Imagine you're Tom Payne. Your career -- like that of seemingly every actor not named DiCaprio -- has had its downs, but compared with most, plenty more ups, including starring roles in movies like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Physician. You're a respected, accomplished, working actor.
And then you find out you've been chosen to join the cast of The Walking Dead.
Midway through its seventh season, TWD draws the biggest audiences on TV (outside of sports) by a huge margin, especially among the coveted 18-49 demographic. An hour of The Walking Dead is worth more, in terms of audience and ad revenue, than a whole evening on many networks. Joining a high-profile show like that would be pressure enough, but you've also been chosen to play Paul "Jesus" Rovia, a character the comic fans know and love. You'll have to prove yourself to the millions of comic book and TV series fans, and just as important, to all the actors, writers, producers, etc., who make up such a well-oiled and incredibly successful team.
If you were Tom, you could be forgiven for seeing that phone call as a classic "good news, bad news" scenario.
But if you actually are Tom, that call was nothing but good news, because everything you've done to this point has prepared you, professionally and personally, for the challenge.
With the midseason premier of The Walking Dead airing this Sunday night on AMC, I talked with Tom about taking the risk to move from London to Los Angeles, what he learned from the sudden cancelation of the short-lived HBO series Luck, his perspectives on career and success, and how he handled being a new guy on The Walking Dead.
Let's lay some groundwork. Why acting? Countless people dream of being an actor, but relatively few actually try, much less stick with it.
When I was about 6 years old, I got dragged into an audition for the school play. A teacher thought it would be good for me because I liked to perform and show off.
That doesn't mean I realized I wanted to be an actor, though. I never believe it when people claim they knew they wanted to be actors when they were 4 or 5 years old. I think that's rubbish. When you're that age, you just like showing off. [Laughs]
Over time, acting became my "thing," and when I was 15 or 16 and thinking about a career I thought, "I still really enjoy this--why wouldn't I choose to do a job I really enjoy?" Then I actually had to figure out how to do it.
In England, there are a few fairly direct paths, but the most linear is to go to drama school. So I looked at the three best drama schools, figuring if I wanted to be good I should go to the very top. Plus I thought that would help me get opportunities. My thinking was a little like wanting to go to a top business school if you hope to work in business.
The first year I applied and didn't get in. I thought, "OK, that's fine, it's not my time," and when I applied the next year, I got in.
I did three years there, and in my last year I did public performances, met with casting directors and agents, and I was lucky enough to pick up an agent.
I figured you were going to say, "Unfortunately, that approach didn't work."
Lots of people lack the courage of their convictions. If you want to succeed, you have to take the necessary risks and the occasional leap in the dark. I try to go with my gut over anything else. The few times I haven't have been some of the worst decisions I've made.
I never really doubted I could do this. I know that might sound arrogant, but it wasn't like that. I just had this innate belief: If I keep working and trying, I'll get there. I'm not really a dreamer, but I do believe you can do anything you want to do and make a success of it.
Keep in mind, to me "get there" meant "make a living." I wasn't thinking about awards or becoming rich. I just wanted to be able to make my living by working as an actor. That was the goal. I really enjoyed acting, and I don't think a lot of people get the opportunity to do a job they really enjoy.
And I was very lucky in that I have a very supportive family. My dad and I had that conversation about how choosing an acting career could mean I would have to struggle for a long time, but I convinced them that it was what I really wanted to do, and they've been extremely supportive.
Lots of people don't get that kind of support from their families when they take what seems like a risky path, and that support has been a huge bonus.
Like every actor you've had ups and downs. How did you work through the down periods when the jobs weren't coming?
I'm only 34, but still, the older you are, the harder that gets. In my 20s I was really young, and when something didn't go my way I just figured things would come to me eventually.
You do go through periods of intense frustration, but overall I'm quite philosophical about the whole thing. When I had a setback, I could always move on with the thought that it wasn't my time. I decided that it wasn't the right job for me, but the right one would come along.
I really believe that. The right jobs do come along--but you have to put yourself at risk in order to get there. If you try of course you may be rejected, but if you don't try, then you'll never have the chance to get the right jobs.
That's a great perspective, but it's still hard to hang in there, mentally and emotionally. Eventually something has to give, and often the "give" is found in the choices you have to make.
That's actually one of the reasons I originally moved to Los Angeles. It was cheaper to live here. At the time, I could live a lot longer between acting jobs than I could in England. Had I stayed in England, I would have had to take at least a few acting jobs just for the money. Since I've been here I haven't had to do that.
Plus, I was ready for a change of pace and a change of lifestyle.
And there's one more thing. I love the way America is so aspirational. I really like the attitude that you can be anything you want to be as long as you're willing to work for it. I love that about America.
While we're talking about "downs" (or at least I am), at one point you were cast in Luck, a high-profile HBO series, and then it suddenly got canceled.
That was my real Hollywood lesson.
