“Holy Hell,” proclaims one of the billboard campaigns for History’s upcoming series “Knightfall,” a tale of brotherhood, betrayal and bloodshed. “Is Nothing Holy Anymore?” asks another.
The verdict will be up to audiences when the ten-episode run of the fictionalized historical drama gets under way.
Set in the year 1306, “Knightfall” takes viewers deep into the clandestine world of the Knights Templar, the legendary, elite warrior monks who at the time are nearing the end of their run as one of the most powerful organizations in the Christian world. They are losing former allies and gaining powerful new enemies, including the King of France, Philip IV.
But one last holy quest remains, to find the lost Holy Grail that they lost 15 years earlier and to regain their foothold in the Holy Land — a battle that became the Crusades — and to protect secrets that would be capable of destroying the church.
Welsh actor Tom Cullen, best known for his role as Viscount Gillingham on “Downton Abbey,” stars as Sir Landry, the leader of the Knights Templar, who is a veteran of the Crusades and is reinvigorating by reports that the Grail has resurfaced in France.
His character is a complicated one. He’s a maverick who feels he has God on his side and is invincible. Loyal to his brothers, he’s also living a lie by violating his vows and having an affair with none other than the Queen of France.
Several other “Downton” alum have key roles. Jim Carter plays Pope Boniface VIII and Julian Ovenden portrays royal advisor De Nogaret.
Landry’s mentor, the older and wiser Godfrey, (portrayed by Sam Hazeldine) sets the main plot in motion by embarking on a mysterious journey which will eventually lead to the Holy Grail, and to clashes with a shadowy group called the Brotherhood of Light.
“Knightfall” was created by Richard Rayner and Don Handfield. Jeremy Renner is an executive producer and Dominic Minghella serves as showrunner.
Cullen got on a conference call with TV reporters recently to talk about swordplay, Medieval times, politics and religion. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Tom Cullen: This is the kind of project I’ve always dreamt of being involved in ever since I was a little boy. I grew up in Wales and I grew up next to a castle. That kind of history is really woven into the fabric of my DNA like I think it is in many Europeans’ DNA. And when I was a kid, my dad gave me this wooden sword and shield and I used to go up there with my mate and we just used to run around pretending to be knights and warriors. And I think that the older we get the more baggage we carry and I know that I spent a lot of time pining after that kind of innocence. And so this job really opened up the gateway to accessing me as a kid again and it felt like every single day I had little Tom next to me swinging a wooden sword around with his mates in a castle in Wales. That was my favorite thing about the job; being able to have as much fun as I had while filming this show and I loved it.
Did you have to do any extra training for that or had you already known how to use the sword?
Cullen: In drama school in the UK we do a lot of fight training. And so I’d done a lot of sword training prior and I found that I had the propensity for killing people, ironically. So I’d actually done extra exams and had some practice while studying in drama school but that was about eight years ago, so it was all very new in many respects. And the stunt team that we had was led by an amazing Frenchman, Cédric Proust. He is a top stuntman and fight choreographer. He really put us through it and we had a great swordsman called Roman. The entire team wanted us to be at a very, very high level. So every day on set they would drill us and I did about three months of physical training beforehand to get myself and my body ready for the fighting portion of my character and the series. We also did a two and a half week boot camp where we would walk in the morning and do some circuit training and then do fighting in the afternoon. Later, we’d go horse riding and do some more sword training and then we would go to the gym. When it came to the actual filming – because there were a lot of fight scenes, I was filming 14 hours a day doing scene work and then I’d have to do my fight training either on my lunch breaks or on the weekends. Any kind of second in the day that I did have I would fill it by going up to the stables and ride. Working on “Knightfall” was a full-on experience because the team wanted it to look authentic and real, and when you watch the fights they are absolutely incredible. I’m so proud of all of the actors who’ve participated in the battles because we’ve really done a great job and the stunt guys have really trained us well and they’re epic battles and muddy and gruesome. And they feel very real, which I think is something I’m very proud of.
There is an incredible battle sequence in the final episode which is the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in. We had like 400 guys on a battlefield fighting for about two weeks. And it’s epic and amazing. And the real geek, nerd in me – because I am one – just can’t believe that I’m in it. I’m extremely proud of it
This is light years away from “Downton Abbey” and some of your other projects. How do you choose a project and pick a role?
