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August 19, 2019

Sins of the Father

Zombies are OK, but Tom Payne worries about  his new role messing with his head.

John Griffiths
  • Jan Spanier

Tom Payne’s three seasons as Paul “Jesus” Rovia on The Walking Dead ended earlier this year with his character battling zombies, tricksters and trees in a foggy graveyard — at night.

“We all had to be careful that no one poked their eyes out,” he recalls. Payne emerged from that mist to land another grim, haunted role.

On Prodigal Son, which premieres on Fox September 23, he plays Malcolm Bright, a criminal psychologist who helps the NYPD catch serial killers. His first quarry is a creep who’s copying the kills of Malcolm’s own estranged and deranged father, Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen). Quicker than you can say, “The Silence of the Lambs,” Malcolm is asking his incarcerated dad for tips.

“One of Malcolm’s deepest fears is that he might carry some of his father’s traits,” Payne says. “He’s very tortured.” The actor’s been listening to Happy Face, a true-crime podcast from TV producer Melissa Moore about her own murderous dad. “Her story’s heartbreaking, but it’s very useful for me.”

Born in a London suburb, Payne was raised in picturesque Bath by his TV journalist dad and makeup artist mom. He liked “showing off” as a kid and started acting in school plays at seven, later graduating from London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

He recalls, “In that youthful naïveté, I thought, ‘Well, why would anyone do a job that they didn’t enjoy? This is what I like doing at school, and this is what I’m going to do for my job.’”

By 2007, he was a TV heartthrob, playing a rich kid on the UK teen drama Waterloo Road. He eventually moved to L.A. “on credit cards” to try for stateside stardom.

Portraying a jockey in HBO’s short-lived horse-racing drama, Luck, in 2012 wasn’t the big break he’d hoped for. Yet Payne, who calls himself “ambitious and focused,” soon won some starring roles in features. Then came those zombies and Comic-Con fame.

Cut to today. Working with Sheen has been a dream, Payne says. “He’s totally there with you — an actor’s actor, not there to look cool.”

Son has required some adjustments: Payne and his fiancée, Swedish singer–model Jennifer Åkerman, both nature-lovers, recently left their “lovely little house” in L.A. for a New York apartment. And, while working amid zombies “was fantasy, I’m slightly worried about this new job messing with my head. Serial killers are real,” he says. “I definitely will be texting silly pictures and memes from the set.

"Just to keep things lighthearted.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2019

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