Debuting this Wednesday, December 6, Knightfall is an exciting new series on HISTORY that chronicles the mysterious but true accounts of the Knights of Templar, the elite warriors of the Crusades. The series is produced by Jeremy Renner and stars British actor Tom Cullen, who you may recall from Downton Abbey (as Lord Gillingham, Lady Mary’s final suitor), the 2011 film Weekend as well as the 2012 miniseries World Without End.
We had the opportunity to speak with Tom about his new show, the complex role of Landry — the headstrong knight who leads the Templars on a life-or-death mission to recover the Holy Grail — as well as his upcoming HBO miniseries Gunpowder and his cameo during the final season of Orphan Black.
What can you tell us about the series?
The Knights Templar are a very monastic sect who grew prominence during the Holy Wars. They were formed to protect pilgrims on the road. But as they grew in size, they grew in power. They were responsible for setting up the first bank and created the first cheque. They grew so wealthy and so powerful that they were even able to overthrow kings and queens. The myth tells us that they were also in charge of protecting Christendom’s most sacred relics, such as the Holy Grail.
Which we’ll see in the premiere.
This era of television is known as Peak TV. Peak TV has been very good to you particularly as you’ve gotten to appear on hit shows like Black Mirror, Downton Abbey and Orphan Black. How did this role come about?
I made a really conscious decision that my next job was going to be something that I felt really passionate about. Unfortunately, that wasn’t as easy to come by as I thought it would be. For about five months I had been searching for a project that I desperately wanted. This script arrived on my desk and I read and was blown away by it. After a very frustrating five months, I had found something that I wanted to do. It wasn’t even a script that I had been waiting for in that present moment. It was a script that I had been waiting for my entire life. It was something that I had dreamt of doing since I was a kid. It really lived up to those expectations. It has been the most enjoyable working experience.
What can you tell us about your character?
Landry is a maverick, hot-headed knight. He’s a very complex character. He’s battling with his faith. He is questioning God, yet he is an immensely pious man. He’s loyal to his brothers as they are his family but he’s lying to them… He’s having an affair despite being a monk. He’s a fearless warrior yet he’s starting to get a sense of his own mortality. Landry is unexpectedly forced into becoming the leader of the Knights Templar and there’s a whisper that the Holy Grail has resurfaced. He goes on a pathological hunt for the grail, in search of God and in search of redemption. But the closer he gets to the grail, the closer he gets to the truth… And his whole world will turn upside down. It’s a hell of a journey. It’s really exciting.
Will this be a self-contained mini-series?
It’s a ten episode first season. We want to make much more of it.
Okay, so the first season won’t conclude with the events of Friday, the 13th of October 1307?
No, that will happen in later seasons!
In the pilot, we’ll see the Knights Templar protect those facing prosecution. Can you describe the parallel which viewers will see with the society from back then and what’s happening in the world today? Will the show have a strong message for the audience so that history doesn’t repeat itself?
Well, I think you said it all, really… If history teaches us anything, it’s that it’s cyclical. Human beings have a very short memory. We keep on making the same mistake. That’s why I think that historical dramas are important because they can remind us of our fallibilities as human beings and how easily we slip into those same patterns and make the same mistakes. The show is about how power is wielded by the few in order to gain much for themselves — and how they use religion to often get that power. That’s something that I think is very parallel with the world that we live in today.
What was it like working with Jeremy Renner on this project? How hands-on was he?
Jeremy’s fantastic. He’s such a huge advocate for the show. Having someone like Jeremy behind this show really emboldens you to make the best work that you possibly can. He’s been with this project right from the beginning and he’ll see it right through the very end. He’s been a great guy and we’re very lucky to be working with him.
Is it true that we’ll see him on-screen as well?
I can’t say anything about that!
You guest-starred on a fan-favourite episode of Orphan Black’s final season. What was it like getting kicked in the balls by your girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany)?
It wouldn’t be the first time! [Laughs] We actually had a lot of fun. We shot that scene over two days and it was something that Tatiana and I had never done before. We’ve worked together doing dramas, so we had a lot of fun here. I think that Tat relished kicking me in the balls way too much.
You also got to see her as Krystal, which was one of my favourite clones. Who was your favourite clone?
My favourite clone is a toss up between Alison and Krystal. I also loved Helena as well. She was such a feral animal… But there’s something so extraordinarily nuanced and clever about Tatiana’s performance as Alison. I think that’s the one that I loved the most because Alison has the ability to make me laugh and then cry within the same sentence.
That’s so true. It’s only been a few months but we really miss that show. It had a fitting end.
Yeah, it was such a good show.
You’ll also be seen on Gunpowder which debuts Dec. 18 on HBO Canada. You have a big December here and in the U.S. with both Knightfall and Gunpowder premiering. What can you tell us about that role?
I’m playing Guy Fawkes. I’m not sure if many people in North America know about Guy Fawkes, but every year on the 5th of November, every town burns an effigy on top of a big bonfire and we set up fireworks. It’s a great time of the year and it’s called Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night. The reason we burn Guy Fawkes is because he and a group of oppressed Catholics tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, which contained the King and the Protestant Government at the time. Gundpowder is part of that story and it’s such an important part of British history. The show [which premiered on the BBC in the UK]turned out really really well so HBO bought it and they really believe in it. It has a great cast, Kit Harington, Liv Tyler, Mark Gatiss, Peter Mullan, Robert Emms… It’s really awesome and I felt very honoured to be among that group of people. I feel like a giddy kid. I have Knightfall and Gunpowder both coming out. They’re two really awesome shows. I feel very very lucky.
Knightfall premieres on HISTORY on Wednesday, December 6 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.