Cullen: Well, it’s such an actor cliché so forgive me if it’s something you’ve already heard before. But I genuinely love to do stuff that is different from the last thing that I did, and something that really scares me and something that is new. I think one of the reasons that I wanted to become an actor is because I love to try stuff out. I’m quite a yes person. I just say yes to everything anyway like in life such as new experiences and challenges. And so I think acting is a kind of extension of that where I get to pretend to be a knight or I get to be in Harlan Coben thriller like “The Five” or I get to play a 17th century anarchist like I do in “Gunpowder.” It’s just an opportunity for me to have fun and play and experience something new. “Knightfall” was truly a dream come true for me. It’s something that I’ve always dreamt of doing since I was a kid. I grew up on films like “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves” and “Braveheart” and those films had a huge influence on me as a kid. And so when I read this script it was like my dreams were coming true. It’s really amazing to be a part of a project like this one.
The Knights Templar are pretty well-known within the collective culture. The Holy Grail has been in many different movies in a lot of different ways. What other preparation and research did you do to help you get into the role?
Cullen: Whenever I have done a historical piece, I think it’s imperative that you have to bathe yourself in as much literature to understand the world as much as possible, so that when you get onto the set, the world is just vibrating inside you. So I wanted to know as much about the crusades and about the politics at the time. Not just the politics in Europe or in the Middle East but also Mongolian politics because they had a huge influence. And so you just need to immerse yourself in the world and know everything that these men would have known, understand every single permutation and the political permutation that is affected where they reach –where they are at this point and what drives these men and women to do the things that they do. I think that’s something that you have to do, otherwise it’s just lazy and in a way unforgivable because at that point that’s where you make mistakes. History should never be taken for granted because it’s essential for us furthering ourselves as a society and as a culture, because the one thing that history teaches us is that it’s cyclical. And so yes, I read a lot and we had a fantastic historian on set. His name is Dan Jones. He’s just released an amazing book that you must read called “The Templars” which is on the New York Times Bestseller’s List; it’s brilliant. And so he was there on hand at all times feeding into us and making sure that what we were portraying was as accurate as possible. So anything that would come up in the script that we didn’t know, we would use him as a source of knowledge and he would say, “Go and read this, go and read that,” or just tell us because he he’s a real fountain of knowledge. And that wasn’t just the access that put me in the world of the Knights Templar.
What about the other production elements that went into depicting this world?
Cullen: The costume design, the art direction, the production design, makeup, etc.– it was all so dense and real that you feel like you’re right in it as soon as you turn up on set. It’s just all there for you, you know, and you can really immerse yourself into the world. The days we spent on set were amazing. We filmed on the biggest sets in Europe at Barrandov Studios. They built Medieval Paris. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and in the show I have to do this shot where I’m riding down this nearly 200-meter long street that they built. And there’re 350 extras and each extra has a job, each extra has a name. And it’s live, real world and you just forget that the cameras are there because it’s so extraordinary. And our costume designer, Diana Cilliers, was amazing. I remember the first time we did our screen test, which is where you put on the costume in front of camera and you kind of like pose and walk around, so they can see what it looks like on camera with the makeup and the hair and all of that kind of stuff. And I remember putting the costume on, the chainmail and everything, and it weighed 50 pounds which was like an insane amount of weight. And I struggled to walk down the corridor to get to the studio to do the screen test. And I was like, “Guys, why is the costume so heavy. How are we supposed to move and fight in this?” And the answer was that Diana tried out lighter material such as plastics and other materials but they just didn’t look authentic. And so they put us in the most authentic costume that they could and we just had to deal with it. And we got bigger and we got stronger, and so very quickly we were able to run and jump, get on horses in the 50-pound costumes and do everything that we needed to do to play our parts.
There’s a lot of palace intrigue in “Knightfall.” Specifically, can you dissect your relationship with Godfrey both before and after — without revealing any real spoilers?
