British actor Tom Payne was just about to quit acting when the zombie apocalypse saved him.
"I had two months' rent in my bank account, my work visa was about to run out, and I had a tax bill for $30,000 that I couldn't pay," he said.
"When that was all coming to a head, 'The Walking Dead' came along. I always tell people that you have to take these risks in this industry, and I think what sets people apart who get success is that they are willing to put everything on the line. And the rewards are there — but it's definitely hard to get there."
In fact, he almost didn't get there.
"The day that I got 'The Walking Dead,' that weekend I was meant to dress up in a costume as a cartoon character and give out leaflets," he said. "I'd been a regular on a TV show for a couple of years and after that job, I didn't make enough money to survive, so I took jobs here and there. People think that once you've been on a television show you're rich, and your whole life has changed but definitely — not."
He was cast as the morally centered Jesus in "The Walking Dead." Even though the role revived his career, it wasn't at all what Payne had planned.
"When I was 32 and had done a movie called 'The Physician,' which put me with Ben Kingsley and Stellan Skarsgård, it was my first huge lead. And I expected it to do great things for my career, and I was very proud of the movie. But it did nothing for me in America — which is where I was living and where I wanted to spend my career," he recalled.
"You spend a lot of time as an actor unemployed and hoping this is going to be the one ... And I definitely got very despondent."
A pep talk
Payne took a trip to Sweden to visit fellow actor Skarsgård.
"He gave me a really nice pep talk and reminded me why I was doing it," said Payne, "and to be myself and not try to be what they wanted me to be, not to change myself and just to trust that it would come. And the next six months after that was when I booked 'The Walking Dead,' and that was the job that changed my career."
The 38-year-old, who also co-starred in "Wuthering Heights" and "Waterloo Road," lost "The Walking Dead" gig when his character was killed off in the ninth season. But now he's very much alive as the criminal psychologist in Fox's popular "Prodigal Son," which is into its second season. He plays the son of a serial killer, played by Michael Sheen.
"I'm so happy to be working with Michael Sheen — everyone in the cast — but when I got the job, I was very aware of Michael's work and think he's a great actor, and I knew I would get better on this job," he said.
While his career has soared, his plans to marry singer Jennifer Akerman hit the pandemic bump. Instead of a big wedding they had been planning for last April, they ended up with a quarantine ceremony in December. The marriage has changed his outlook.
"I'd spent a lot of my life concentrated on my career and not really concentrated on my private life," he said. Now he focuses on both. "I know that everything just gets better in time if you put the work in."