs up to the jetty – and this is on the rehearsal, and there are some supporting artists and stuntmen in front of him. There is a gangplank that goes up into the boat and they kind of run up the boat and jump in and they jump onto the boat and they’re like, “Great, this is no problem.”

So then they go for a take and the adrenaline kicks in and everyone is going for it. The explosions start going off and he’s running up the gangplank. As he gets to the gangplank, he is like sprinting. One of the supporting artists pauses on the gangplank and doesn’t get straight into the boat. So Simon has nowhere to go and so he just falls, like he stops suddenly with the momentum of the weight of the costume and he falls into the ocean. He is in 50 pounds of chain mail and he just sinks to the bottom of the sea.

I was watching from afar and I was absolutely terrified. I said, “Oh my God. Simon, he is sinking, what the hell?” Suddenly, we got the safety crew. Then ten guys dive into the sea like dolphins and they go down and they pull him out. And he’s pulled out of the water. Everyone really panicked.

The director’s got a loudspeaker and he speaks to Simon and says, “Simon, Simon, you okay?” And Simon was describing like “Yes”, and he was completely calm and collected. “It was beautiful actually. This is a swimming journey. It’s kind of peaceful.”

Then the director comes over the loudspeaker and says, “Simon, are you good to go again?” He says absolutely and just starts again. That really set the tone for our show. But the moment we’re seeing Simon fall into that ocean was terrifying but kind of hilarious too. The way he describes it is amazing.

How was it reuniting with some of your Downton Abbey costars?

I was so happy to work with Jim Carter who plays Mr. Carson on Downton and Julian Ovenden who plays Charles Blake on Downton Abbey, because they are just unbelievable actors. And I think that the caliber that they have only reflects so well on Knightfall, you know. The cast that we’ve assembled on Knightfall is one of the best that I’ve ever worked with. They are really amazing actors and amazing sponsors. To have someone like Jim Carter who is a multiple Emmy nominated actor and the fact that he was so excited and hungry to do our show, I think is really a testament to the scripts of Knightfall. And we hope that everyone likes it as much as we do.