'Knightfall' star Tom Cullen on chain mail, bloody hotel sheets, and battles that mean something

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Jim Carter as Pope Boniface VIII of France and Tom Cullen as Templar Knight Landry in Knightfall. (Photo: Larry Horricks/History)

“That’d be boring. Everyone likes a bit of shagging,” Knightfall star Tom Cullen says, echoing our enthusiasm that his character, Landry, has trouble upholding the Templar Knights’ vow of celibacy in the drama’s Dec. 6 premiere. We won’t spoil the surprising love story that fuels the new History series, but we can tell you that the Welsh actor likes to think of the show as House of Cards meets Vikings, and rightfully so.

In 1306, Landry becomes the reluctant Master of the Templar Knights in Paris as they search for the lost Cup of Christ for their holy leader, Pope Boniface VIII (Downton Abbey‘s Jim Carter). Also on the hunt for the Holy Grail: William de Nogaret (Downton‘s Julian Ovenden) — the Machiavellian right-hand man to France’s King Philip IV (Ed Stoppard), who considers Landry a trusted friend.

The power struggle Landry finds himself in the middle of does, at times, turn bloody. “I have never worked with that amount of blood before. Seriously, the showers at the end of the day take hours, and sometimes you’re just so tired, you can’t be bothered,” Cullen says. “We were shooting on location, like an hour to an hour and a half outside of Prague, so they put us up in a hotel. And it was one of those days — I was just covered in mud and blood, and I was so tired. I was like, ‘I’m just going to lie down, just five minutes,’ and I didn’t wake up. I woke up in the morning, and my face was stuck to the pillow. I pulled it off, and the sheets and the pillow were covered in blood. ‘Oh my God, what am I gonna do? Housekeeping is gonna think I’ve killed somebody.’ So I just left a little note saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve taken the body with me.'”

It was important to Knightfall showrunner Dominic Minghella, who likens the Knights Templar to the Navy SEALS of their day, and to director Douglas Mackinnon, who ended up helming six of Season 1’s 10 episodes, that both the violence and its aftermath feel real. “Often in TV shows, you see your lead characters killing and it being no problem,” Cullen says. “But for the Templars, killing is a choice, and if you’re going to do it, it has to mean something and they bear a consequence. These are religious Christian men. So that was a really big conversation that we had — we made sure that every single fight had an emotional weight to it, and a story weight to it. It isn’t just me swinging a sword around. The fight in Episode 2, where Landry takes on about seven guys, he’s like a whirling dervish because he’s fighting for his surrogate father. Having a fight with that amount of anger and passion and emotion is so fun. As the actor, you absolutely love killing some of those guys. And on that fight, I get to chop a guy’s arm off and then stab him through the stomach — that was great.”

Training for the role was intense. Cullen, who says he’s reluctant at best to go the gym, had to spend three or four hours a day there for about two months to resemble someone who’d have been fighting six hours a day since the age of 12. Once he got to Prague, he juggled boxing, fight training, circuit training, and riding throughout the shoot. “It was the hardest job I’ve ever done, but the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says.

He can, now, respect the fact that Minghella insisted the actors wear 50 pounds of chain mail in battle sequences as opposed to a lighter rubber imposter that didn’t look authentic on camera. “I didn’t respect it at the time, because I was so angry,” Cullen says with a laugh. “The first time we put it on, I just thought we were f***ed. It was a screen test, and I had to walk from my dressing room to the studio — I could hardly get there.”

The Battle of Acre. (Photo: Larry Horricks/History)

There were some “birthing problems” the first few days of shooting as they filmed the series’ big opening sequence in Dubrovnik, which doubles for Acre, in 104-degree heat. Landry and his mentor, Tancrede (Simon Merrells), are running and fighting their way to the dock, carrying the grail. “The chain mail was so heavy and we just weren’t used to it, and Simon slipped and fell into the sea, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean,” Cullen says. “All of these guys dived in and pulled him out, and I was like, ‘Bloody hell, Simon. You all right?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, it was quite beautiful, actually. I like to sink, then I can see the fish swimming past me.’ It was hilarious. But I remember the first time we tried to get on the horses, we couldn’t get on the horses because we didn’t have the power in our legs yet. But by the end of the six months, you can see in some of the shots I leap up. Doing like 16 hours a day in chain mail, my thighs and my butt are now enormous. I’m thinking of setting up this thing called the Chain Mail Diet, because it’s really in at the moment, isn’t it, big butts?”

Cullen considers it a miracle that the worst injury he suffered during the shoot was a twisted ankle. “The show is called Knightfall, so at its heart it’s about a character who gets put through it,” he says. “Every episode, you see Landry beaten around physically and emotionally and mentally, and he’s a warrior — he just dusts himself off, gets back up, and charges forward again like a bull. As he gets more and more beaten, he just becomes stronger and stronger.”

Episode 6 is a particularly brutal one for Landry, says Cullen, who’s also tortured in HBO’s upcoming miniseries Gunpowder. Premiering Dec. 18, that three-parter stars Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harington as his real-life ancestor Robert Catesby, and Cullen as Guy Fawkes, the most famous of Catesby’s cohorts who tried to blow up the House of Lords in 1605. “I would say what happens in Knightfall is much worse than being stretched, just from my experience,” Cullen says.

Cullen offered one more tease for Knightfall: Season 1 builds to an epic finale that’s the best bit of television or film he’s ever been involved in. “We watched it in the mixing studio, and I just couldn’t believe the scope and the scale of it,” he says. “I think the audience will be incredibly shocked, because some major stuff happens that you just don’t expect, and incredibly moved — I cried when I watched it. Some characters get their revenge, some people don’t. It’s an incredibly satisfying end. But don’t worry, there’s so much more to happen next season.”

Cullen and Zat, as Landry’s horse. (Photo: Larry Horricks/History)

While they’re still awaiting official word on a renewal, the cast and crew are eager to continue the story. “I mean, Zat, my horse, wrote to me the other day. He’s like, ‘I miss your butt. Come sit on me, baby.’ And I’m like, ‘Sure. Coming,'” Cullen says. But seriously, he did become good friends with the props guys, who gifted him one of his swords at the end of Season 1. They also gave him a birthday present: his own Holy Grail, placed in a beautiful, handmade wooden box lined with red silk. “They made this plaque on it, so sweet, that says, ‘The Holy Grail, Acre,’ and they put the date of when Acre fell. But because they’re Czech, they didn’t really know how to spell in English, so instead of ‘Holy Grail,’ it says ‘Holly Grail’ with a double L. For me, that makes it even better,” he says. “Like, ‘Guys, I’d like to introduce you to my friend, Holly.’ It’s like an urn: ‘This is my ex-wife.'”

Knightfall premieres Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. on History.

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