HISTORY's new action-packed new medieval drama, which starts at 9pm on Tuesday, follows the Knights Templar as they set off on a quest to regain the Holy Grail...
Downton Abbey and Gunpowder star Tom Cullen opens up about an intense training camp, meeting up with old friends and how the Knightfall crew rebuilt a medieval city after disaster struck...
How would you describe your character?
Tom Cullen: "A swashbuckler is pretty good! When we first meet him at the beginning of the show he’s a maverick, uncontrollable, cocky, brash young knight and in the first episode he has his world turned upside down. We first meet him during the fall of Acre at the end of the Crusades, but then we catch up with him properly 15 years later, when the Knights templar are in Paris. He feels the brotherhood has lost its way over the years and wants them to make a difference again."
You must be pretty handy with a sword by the end?
TC: "Yeah, I actually found out I could fight with my left hand as well as my right hand, which was pretty cool. We got pretty good by the end and that’s one of the most satisfying parts of the job – that trajectory that by the end we did become quite handy and that’s something I’m really proud of. There’s a great battle scene in episode 10 and to see the growth of all of the actors – how good we got – the stunt team really pushed us, they were sticklers for perfection.. I think we did alright."
What makes the Knights Templar and the period so intriguing for viewers?
TC: "I think the medieval period is a fascinating period as it most shaped modern society – we’re still feeling the repercussions and actions of those people even now.. especially the Templars and the crusades. What’s really engaging and interesting about the Templars is they are fascinating, clandestine religious sect that have huge principles and morals... they’re fascinating by themselves, but also the mythology that surrounds them. That’s something the show bridges quite well I think, it embraces the mythology as well as the truths."
We know a lot about the Templars, but much is unknown...it must have been fun as a project to fill in the gaps?
TC: "That’s exactly it. That’s the most fun of doing historical pieces – you get to interpret it and there’s a space between the real history and the mythology and the writers had a lot of fun filling in that space, which is where Knightfall sits."
It’s a very physical role – there’s a lot of fighting in Knightfall - did you train hard for the role?
TC: "I trained for a couple of months in the gym and then we had a really intense boot camp with the other knights – Padraic Delaney, Bobby Schofield, Simon Merrels – they really kicked our ass and got us into shape. We’d be doing horse riding in the morning and sword play and gym work and boxing and then more sword play – it was a lot of fun. There are so many fights I’d be filming them in the day and have to be rehearsing the fight scenes in my lunch break. It was an intense schedule but we loved it, it was a lot of fun."
You’ve worn some period costumes in your time but that suit of armour is something else – how heavy was it?!
TC: "It was absolutely ridiculous! It was so heavy… It weighed 23 kilograms. The first time I put it on I couldn’t walk down the corridor and the first time I tried to get on a horse I didn’t have enough power in my legs to get over the horse – they had to get me a step-ladder, it’s humiliating! But six months of wearing it I'd put on about 25lbs of muscle just from carrying that costume around. By the end we’re leaping over people – it’s amazing how fit you get."
Bet you were glad to see the back of it on the last day!
TC: "You have no idea, mate... I wanted to burn it!"
How did you prepare for the role – did you do much research on the period?
TC: "I thought I knew quite a bit, but as much as you think you know - turns out I didn’t. I think when you’re doing a historical piece you have to bathe yourself in as much literature as you can else it’s really irresponsible. So I read a few books and I went to Paris to went to see where the Temple was. it's actually quite a weird story – I went to visit a mate filming in
"Paris – I just wanted to go and wander around and read a book and I found this website called the ‘Secret Tours of Paris’ and it’s a list of places you should go and they talk you through it and there’s a Templar one. So I went to see my mate and we were so excited as we hadn’t seen each other for ages that we got absolutely hammered, and I woke up in the morning, dreadfully hungover, dreading having to travel across Paris – so I looked at the address I had to go to, stuck it in Google maps and the blue dot was exactly where I was supposed to start!
"Which was weird. I wanted to see where the old Templar temple was that was destroyed by Napolean, and I was like, where is it? And I realised that I was sleeping on top of where the temple used to be! It’s mental."
