Tom Cullen is the real deal as evidenced by his brilliant performance in Andrew Haigh’s unassuming gay drama, Weekend. The film, perhaps surprisingly, picked up the Audience Award at this year’s SXSW, a festival known for having a predominantly straight audience. Weekend was also crowned Best Narrative Feature at the Nashville Film Festival where Cullen picked up the Best Actor honor. At 26, Cullen is a supremely talented newcomer whose future is looking rather bright.
Weekend dramatizes a deceptively simple conceit. Russell (Cullen), a semi-closeted lifeguard goes cruising at a gay bar and wakes up the next morning with Glen (Chris New), a brash and openly gay artist who’s fond of provocation. In an alcohol and drug-induced haze, the two engage in long, winding conversations—touching on everything from their childhoods to their sexual habits—over the course of a single weekend. Although nothing lasting could come of this brief encounter—Glen is indefinitely moving stateside in two days—they share an impenetrable bond.
Anthem caught up with Cullen via Skype to discuss straight actors taking on gay roles, getting drunk on set and Ryan Gosling’s (mostly) impressive career choices.
Weekend opens at the IFC Center this Friday in New York City with a national rolloutto follow.
What are you doing in Budapest?
I’m shooting a TV series called World Without End, which is the sequel to The Pillars of the Earth by Scott Free Productions. It’s an eight-part epic miniseries. I’ve been here for three months now and I have another three to go. It’s pretty hardcore.
Do you have some downtime to explore the city?
Loads! The show has a lot of characters and there are a lot of through lines happening so I’m not on set every day. I have a bike here and cycle around the city quite frequently. It’s an amazing city. Have you ever been?
I haven’t, although I’d love to visit sometime.
Budapest has an incredible history. It has this post-colonial capitalist facade, which is all very new. But what’s truly amazing about it is that you look up at the buildings and they have bullet holes in them. There’s a lot of history here. I highly recommend the bars, too. They’re like Turkish bars, I suppose. It’s absolutely amazing.
Let’s start from the beginning. Did you always want to become an actor?
I always wanted to become an actor, yeah. It never seemed like an achievable thing to do, though, because I was a working class kind of boy, do you know what I mean? Before I went to drama school, I was working a normal job, had a girlfriend and we lived in a house together—that kind of stuff. At a certain point, I found myself asking, “What the fuck am I doing?” I felt a bit depressed before going to drama school, but I’ve been acting for about a year and a half now. I’m really happy.
Were your parents supportive?
I think my parents are very supportive of anything I want to do as long as I’m happy. But my dad and my mum did try to sway me from becoming an actor because it’s such an insecure lifestyle. I’m lucky that everything worked out the way they did.
How did you get involved with Weekend?
I got the script about a year after getting out of drama school. I initially got ten pages of the script or something like that, but I knew right away that it was wonderfully written. Sure enough, I was attracted to Russell’s character. I went in for the first audition where Andrew wanted me to improvise and I didn’t know what I was going to do. [Laughs] Andrew paired me up with two guys—one of them was Chris—and he gave us a couple of scenes to work on. We improvised in those scenes and it was really good fun. That’s essentially how I got the job.
Did you have any reservations in playing a gay character? There are some incredibly intimate scenes in the film.
Those scenes aren’t graphic at all, but certainly very intimate like you’re saying. They’re very loving, aren’t they? They’re quite real in a certain sense, but it wasn’t difficult at all. I’m an actor and this is my job. If I were to play a mass murderer, I would be pretending. The thing is that the love that Russell feels for Glen and being attracted to someone for the first time is something that we all feel whether you’re homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual… It’s a very human thing. It wasn’t a challenge at all in that regard. When I was in Russell’s shoes and looked at Chris, I did love him. I know that might sound ridiculous, but I really did. I was Russell in those moments.
Do you still stay in touch with Chris?
I actually just talked to him yesterday. He got married recently, but I unfortunately couldn’t go because I was here shooting. When I go to Manchester, I’ll stay with him and check out his play. We’re very close.
You guys have amazing chemistry onscreen. Did you have time to bond prior to shooting the film?
We met up for a week last August before shooting in October. We went through the script together and really broke it down. The next time I saw him was when we actually started shooting. We actually talked about not getting to know each other too well before that because Russell doesn’t know Chris that well in the movie anyway. That didn’t really work out, though, because we became really close—especially during the first week—as you tend to with the people that you work with.
The film is very observational. The camera is never an intrusive force while documenting Russell and Chris’ budding relationship.