The job was amazing. Amazing actors, amazing writers and producers, an amazing network. I was thinking, "We're going to win all these awards. This will be amazing." And then it fell apart.
But I also fell straight into another movie, and a role I couldn't have played had I still been doing Luck.
It's funny how things turn out. For the second season, of Luck I don't think the writers quite knew what to do with my character. I was probably going to get less screen time. They might not have given me a huge amount to do.
And then when the show got canceled, I was able to do The Physician. It's a cliche, but it's also true: Often when one door closes, another opens.
It was nice to have that lesson. When friends come over for pilot season, I tell them the likelihood is you won't book something. The odds are stacked against you. If you do get a callback, that's really good. If you get to the final stage, that's amazing, and even if that's all you get, it's still awesome.
And even if you do get a show, even a network show ... I have friends who have filmed 16 episodes of a series, and the network aired two or three and then canceled the show.
The way your business works. If you're not philosophical about it, you'll drive yourself crazy.
The key is to always be thinking, "If this falls apart, where do I stand, and what will I do next?" In the past there were occasions when I thought, "This is it, this is the big one," and it hasn't worked out. Luck taught me that you can be on the best network, working with the best people and it still may not be "the one."
That's also true on the other end of the spectrum. Take Stranger Things. I'm sure they had high hopes, but I guarantee no one in that cast knew it would be such a phenomenon.
Of course now I'm on The Walking Dead, which is definitely a big one. That I did know for sure. [Laughs.]
So you land The Walking Dead. In terms of joining the team, how did you approach your first few days?
This is a show that's already established. My job is to not screw things up. They also gave me a character that is recognizable and fun and interesting, and that is a bit of a gift.
But it was a weird. My very first episode was definitely weird, as an actor and for the audience, because my character makes the two main dudes (Rick and Daryl) look like asses.
I was definitely aware I was coming in and doing a bit of scene stealing.
Plus, I joined just after two main characters had left. I spoke to Andy (Andrew Lincoln) about it, and I was absolutely welcomed and they were really great to me, like they are with everyone, but it is a weird thing where you lose cast members, members of the group, friends... and you've got someone like me saying, "Hi, I'm the new guy!"
And this season we lost two very big characters, and again the show is different. The dynamic is different. You feel the loss of those people. I definitely have a better understanding of what it was like for everyone when I arrived.
So in those first weeks, I was trying to become a member of the group, and oddly enough the way the character came onto the show and how I came onto the show mirrored each other. Because Jesus spent a lot of time with Daryl and Rick, I spent a lot of time with Norman (Reedus) and Andy.
Early on I knew everyone else on a "first meeting" level, but then I slowly got to know people better. You really get to know people when you work with them. Plus, this year I lived in Atlanta, whereas the first year I lived in a hotel in the middle of nowhere. So I got to hang out with people a lot more, and that really helped.
And here's the main thing. Quite honestly, for the show to be the juggernaut that it is, and for everyone to not have become complete assholes... that's amazing. (Laughs.) It's been seven years and success and fame hasn't turned any of them into assholes, and that's why the show has lasted.
Plus, Andy really leads from the front. He welcomes everyone, he comes in for every director's first day, for every new actor's first day, even if he's not needed that day... and that's a huge part of why the show is still such a success.
Becoming part of a team is important, but for you personally, you had to turn yourself into this wiry ninja badass with a heart of gold...
(Laughs.) That's the fun part. I get to learn new skills, get really fit... it's amazing. The production company pays for you to learn things and get in shape.
I've done physical transformations before. I trained really hard to ride horses like a jockey for Luck, and I also got really skinny. I was down to 130 pounds.
The Walking Dead is a different deal. I did gymnastics when I was younger, I'm 5' 8", I'm springy, I'm the right size to throw myself around... but still. I had to train a lot.
That isn't just important for the character. When you're actually on set things move very quickly, and I wanted to be able to do all the things my character does without needing my stunt double.
So far, we've managed to pull that off.
How does playing such a well known character affect the choices you might make in the future? If I was playing Thomas Shelby on Peaky Blinders, I might want to take roles where my character isn't menacingly stoic.
I actually thought about that the other day. When I leave the show I don't think I will automatically cut my hair and shave off my beard because I will still want to be recognizable. The broader public knows me as the guy with the beard and the long hair. (Laughs.)
Ultimately, it's always about the work. You don't turn down great parts. I've spent much of my career, as I'm doing with Jesus, playing nicer guys, good guys, empathetic guys. So, I would like to play a bad guy.
When I first started acting, one of my breaks was to screen test to play Hannibal Lecter in a movie called Hannibal Rising.
Most people would see getting a screen testing but not getting the role as a failure, but you see it as a break?
It was a break. It was amazing to get that far. That's how you have to look at it. "I got close. Next time, I'll get even closer."
So yes, I'd love to play a bad guy. But in general I'm convinced the right roles will come along.
Like I said, the right jobs do come your way... as long as you're taking risks and putting yourself out there so those jobs can actually find you.