It’s meant to be that you played that role!
TC: "Yeah man! That sort of thing really helps, it kind of vibrates in you."
Dan Jones was one of the historical consultants – did you get chance to chat to him? Was he helpful with details?
TC: "Yeah, Dan was awesome – he was like our oracle. He was on set quite a bit and always available to reach out.... we’ve all formed a really good friendship with him. I went out for a beer with him last night actually. He’s great. It’s wonderful to have someone like that to guide you through the show."
There are always people who say things aren’t quite right though – what would you say to them?
TC: "I’d say carry on doing it because that’s what pushes you to make this show better. Everyone is working their hardest to make it as authentic as possible within the parameters of making a drama – you have to have a certain leniency with the history, because there’s so much we don’t know – you have to fill in the blanks – but the people, the fans, who really focus on the detail – they’re the ones that make us want to be better, so it’s fine – it’s good. That level of engagement is healthy I think."
You can always give them Dan’s phone number if they have any complaints!
TC: "Exactly! But the world everyone built is terrific. Our set designers, our costume designer – it really looks and feels authentic. We weren’t wearing plastic chain mail, it’s metal and everything was done to the utmost detail."
The Knightfall sets are fantastic – I heard they burnt down though?
TC: "Yeah, they built the biggest backlot in Europe, this medieval Paris – it was really unbelievable. On one of the first days we filmed there was a 200m main street and it had market squares, a palace, churches, side alleys, the temple - really crazy. On the first day there were 300 extras, all with a name and a job, so they wanted to cultivate a community and they had fully kitted-out shops. I was on this horse and had to ride through ‘Paris’ – it was a thrilling experience … you get goose bumps.
"The work those guys did was unbelievable, so it was tragic when the sets burnt down. But when a disaster like that happens, how you react to it is what really counts, and we didn’t drop a day shooting. The same guys who built the set built them again, and they did it even better than they did before. Really impressive."
Did it make you want to do an even better job than normal..
TC: "Absolutely. That was the other great thing about our set, it was incredibly egalitarian - everyone felt they were part of making this show.. it felt like a community. And yes, when you see work like that on the set, it does make you step up that extra gear and work even harder."
Was it good to see some of your Downtown Abbey co-stars on set?
TC: "Yeah, it was nice. And I got to actually look Jim Carter, who plays Pope Boniface VIII, in the eye this time, which was quite nice."
You’ve done lots of historical work recently – Gunpowder Plot and Genius – are you looking for a contemporary role next?
TC: "It’s not really a conscious decision to be honest, I just like stories and depending what the story is I’ll take it. Historical stuff is not something I’ve necessarily pursued – I’ve always been a bit of a history nerd, I really love it – so maybe there is a part of me that embraces that. But yeah, as long as it’s a good story and a good character I’ll always be interested – it doesn’t matter if it’s contemporary or historical."
You recently directed a film – is that something you’d like to do more of?
TC: "Yes, I absolutely loved it. That’s been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my life – I really loved it and I can’t wait to make another one."
Was it something you’d wanted to do for a long time?
TC: "It’s actually something that’s keeps on pursuing me, it wasn’t something I actively went for. It was last summer and a producer rang up and offered me an acting job but I couldn’t do it, and I ended up on the phone pitching him this idea for the film that I had – it’s called Pink Wall by the way – and he was like, why don’t you write me a one-page document? So I did and the next day he called me and said, ‘I’ve got you money, you’ll be shooting it in October’, so it wasn’t something I really pursued – it just kind of found me. And I’m very grateful for that, but yeah, having had a taste of it, I’m hungry to do more."
Knightfall begins on HISTORY Channel on Tuesday 17th July at 9pm
Sean has been writing about all things telly for over 10 years and in that time he's been lucky enough to interview stars like Ian McKellen, Tom Hardy and Kate Winslet. His favourite shows are The Great British Bake-Off, People Just Do Nothing and Succession and in his spare time he enjoys drinking tea, doing crosswords and watching football.
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