I think the longest take in the film was 12 minutes long or something like that. Within a single frame, there was a lot of room for improvisation. Andrew, Chris and I really tore the script to pieces. We did that every night before shooting scenes. I would head over to the flat, go over scenes and we’d shoot the following day. We shot each scene around six times, so there were slightly different nuisances in the performances for each take. Chris is such a good actor and so fun to play off of. I could literally throw anything at him and he would respond accordingly. When we started each scene, we were never entirely sure where it would go.
What was your impression of the finished film in relation to what you were expecting after reading the screenplay for the first time?
It’s an interesting relationship that you build with a director because when you’re shooting it, he or she hands the project over to us, the actors. In turn, when we finish shooting it, we hand it back over to the director. I wasn’t precious about the original material at all because I always knew it wasn’t going to be exactly as it is on the page. I just hoped that the finished film would capture the essence of the screenplay.
You obviously don’t want to repeat yourself when it comes to taking on new roles, but what other things do you put into consideration when you’re handed screenplays?
I suppose, from an egotistical point-of-view, I’m always interested in roles that push me as a person. I’m interested in mining the idea that human beings are animals, a product of society. I’m interested in pursuing roles that allow me to push against my own walls, my own constraints as a human being and to find out where I’m capable of going. In real life, I’m not very good at feeling emotions, so I like to do it through my work. Russell is very vulnerable and open, and that’s what really attracted me to this character. I’m interested in doing things that challenges me.
How did you prepare for this particular role?
I did a lot of research. Russell’s an orphan who grew up in foster care, which I felt was very important to that character. I did some interviews to find out what it’s really like to be in foster care. I wrote an entire back-story for Russell. I also talked to a lot of people about their coming out stories. I read the script around 78 times, just really going deep into it and trying to soak it all in. And then you just forget about it—you forget everything. When you’re on set, you just live within those special moments and just let all that work you did filter through you, I suppose.
Did anything surprise you on set? Did you go places that you didn’t expect?
I’m trying to remember. It was so long ago… [Laughs] It was a year ago! We shot that scene in the gay club where Glen picks Russell up on a busy Friday night in Nottingham with a small crew and everyone there were real people. And I was really drinking beer in that scene! That was quite surprising. The guy that Russell has a moment with prior to meeting Glen was this random guy who just happened to be there at the club. It surprised me that they didn’t cast a legit actor for that part. [Laughs] We both got really drunk. He was lovely and nice, but it was still a bit weird because I didn’t know who he was. It was this random guy who just happened to be out with his mates and he managed to get into the film.
Was it Andrew’s idea to have you drink for real in that scene?
That was sort of my own doing. It really helped, though. [Laughs] When you’re in that kind of club environment, you’re able to sort of switch the camera off in your mind. That was only our second day of shooting so I wanted to completely immerse myself in Russell’s world and the environment that he would often find himself in. Drinking beer and getting completely wasted was very helpful in that respect.
Have you seen any good movies recently, excluding Weekend?
I certainly don’t watch my own movies at festivals. They introduce the film and I go up there for a small speech, and then go to dinner. [Laughs] I come back after an hour or something to do the Q&A. I saw Biutiful recently. Do you know this film?
I love all of Iñárritu’s stuff.
I remember seeing Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls when I was 15 and realizing cinema like that existed. I grew up on E.T., The Goonies and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and when I saw Biutiful, it really blew my mind. It really made me want to become an actor. I really liked Biutiful. I also saw Animal Kingdom and that was really good fun. Oh goodness. [Laughs] You’ve put me on the spot and I suddenly can’t think of anything else!
How about the kinds of movies you’re into, generally speaking?
Essentially, I like brilliant stories with interesting and complex characters that are complete contradictions. I’m always interested in characters like that.
I guess Javier Bardem’s character in Biutiful is a perfect example.
Where do you want to take your acting career?
I was recently flipping through Movieline magazine and saw a piece about the important career choices that Ryan Gosling has made. It was a really interesting article. He’s done some films that I don’t like—The Notebook, for instance. I don’t like that film, but I like him. Blue Valentine was really brilliant. The acting in Half Nelson is fantastic. He just makes good choices. I like independent movies that are about human beings. In five years time, I would love to choose roles that challenge me as a person, and potentially challenge the audience and make us think about who we are as human beings. I think that’s when cinema is at its greatest. It allows us to recognize ourselves and maybe make us better people.
Are you able to isolate something specific that you took away from working on Weekend? Did it change you as a person?
I think so. I was a bit of a hard guy growing up. I was a bit of a tough guy, I suppose. I’ve started to lose that, but I couldn’t get myself to be vulnerable and really give myself to anyone before. That’s what was so terrifying about playing Russell—his vulnerability and his incredible warmth. Russell has made me a better human being. I now find myself wanting to be more like Russell. I’m always going to carry that part of Russell with me. My experience with Weekend has made me a better man.