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Background: Phil Caruso/Fox; foreground: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Tom Payne on Prodigal Son season two and the emotional toll of playing Malcolm Whitly

Background: Phil Caruso/Fox; foreground: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Tom Payne delivers in emotionally charged roles, as seen from his impactful performance in The Walking Dead as Paul “Jesus” Rovia from seasons six to nine. In bringing this graphic novel character to life, Payne sported long hair and lots of beanies as he added a calm energy to zombie-slashing chaos. In his most recent and lead role on Fox procedural drama Prodigal Son, he faces off against scarier, more realistic enemies: criminals and killers. Payne plays Malcolm Bright, a profiler for the NYPD who grew up in the shadow of his serial killer father, Dr. Martin Whitly, a.k.a. The Surgeon (Michael Sheen), who he helped turn into the police as a child. As a profiler, Malcolm often turns to his imprisoned, manipulative father for help in solving the crime of the week, all the while worrying whether he possesses the tendencies of a killer himself.

The second season of Prodigal Son, which aired its midseason finale on March 2, amplifies these fears as Malcolm deals with the aftermath of covering up his sister Ainsley’s (Halston Sage) crime. The show (which features a fine cast that also includes Lou Diamond Phillips, Bellamy Young, Aurora Perrineau, Keiko Agena, and Frank Harts) deftly explores murder and complex family dynamics, and has a surprising amount of fun with the subject matter. Payne, whose character suffers through PTSD and is often put in dangerous positions, agrees that comedy is required to balance out the serial killer-ness of it all. The A.V. Club spoke to Payne about how he focuses on his mental health while playing a serial killer’s son, and what’s next for the crime drama.

The A.V. Club: It can sometimes be tough for a show in its second season to do well if the first season has set high expectations. How do you think Prodigal Son is dealing with that in season two? 

Tom Payne: I think we’ve gotten better in our second season. It probably has to do with the fact that the first season had more episodes than planned. We were originally picked up for 13, but we were shooting for episode six or seven when we nine more episodes were ordered. Even at the time, I thought that was maybe a few extra episodes but we did well, regardless. With this season, and especially because of COVID-19, we had more time to prepare beforehand and we know it’s only 13 episodes, so it feels like a tighter season. Everyone knows their characters and the relationships very well, so that helps.

AVC: What kind of talks did you have prior to season two—and even now as you continue to film—to keep up the balance between crime aspects, entangled family dynamics, and dark humor? 

TP: What makes our show unique is that we can play around with the genre, and sometimes it evolves into broad comedy because we have capable actors who can add that to heartfelt emotions. It all comes down to the family relationships, which are heightened in the show, of course, but a version of it exists in real life for all of us, whether it’s with parents or siblings. My character, Malcolm, is often worried about what traits he’s inherited from his parents, especially his father. That’s the center of Prodigal Son. He’s in pain because of it, so that lightness and comedy is needed. We can afford to go quite big with it, too. You can compare it to a lot of different shows, but I don’t think anyone has this balance of light and dark that we have.

AVC: Your character is a profiler who works with a team of detectives, so there are lots of technical terms, and the writing can get specific. Do you get to add anything to it, like improv any of the comedic moments?

TP: Yeah, we do. It’s not so much in that we’re not doing Judd Apatow levels of improvised scenes, but I just filmed a scene with Keiko Agena [who plays medical examiner Dr. Edrisa Tanaka] and we changed the end of it a bit just to be more natural to our relationship. I was actually just telling her yesterday that sometimes it’s nice to see our ad-libs stay in; it seems to flow so easily.

AVC: It lends more authenticity.

TP: Yeah, it adds to the fabric of the show, so it’s less about the plot and more about the relationships they share, including the fun one between Malcolm and Edrisa. It’s what makes the show tick.

AVC: The second season has been building on the cliffhanger from season one, in which Malcolm’s sister Ainsley is revealed as a killer. How has this pivot been from thinking that Malcolm might be the prodigal son of The Surgeon to now Ainsley having that “killer” gene?

TP: It’s really made the relationship between him and Ainsley stranger—with his whole family actually. Malcolm made this decision to take ownership of the murder because Ainsley doesn’t remember doing it. He does it in a protective way, and he is carrying on that lie as the season goes on, but there’s only so much time it can go on for.

AVC: In this season, there have been more moments of Malcolm offering evil smirks and seeming to enjoy the disposal of a dead body. Do you do that on purpose; are they planted clues?  

TP: Those are definitely planted. It’s the aspect of his character he’s most afraid of, so it’s a visual representation of that. It’s showing a side of him that could be lurking, especially now that his sister is sort of a killer and he’s committed this act of disposing a body to help. He’s closer to that side and to his father. Those shots are that aspect of him peeking through.

AVC: How do you slip into that zone?

TP: It might sound strange, but it happens quite easily. The gift of this character is that he can be a lot of things at once. It stretches my abilities, it’s nice to give myself the workout of going to so many different places. Malcolm doesn’t get to enjoy or laugh as much, so it’s a fun place to go to for me.

AVC: Prodigal Son is obviously heavy with crime and serial killer aspects. Were you a fan of this genre before you got this role? Is that what pulled you to it?

