Tom Cullen’s Guy Fawkes Makes Quite a First Impression

By Ashley Morton

HBO: What first attracted you to this project?

Tom Cullen: “Bonfire Night” is on the 5th of November, and as kids we would make effigies of Guy Fawkes — a man we knew nothing about, really — stick them on a bonfire, and set off fireworks. I I always looked forward to it, but I had never really understood what the story was or who he was. The story is so woven into British legend; I was very excited to unpack what the truth of it was.

HBO: Was there any kind of pressure in playing such an iconic historical figure?

Tom Cullen: Absolutely. Whenever you’re doing a historical piece you feel a responsibility to not only the character you’re playing, but also the men and women of that time period — to make sure you represent them accurately and with as much integrity as possible. And especially with Guy Fawkes because he is such a legend. I wanted to make sure I honored him. But at the same time I had to let go of that, and recognize it is an interpretation and, more specifically, my interpretation.

HBO: Did you do specific research for the role or let the scripts inform your performance?

Tom Cullen: It’s a conversation between the two methods. When you get to set, you allow the script to inform you, but know the research is vibrating inside you somewhere. I read as much as I could to understand the struggle that Fawkes had witnessed and imagine the life he had lived, and pain he harbored.

HBO: What did you enjoy most about working on the series?

Tom Cullen: I’ve known Kit [Harington, series co-creator, who plays Robert Catesby] and Dan West, who wrote the show and also plays Thomas Percy, since we were like 19, so it was personally really lovely to get in the trenches with them again.

And from a very egotistical point of view, the character of Fawkes was something I’d never played before. So it was really a pleasurable exploration within my own journey of acting. The way he looks, feels and sounds all came from me; they really let me run with it.

“I played him as a very feral, animalistic man, so I made sure I wasn’t censoring myself or trying to control my performance.”
— Tom Cullen

HBO: What was the biggest challenge?

Tom Cullen: My first filming day was where I get beaten badly and brought before the king. It was such a crazy place to start, because it’s probably where Fawkes’ intensity is at its highest. Whenever you first start a job, you don’t know what’s going to come out of your mouth. I had an idea, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was as scared of Guy Fawkes as everyone else was: I played him as a very feral, animalistic man, so I made sure I wasn’t censoring myself or trying to control my performance.

We were rehearsing the scene, and Shaun Dooley [William Wade], who is a lovely bloke, but who I didn’t know at this point, had to bring me in and push me down to my knees. As he pushed me down, I just instinctively head-butted him, gave him a bleeding nose and cut lip! So that was a very interesting learning experience; a great opening. That kind of trial by fire is sometimes the best place to start a job.

HBO: What do you feel is unique about Gunpowder and how it approaches this story?

Tom Cullen: The context is always very important in any story, and this story has traditionally been told with little context or understanding of what drove people to try to commit the heinous crime they had plotted. That’s what’s so bold about Gunpowder. I remember when I first read the first episode, writer Ronan Bennett had worked hard to make sure the context was given up front. The drama shouldn’t be propaganda of any kind, but it should open up questions and interpretations for the audience to make up their minds; he’s done a very good job of making sure this is a two-sided story.

HBO: Did you discover details that surprised you?

Tom Cullen: The whole story was surprising to me. As a Brit, we are told very much one narrative, so something I had very little knowledge of was the truly horrendous treatment of the Catholics and Jesuit priests of the time. I had no idea that if you were merely a priest trying to practice your religion and you were caught that you would be publicly punished in such a brutal and inhumane fashion. That’s the context I was talking about. There’s no way you can ever justify a group of guys trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament with king inside it, but you can begin to understand why someone would be led to believe that might be the right solution.

HBO: How does the violence shown in the series help tell the story?

Tom Cullen: I can understand people’s ambivalence to that level of violence — it was difficult for me to watch, and I was in it — but if you’re going to make a historical piece, you can’t shy away from the real history. It’s not to disassociate ourselves from the action of these people. Four hundred years really isn’t that long ago at all, and history teaches us that it’s cyclical. Humans have short memories, so we must be brave and not shy away from the violence of these people; it’s something we have to face so we can improve ourselves in the future.

HBO: Do you feel there are lessons from the series to be applied to today’s world?

Tom Cullen: It’s important to emphasize that whatever people take from this story is entirely up to them. We’ve tried to tell a story that is honest and real, without bias. But one thing I took from it is intolerance seems to be a human societal condition that will always apparently be prevalent, and something that will always garner reaction. Intolerance is probably the worst of humanity, and that’s something we should really try and learn from. It bears a lot of relevance today.