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Becoming Elizabeth’s Tom Cullen Barely Remembers Filming His Big Scene

Photo: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Berkley London

Thomas Seymour is a charismatic asshole. As played by Tom Cullen on Starz’s Becoming Elizabeth, he’s handsome, funny, and oozing sexuality. He is also despicable and loathsome, immoral and narcissistic, a sexual predator and perhaps on the verge of sociopathy. Nothing but power seems to matter to Seymour as he tries (unsuccessfully) to inch his way closer to the crown that sits atop the head of his nephew, King Edward VI (Oliver Zetterström), and a stepping stone on that treacherous path is the young Princess Elizabeth (Alicia Von Rittberg), whom Seymour grooms and sexually abuses, then blames for his demise.

Playing Seymour seems to have been equally sobering and compelling for Cullen, who is perhaps best known on American TV for his role as Lady Mary Crawley’s fleeting love interest Tony Gillingham in the fifth season of Downton Abbey. As Seymour meets the dull blade of his shattering end in this week’s episode, Cullen talked to Vulture about telling a nuanced story of abuse and why he hardly remembers filming his final scenes.

Despite his emotionally abusive and manipulative nature, Thomas is this live-wire kind of guy. What did you do to get into that headspace?
I tried to live in the text as much as possible. There are some jobs, especially contemporary jobs, where I’ll know the lines, of course, but there’s a looseness in which I can be surprised by what happens in the scene. With this, because the language is quite dense, I wanted to get it in my body. My sister, bless her, Zoomed with me for an hour every day for about three weeks. We went through the text, and I would walk around the room and throw it against the wall and try so many different things. A lot of discovery of who Thomas was was in that space. It was important that the words were so in me that I could forget them and be really surprised in the scenes.

As you said, Thomas is a live wire, and I wanted everyone on set to not know what was going to happen next. And the way director Justin Chadwick worked with this amazing young Brazilian DP, Adolpho Veloso — they shot 360 degrees — it really aided that sense of not knowing what Thomas might do. I also had a great relationship with the prop team. I’d be like, “This wine here, can I drink it? This fruit, can I eat it? Yeah? What’s in this book? Can we get something here before we start shooting?” And they would be very responsive. So if in the middle of the scene I wanted to suddenly be drinking some wine, I could be. But it wouldn’t be planned.

So is a lot of what we see from Thomas improvised by you and not necessarily based on the historic record? For example, when he goes running through Chelsea Manor, waking everyone up and cock-a-doodle-doo-ing and playing a pretend trumpet.
Actually, Thomas ripping through his household is historically correct. But I also improvised a lot of it. In that scene, one of the extras was a guy I went to school with, James. I hadn’t seen him for 20-plus years, and at one point I went up to him and I was like, “James, is it okay if I kick you in this scene? Is that all right?” [Laughs.] That was really fun, to be able to work with him doing that scene. And I tried to develop a relationship like that with all the people playing servants. There’s a moment where I chase one of them, and he didn’t know that was going to happen. I think he was running out of actual fear. But it was fun — we were pals. I wasn’t just bullying them!

How much of your own historical research did you do, and how much was that a part of the creative team’s goal with this show? Because the themes feel so contemporary, it’s sometimes hard to believe we haven’t evolved further in 700 years.
I think you do as much reading as possible, bathe yourself in as much literature as you can, so that it’s sitting in you and vibrating in you. If you don’t, you’re a bit of an asshole. This part of Elizabeth’s history isn’t written about so much because it’s not the fireworks of her reign. Stuff written about it is few and far between; Children of England, by Alison Weir, really helped me.

As an actor, you can do as much research as you want, but the scripts are what you use as your launchpad. You are a slave to that interpretation, and you have to trust the writers have done their due diligence. And Anya Reiss is just extraordinary. She was like 27 when she was writing this, and her research was just unreal.

I mean, all history is interpretation; no one really knows what happened even if we’ve got the fixed markers. In terms of the relationship between Thomas and Elizabeth, that certainly is up for interpretation. Written evidence would say it didn’t happen, but that could easily be because it needed to be covered up. Elizabeth could have lost her life. And Thomas did. I think something definitely did happen, and I think it’s an important story to tell — our interpretation of it.

