Tom Cullen’s career prospects dramatically soared after Brit indie, Weekend, directed by Andrew Haigh, nine years ago.
Since then, the Welsh actor has been singled out for recurring roles in TV dramas, Downton Abbey and Knightfall.
Hailing from Aberystwyth, the same small town as fellow Welshman, Taron Egerton, Cullen says the two actors still can’t quite believe how far they’ve come.
Making his directorial debut with Pink Wall this year, featuring his former partner Tatiana Maslany alongside Jay Duplass, Cullen says he hopes to shift the focus from his acting career to directing.
While serving on the jury of International Film Festival & Awards Macao, Cullen, 34, spoke to us about his life and career:
Do you feel like Downton Abbey changed your life?
I don’t think it changed my life or my career necessarily. But it was a wonderful experience. I think that, in terms of my career, it was more about working with actors like Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville. Amazing actors. For me, it was more about the learning experience. And of course, at the time, it was the biggest show in the world. So, it was great for people to see you in it. But mine was a small part [Viscount Gillingham] and therefore it didn’t really change my life in that sense.
Were you expecting to be back for the movie?
Not at all. My part was definitely done. I’m more of a fan now and I didn’t expect to be back in it for the movie. But really, my passion is about independent cinema these days. This is where my career started, and this is what I really believe in.
You are here as a jury member but not showing your directorial debut: Pink Wall?
The movie just got released in parts of the world. The Macao team saw it and because of it, they wanted me here to be part of the International jury. As a jury member it’s so interesting watching so many different movies from all around the world with such a high degree of quality in every aspect: directors, actors, etc.
It’s also always a good thing to meet filmmakers from around the world. It’s great to share ideas and to talk about films. I’m watching films from Indonesia to Argentina and you realise that the one common aspect about all these films is about the human experience.
Anything surprised you about Macau and this part of the world?
It’s my first time in this part of the world, so it is a totally new and exciting experience for me. People are so nice and it’s a unique environment. It’s a fascinating culture and so different from mine. I’m from Wales, from a very small town, so it’s amazing to be here.
Speaking of Wales – which has an amazing dramatic legacy of Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins and now you and Taron leading the way for a new generation of Welsh actors, what first drew you to drama?
My parents were both actors and writers, so from the youngest age I would be watching adults on stage, playing dress up and make believe. I thought it seemed like a great thing to do.
Did you ever work with your parents?
No, because my mum got the idea to open a hotel in the middle of nowhere in Wales. Looking back, it was an incredible experience, being let loose around the hotel, us kids pouring beer directly into our mouths from the tap and generally making mischief; getting shot at by the local farmer…
What got you into directing and why Pink Wall?
I became an actor first because I wanted to understand the psychology of actors and because I thought this would help me as a director. But in the back of my mind I have always wanted to direct, mainly. But I didn’t actively pursue it. Then I got a chance to direct and I just jumped into this. This was a story that interested me. I think there aren’t enough of these stories out there. I’m writing two new films to direct. This is truly my main focus right now.
And you directed your partner at the time, Tatiana Maslany?
Yes, this was the fourth time we had worked together, between shorts and a music video. She is one of the most talented actresses of her generation and I was lucky to have her as my lead. We had lots of friends who wanted to work with us, so it just worked out perfectly.
Are you inspired by other directors?
For sure! By so many. But the film that had a profound effect on me was Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls (2000). This is probably the film that made me want to do this: to direct. I remembered seeing this film with my mother and I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life. My film, Pink Wall, is also inspired by 1970s films like those of John Cassavetes or Ken Loach. I like these films because everything in it feels real and authentic. It was before the current big studios system with big commercial movies.
Does this mean you wouldn’t want to do a superhero movie?
Not at all. I think there is room for everything. I just think it’s sad to go to a multiplex cinema and only one or two big films play there like The Avengers. But of course, I’d love to be in a superhero movie, playing Batman maybe! Growing up in rural Wales, you had to drive hours to get to the nearest video rental place or cinema. I wish we had access to content like this when I was a kid. I was craving to watch more films, but it was quite challenging for me to get to them. So, it’s exciting for me to see so much content available for everyone living anywhere. I just also want to protect independent cinema and to make sure we have a chance to see them in theatres.