Style of the City’s Rosie Harris talks exclusively with the British Independent Film Awards’ “Most Promising Newcomer”, and proud Welshman, Tom Cullen.
After growing up in Mid Wales and attending Cardiff’s Llanishen High School Tom Cullen started acting in the 2000s after receiving a first class degree from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. After being announced as 2011’s “Most Promising Newcomer” by the British Independent Film Awards Tom has worked vigorously, appearing in ‘Downton Abbey’ and starring in the BBC’s ‘Gunpowder’. In recent years, as well as working on the History Channel’s ‘Knightfall’ Tom has also been involved in producing a Welsh made film.
Talking to us from his home in LA his rugged good looks and Welshness shine through the sunny West Hollywood backdrop. It is clear that Tom Cullen is profusely nationalistic and wants to make no mistake that his heart belongs to Wales. It is also clear that Tom sees potential from rising Welsh prodigies and seems passionate about nurturing Welsh talent.
What are your fondest memories of Wales?
I grew up in Mid Wales, a place called Llandridnod Wells until I was 12 years old. My dad lived in London and my Mum bought a small country hotel with friends. What was great about that kind of dual life was the ability to be a feral child. So my fondest memories of Wales are being among the Welsh mountains. As a Cardiff teenager it was great to go out in Cardiff town centre and meet girls. I also remember underage foam parties at the age of 13 in a club in the city centre. I then discovered DJing with mates and attending the legendary Emporium nightclub together (located in Cardiff’s High Street). Those were my fondest memories of Cardiff.
What impact did your role in Downton Abbey have on your career?
It is difficult to say how much it actually did impact my career as various stages of my career impacted in different ways. Downton is such a big show in the USA and it then opened up doors for my career in the US. I recently played the lead on the History Channel’s series Knightfall, which I don’t think I would have landed if I hadn’t been in Downton. So it is pretty difficult to quantify the impact it did have.
You attended Cardiff inner-city state-run Llanishen High School, how much do you think that performing arts is based mainly on a meritocracy?
Llanishen did have somewhat of a drama department; however, they never really put any ownership on it. We are living in a society that doesn’t put any emphasis on the arts and I think that’s a tragedy. Drama helps children understand empathy and awareness of other people; it also helps build communication skills. On a base level, it helps create teamwork, it’s not about sitting behind a desk and trying to find the right answer. In my view, there isn’t enough importance put on the arts. I was very dyslexic as a child and Llanishen was an enormous school, there wasn’t enough funding or support to help every student. The teachers were wonderful, but there was only so much that they could do. I wasn’t so good at some things at school and needed a bit more time to complete; luckily, I was good at drama and art. The arts are becoming more and more focused towards the privileged side of our population. There are some amazing working class kids in Cardiff that might be the next Anthony Hopkins or Richard Burton, that don’t even know it.
You played ‘Viscount Gillingham’ in ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Guy Fawkes’ in ‘Gunpowder’, would you class yourself as an alpha male?
(Tom giggles uncontrollably) I do have certain alpha qualities, although I definitely have a sensitive side. I aim to be better at talking and listening.
You have recently co-produced “Pink Wall’ an independent movie shot solely in Wales. It is sometimes argued that Welsh media suffers from the “burden of representation” how much do you agree with this and did you work towards breaking stereotypes?
That is very true; there just aren’t enough Welsh accents on TV. There was one TV show, Gavin & Stacey, and where there are Welsh accents they are usually the stupid characters; uneducated, naive and gullible. Welsh characters aren’t portrayed in the greatest of lights at all. I’ve always hated that my culture wasn’t represented properly. Outside of the UK, England Scotland and Ireland are represented, however, Wales just isn’t. Even in Gavin & Stacey Welsh characters are the silly ones who go to Essex and make fools of themselves and don’t really know what’s going on. Everything that I write is set in Wales; there are so many stories to be told, so many fascinating characters. “Pink Wall” is about an American couple who live in Wales. Every single scene was set in Wales and all of the crew were Welsh. “Pink Wall” is a story about Wales within the world and it is important to give that view of Wales. The next film that I am writing is set in Mid Wales and is about a farming community. Mid Wales is a thoroughly misrepresented community, even within Wales.
You have played some very historical characters, set at various periods in history, is that on purpose?
It has never been intention; however, I’ve always been drawn to historical pieces. As a kid I grew up loving movies like Braveheart, so when the script came through for Knightfall it gave me a chance to live out childhood memories of riding on a horse with a sword.
How often do you get to visit Wales?
I come back as much as I can, around 3-4 times a year. I really miss family and I love it there. There is something about going home; I think my shoulder drops about an inch I am relaxing so much.
Which actor or actress would you most like to work with?
I’m lucky to have worked with the actress I admire the most; my partner Tatiana (Maslany of Netflix’s hit Orphan Black.) An actor, whos no longer with us, would be Marlon Brando. I would also love to work with Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis.
What plans have you got for the rest of this year?
I am finishing editing my film (“Pink Wall”) that will be released later this year. I am also starting a new project; unfortunately, I cannot yet say what it is yet (with a grin).
There have been rumours of a Downton Abbey movie, can you confirm if there is any truth in this?
I have actually heard that everyone is doing their own thing; however, I am pretty sure this will happen at one point or another.
What would you say to a young Tom Cullen?
I was 25 when I graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I wasn’t quite sure earlier on if I was good enough. So I would say, go for it and do not wait. The worst thing that can happen is that it just doesn’t work out. There is nothing wrong with that at all. Failing is the best part, as you learn.
What are you currently reading?
Shogun by James Clavell.
Currently listening to?
Biggest fashion faux-pas?
I believe it was from my garage music phase, lines in the eyebrows and silver chains.
Philosophy to live by?