TP: I think everyone likes to solve mysteries. You enjoy watching it because you want to guess who it is and give a solution to the story. I remember when we shot the pilot, we were leaning on movies like Seven a lot, because it was about catching a serial killer. Funnily enough, it’s a genre that will never die. There are lots of shows even now about these subjects. Every year during pilot season, there will be lots of murder or detective things and hospital things. It’s not necessary that something will always feel different, but Prodigal Son really felt like it. It helps that when I jumped on board, Michael Sheen and Lou Diamond Phillips had already been cast. When you have actors of that caliber, you know the material is going to be elevated. I love the writers of our show, but I also think the show wouldn’t be as good if we didn’t have the actors that we do. These kind of shows can fall into a pattern and be cheesy. but everyone here comes with great work and gives it real stakes.

AVC: There is a lot of emotional heaviness and passing down of generational trauma in Prodigal Son. Once you got cast as Malcolm, you started shooting pretty quickly. Did you have time to digest what working on this character for several months of the year would mean for you in terms of your mental health? How has that changed as you entered season two?  

TP: I didn’t have the time to process it. It wasn’t even the murder or crime aspect; it’s the emotional aspect of the show that is most straining. It’s also my first lead role in the U.S.; it’s relentless and all-consuming work with no time for anything else. It was stressful to get into the rhythm of dealing with that mentally and then also to be toying with my emotional health in the scenes with Michael Sheen. It took me a while to feel steady and even-keeled, because the work-life balance is pretty hard to achieve.

We got there by the end of season one and now, coming back to season two, I have come to a better understanding of how to deal with the pressures of Malcolm’s life and my own life with the job, just to protect my own emotional and physical health during shooting. I don’t go into the scenes with Michael quite as emotionally naked anymore. In season one, the scenes where Malcolm has to spend one-on-one time with his father were scary to play because even Malcolm didn’t know how it was going to be seeing his father, this person he is scared of but loves at the same time. It was lots of emotions.

AVC: The scenes with Michael Sheen are great but do you have a favorite character for Malcolm to interact with because he shares a unique rapport with everyone? My personal favorite are the ones you share with Bellamy Young’s Jessica Whitly. You have a great mother-son chemistry, and she has wonderful comic timing.

TP: Thank you, it’s really nice to hear that; people don’t say that often about our scenes. Malcolm and Jessica have an empathy for one another, they’re in similar positions, so those scenes with Bellamy are layered with stress but covered up with a good mix of sharing quips and having fun. I get to interact with everyone and they all bring out different sides of Malcolm. I love the ones with Michael also because there’s so much underpinning them. It’s just two people in a small room, it has a whole different energy to it.

AVC: The show really puts Malcolm, and you, through the wringer. He’s dancing with whips in a sex dungeon while conducting an interrogation or he’s jumping out of a window to get away from a landmine he was holding. What’s it like to shoot those?

TP: Doing a television show is fun because it can put me through things in one day that I would never get to experience anywhere else. The episode with jumping out the window [season one, episode 13, “Wait And Hope”]—it was such a crazy day, like out of an action film. I had the time of my life. I really enjoyed the scenes with Michael Raymond James’ Junkyard Killer, when he had me locked in a dungeon. It’s seemingly not enjoyable, but they add so much focus to the scene.

AVC: You’ve done The Walking Dead, so you’re used to being put in tough places, but is there anything that’s off-limits to you as the actor playing Malcolm? Like, not putting you in a room full of rats or something?

TP: I’m not very big on spiders, so I know that wouldn’t be fun. But what’s turning out to be a challenge is that we’re shooting in New York City right now and it gets bitterly cold at night. We were filming a long sequence a couple of days ago and it’s so bleeding cold, your brain doesn’t work in a scene and the body is just saying, “What are you doing, go stand inside, it’s not helpful for you pretend to be another person right now.” On The Walking Dead, it was hot in Atlanta. I got used to finding shade. But when you’re cold you can’t do much about it.

AVC: What’s it like to come back and film in New York City in a pandemic? The experience is probably very different now.

TP: We were in the middle of filming in March last year when we got shut down with two more episodes to go. We delayed coming back to production, starting in September instead of July. It’s a smaller season, so we’re well-prepared and following all the protocols: masks, testing everyday, no visitors on set. We’ve been lucky so far. We’ve had longer quarantine situations, which has altered some storylines or scenes, but we’ve managed to keep it going. We’re shooting episode nine now.

AVC: Catherine Zeta-Jones is joining the cast as a regular for the second half of season two. What’s it like to work with her?

TP: I’m happy that these incredibly fantastic and famous actors are choosing to join us. Alan Cumming joins us too. I think it says a lot about the people we have on our show and the material we are putting together. I just really want whoever comes on set to have fun with us and make great television.

AVC: It’s so easily possible with a show like this one because it’s a procedural. Different actors can come join various episodes.

TP: That’s what I wanted as the lead, to get to work with all these actors and create an environment that people can hear about and go, “I have to work on this show, everyone’s so nice.”

AVC: We can’t spoil much, but what should audiences expect from the rest of season two?

TP: I don’t think Martin Whitly is giving up on the whole prison escape idea. We are going to be dealing with Ainsley and how the family gets over it. They can’t erase or forget that she’s killed someone. I’m also sure the writers will come up with ways to inflict more trauma on Malcolm. Should be fun for me.

AVC: Do you think that Malcolm can also be a killer? Do you want him to be?

TP: Hmm, I don’t know. I think he doesn’t know either. Maybe it could be a Dexter situation where he kills people who deserves it. Or, if anything, Ainsley becomes a killer and he helps her out. A gender-swapped Dexter.

Staff Writer (TV)