How do you mean?
It’s a brilliant story to tell of someone who, on the macro level, is this iconic historical character; she’s almost perfect, deified. But I think Anya wanted to humanize her. She’s giving us the story of a woman who’s had trauma, which had a profound effect on her. But it’s her resilience that shaped the person she became.

Thomas Seymour lusted after, groomed, and then raped a 14-year-old. Was it just considered a scandal back then, and not necessarily illegal? 
They wouldn’t have just called it a scandal. People were quite rightly appalled and shocked. Young royals were married at that time, but they wouldn’t have consummated that marriage until they were deemed adults. And at the age of 14, Elizabeth just wasn’t. She was a child. And Thomas most certainly wasn’t a child. He’s in his late 30s or early 40s. It’s quite clearly a story of grooming and abuse, and it’s opened a lot of interesting discussions, and I’m proud of that. It’s a nuanced story because abuse doesn’t always look like the scary, horrible person and a scared person getting abused. Sometimes the most charismatic person in the room is the person who takes what they want no matter how young their victim is. Thomas has taken an innocent young child’s crush and manipulated it into something a lot darker. He’s destabilized her, empowered her into thinking that this is her responsibility, that she is as culpable as he is. And she just isn’t. So even if she says yes, this is not a consensual relationship. This is a 14-year-old child and a 40-year-old man.

There are some people who think we are romanticizing this relationship, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I hope that by episode six, people will realize this is a story of abuse and that Anya has told it from Elizabeth’s point of view. I’m proud of Anya, and I’m so pleased to be a small part of what I think is an important story that isn’t often told in this way. I definitely felt responsibility because it felt very contemporary and like there might be women and men who watch this and feel seen in some ways. I hope it might be cathartic for them.

Seeing his head get chopped off was very cathartic.
Give the people what they want.

It is a pretty epic death to play. Can you tell me about those final scenes leading up to and on the chopping block?
I haven’t seen it yet.

But you acted it …
But when you’re in it, you have absolutely no idea. I mean, I certainly didn’t. I was in, in, in. The only way I could play Thomas was to make him the hero of the piece. I had to Jedi-mind-trick myself to do it. I got to the point where I was defending him a lot, and that was the only way I could get in there with him.

Historically, the things he did — like breaking into the king’s chambers and shooting his dog — don’t quite marry up. I have people I’m very close to who exist on the bipolar spectrum. Thomas has these spikes and troughs, and the patterns of his actions could easily reflect somebody who was bipolar. To clarify, the fact that he’s bipolar doesn’t in any way excuse and isn’t the reason he’s acting the way he is. I think it’s indicative of his impulsiveness to act upon his morally bankrupt and heinous personality, but it isn’t his personality. Playing him opened a lot of doors for me. It wasn’t something I told anybody else in the cast I was playing, but I told the directors. Leading up to him shooting the dog, he’s snowballing at that point. He goes into this spiral, and a lot of my work was trying to stay in that place with that energy. It was challenging and a bit of a blur.

Is there anything you can recall?
It was a tricky scene because it started to rain, so my head was slipping everywhere. They couldn’t get hold of it.

Your head or Thomas’s prosthetic head?
The prosthetic head. [Laughs.] It’s quite weird to see your head in a box, you know. It was raining, and we were running out of time because the weather had delayed a lot. It was a lot of me lying down in fake blood, lying down on wet surfaces, a lot of dropping heads. It was just chaos. There were a lot of cooks that day. I hope it looks all right.

It’s quite brutal. They have to go in and chop it twice before it actually works.
There’s a great story to that. I don’t know whether it’s true, and it obviously isn’t in the show, but I read that the guys of the court who didn’t like Thomas found out who the executioner was going to be and took him out the night before to get him absolutely hammered. So when it came to chopping off Thomas’s head, this guy was still drunk or hungover and couldn’t do the beheading cleanly. Which is actually what happened. It took two to get it off. Anya didn’t know about it when I told her, and she was devastated because I think she would’ve put it in if she’d heard.

As an actor playing someone who is going to die, do you hope for an epic death scene?
I haven’t really thought about it, but I have died quite a few times. I hadn’t had my head chopped off yet, so that was a new one, which was great. I’ve been drilled in the stomach, stabbed in the stomach — gosh, I can’t remember the rest. I kind of want to be the new Sean Bean; I want people to make montages of me on YouTube. Like I said, give the people what they want.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Tom Cullen Barely Remembers His Big Becoming Elizabeth Scene