Cullen: So the relationship that Landry has with Godfrey runs throughout the entire first season. And so in Episode 1, Godfrey is Landry’s surrogate father. Landry was an orphan and Godfrey essentially took him in and saved him from this orphanage. And so because of the promise Godfrey saw in him, Landry became a Templar at the age of 11 which is very, very, very rare. One of the Templar rules is that you must become a Templar of your own volition because it’s such a monastic lifestyle where you do things like eat your food out of the same bowl as another man. And there’s no vanity, there’s no possessions. It’s completely monastic. And so it’s very rare for a young boy to join the Templars like Landry did. So, Godfrey becomes Landry’s father and as the season goes on, in Episode 1 there is a truth revealed to Landry about Godfrey that he didn’t know. And Landry, like a classic hero that we all know, as the protagonist, he hunts and searches for the truth at all costs. And he is like a boar who gets physically beaten, emotionally beaten and he just gets back up by himself and charges towards the truth. And Godfrey is pivotal in that circle of truth that Landry is striving towards and it isn’t a very easy journey for Landry to go on throughout the first season. But it’s a very satisfying journey for the viewers. Every time the scripts would come in there would be a new revelation and it would be a new shock and a new turn and it was very cool to read and really fun to play. And I hope that the audience enjoys it as much as we enjoyed making it.
There is also a lot of religious strife going on in “Knightfall” and in the first episode Landry does prevent a massacre from occurring despite religious differences. Can you talk about the religious views in “Knightfall” and what you think that show has to say about our times today?
Cullen: Well, I touched on it a little bit when talking about the history. And the one thing that history will always do is prove itself cyclical and that human beings have very short memories and we forget very quickly what we’ve already been through. And we tend to make the same mistakes. And so I think it’s really important to remind ourselves of those mistakes. And of course, you know, “Knightfall” is a show that is about the Templars and you’d be remiss to not talk about the holy wars; though the show actually doesn’t take place during that period of time, it takes place 15 years after the holy wars. The show is about the Templars being disbanded and rounded up. That’s essentially what the show would be over three or four seasons. But the Templars were a very interesting group of men because they were founded to protect pilgrims on the road– that was their purpose. Not to fight wars but to protect people who were going to pray and they were very respectful of all faiths. There is a very famous story of people being held captive in the Templar temple. And they made space for them so that they could pray with ease and they gave them their space because they respect faith. They’re a very interesting group and I think the show touches on what faith is and how faith can be manipulated to one’s own needs and how faith is often used for political games which is something that has nothing to do with religion. And the Holy Grail in our show is used as a pivot of power in which people circle around it and use it in order to gain political favor. And that for me is really a very interesting world to live in. It doesn’t pit religion against religion but it talks about how religion can be manipulated to man’s want and need for power.
Is there is any theme or aspect that you thought would resonate with the viewers the most and keep them coming back for more?
Cullen: I think what I’m very proud of in the show is that you can kind of look at the show objectively from the outside having not seen it and say, “Oh, this is about guys swinging swords and that’s what the show is about,” but the show is so much more than that. The show is about politics. We have a lot of stuff that takes place in the French Court at the time, dissecting, and breaking down the politics and the machinations of political interplay, which I just love that kind of stuff. And it has a fantastic central spine through the show; an amazing love story which I’m surprised at how strong and moving that story was as we were filming it. And it kind of grew into this thing that we had no idea it would become. The show talks about revenge and betrayal, brotherhood, loyalty, faith, humanity and mortality. And I think that it raises really big questions about who we are whilst at the same time being really kind of fun and entertaining. So that takes you on a really wild journey. And so I truly believe the show has something for everybody. I think that it is by no means a gendered show. I think that women would love it as much as men will love it and that is something I’m really proud of too. It has fantastic strong female characters. They are actually probably stronger than all of the male characters and they’re just as complex and rich as the male counterparts, and it’s very moving. I’ve watched the last episode three or four times now and I’ve shed many tears every single time. It’s a great rollercoaster.
So other than sword fighting, what do you like about the Medieval time period?
Cullen: I’ve always been obsessed with the Medieval time period because I think it’s a time that we can look back on and learn from. And actually 800 years isn’t that long ago and that this is the time really when the world that we live in today was created and formulated. And we’re still feeling the repercussions of the actions and choices the people made in the Medieval period today. It’s also a period that is grimy and dirty and dangerous. The line between life and death is so thin, it’s really interesting to learn about. And I think that’s a fantastic place to make a drama in. And it’s a very rich world since life and death was so next to each other and it’s a world rich in terms of human wants and needs. Nowadays our lives are reasonably comfortable for certain people. Especially in America. And we typically don’t have that kind of life and death threat every single day where we are going to drop down with scurvy or have to go into battle. And so our choices aren’t as drastic. But if you have a lifespan of 35 years, every choice you make is loaded. And so I think that the world of the Medieval period is one of very high octane and people making life and death choices every single move. And that for me is an exhilarating period of time to make a drama in.
(“Knightfall” premieres Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on History.)