Imagine you've wanted to do something -- to be something -- so badly that for years you fight against that impulse for fear you might fail. Then, times get so tough and you're so broke and literally so hungry that you work double shifts in a restaurant both for the money... and because the long hours include a free meal.
Success is based on a number of factors, but often what separates success from failure is perseverance. Keep going and you still have a chance; quit, and all hope of success is lost.
That's definitely the case for Tom Cullen, the star of Knightfall, History's new scripted series that premieres tonight at 10 p.m. (I've seen the first eight episodes. It's great -- unless drama, action, great characters, great story, and a dash of romance isn't your thing.)
Success is almost always based on a pretty significant "Why?" Why acting?
Both my parents are writers, so the world isn't that foreign to me. But still, I fought being an actor for a really long time.
I wanted to do it so much that it actually took me until I was 21, 22 years old before I finally decided to pursue it.
I was so scared of trying simply... because I knew how crushed I would feel if I failed.
Every actor I've spoken with went through lean times. How did you hang in there when jobs were few and far between?
The leanest times for me were when I first graduated drama school. I'd gone to one school and gotten kicked out. That was a wasted year. Then I went to another drama school.
All that meant I was 25 when I first started acting -- so I was competing against guys who were the same age but had CVs. They actually had CVs. I had nothing. (Laughs.)
I was getting really close to getting jobs, but they would always just go for the guy that had more experience.
You were like the person who will work her butt off if she gets the job... but no one gives her the chance to prove it because she has no experience.
Exactly. So during that time I set up my own "theater company." Because I come from an area which is a little bit rougher, I wanted to make theater for my mates who wouldn't go to see a play. So I did some writing and I would put on 15-minute plays in pubs where you could have a pie and a pint and a play. (Laughs.)
We'd do three plays a night. Basically I created theater for my mates, and and it was really successful... and then my acting career took off and unfortunately I had to stop doing it because I was busy doing "real" jobs.
While that sounds like I had a plan, I didn't. "Pub theater" doesn't look that impressive on your CV. (Laughs.) Only when someone took a punt on me did my career get off the ground.
So where do you get the confidence to do what you do?
Confidence is something I still struggle with.
I come from an area of Wales... let's just say I went to a school where the teachers and other students didn't expect anything of you. You don't necessarily feel like you have any worth in the world.
I'm not blaming my upbringing, but we are all at least partly a product of our environment. So I still struggle with having the confidence to go out and do the things I want to do. Every audition I go on, every role I play... I always question why I'm there, and whether I'm good enough to be there.
I don't think I'll ever get over that. In fact I hope I don't, because it makes me work harder.
That's a fine line. Success builds confidence, but feeling too secure often leads to working less hard. How do you define "success"?
Success is being able to afford to buy food.
I am serious. There was a period of time when I was so poor that I was two months behind on rent and couldn't afford to eat. I worked double shifts in this sausage and mash restaurant because they fed you when you worked double shifts. My friends had phones... I couldn't even dream of having a phone.
I have a roof and I can eat and I have my own phone (laughs)... that's success.
Your CV looks pretty darned impressive now. Just playing Tony Gillingham on Downton Abbey had to lead to other opportunities. What about Knightfall appealed to you?
I had been reading a lot of TV scripts, film scripts... and nothing jumped out at me.
I was in a pretty frustrated place, actually.
Then this script got sent through and I became obsessed. I thought it was incredible. It was something I really wanted, so I pursued it really hard.
I really love big historical dramas, I love incredible battle sequences, I love when the history is very real... while the show looks amazing, at its core it's about relationships and human beings and complex characters.
Landry, my character, is a very emboldened, cocky young knight who feels empowered by the knowledge that God on his side... and then in ten minutes his whole life gets turned upside-down. He's very loyal to his Templar brothers, yet he's having an affair with a woman, he's both faithful and secular, he fears for his own mortality...
It's such a great place to start a show, and the journey just gets better and better.
In a way you were typecast, because your character's main challenge is to just persevere.
(Laughs.) That's very kind, but his journey is just a bit tougher.
He's the classic hero in that he's on a journey for the truth, he keeps getting knocked down physically, he keeps getting beaten up emotionally... yet he keeps on getting back up and carrying on and charging forward.
Maybe that's why I like the show so much. Ultimately it's about finding purpose and meaning. (While kicking plenty of ass, of course.)
As a kid, I used to run around castles pretending to be a knight... and now we're doing it for real. Well, kind of. (Laughs.)
Unfortunately, it's not always the case that you get involved in a project where you feel this passionately. That's true for everyone who works on the show. It has the level of scope and scale we all dream of. We're all immensely proud of it.
Come to think of it, feeling proud of the work you do and the people you do that work with... that's a pretty good definition of success, too.