Tom Payne pulls off playing a jockey in HBO's "Luck," but the British actor says he won't be making a career change any time soon.
"I value my health too much," Payne told me during a recent phone interview, laughing. "Jockeys—it's so difficult ... It's completely insane. You're balancing on the balls of your feet on the spine of a horse and it's like you're piloting a missile ... It's amazing. I think jockeys are stunt men."
Payne stars as apprentice jockey Leon “Bug Boy” Micheaux in writer David Milch’s drama set in the world of gangsters, gamblers and racing professionals at a California racetrack. The 29-year-old shares screen time with seasoned vets including Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte and Richard Kind in the project, which counts director Michael Mann as one of its executive producers.
Payne, who before “Luck” had done mostly British TV movies and the film “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” more than holds his own as the ambitious but sweet-natured Leon, whose struggle to keep his weight down—jockeys have to be light to ride—caused him to collapse in a recent episode, and will continue to trouble him throughout the season.
“His body is betraying him [by growing] and he knows that and he is doing everything he can—making himself sick or not eating anything—to try and keep his weight down,” said Payne, who at 5-foot-7 is on the tall end for jockeys. “I think he’s aiming for an almost unachievable dream, but he’s trying his hardest.”
The Essex-born actor, who now lives in West Hollywood, had to work hard before filming even began because he knew almost nothing about riding horses. But he took riding lessons three times a week for three weeks before filming the pilot, then twice a week while shooting the 10-episode season.
Still, filming on horseback was “incredibly stressful,” he said, because the show uses actual thoroughbred race horses, who know when they are on a racetrack what is expected of them, and therefore get more hyped up to race.
“I’m calming the horse and I’m stressing out,” he said. “I’ve got Michael coming to give me direction, the horse wrangler giving me direction and my accent coach giving me direction. And then I’m dealing with whomever I’m acting with. It’s just crazy.”
Neither Payne nor his horses suffered any injuries, but the actor did have one small mishap while filming the pilot: “A camera got too close to the horse that I was on and the horse started to run away,” he said. “It didn’t get too far, but far enough for me to feel very dizzy and puke. I really shit myself.”
You can see how far Payne has come with his riding skills by watching “Luck” at 8 p.m. Sundays on HBO. In the meantime, read more below, where the affable Payne, who seems truly excited about the project, talks about the very long unlucky streak he rode before landing “Luck,” his character and whether he’s ready to be TV’s latest object of desire.
There’s a real sense of doom in “Luck,” especially during the horse races. I was on the edge of my seat not wanting anybody specific to win, but more thinking, “OK, who is going to break a leg or who is going to fall off their horse or what horrible thing is going to happen?”
I know! But then other stuff happens with Dustin’s storyline and people end up getting killed and you’re like, “That was crazy!” When I read the script I was like, “Oh wow.” I love it because in the first episode with Dustin’s storyline and everything you’re like, “Yeah, I kind of get it.” But I didn’t know and it continues to be really like shadowy and misunderstood and then he starts bringing out the big guns and it’s just great [laughs], just awesome.
I was also a little worried when Leon fell down and cracked his head open in Episode 3.
Yeah, that was pretty sickening when I did that. I can’t tell you how long I was lying on the floor with my face on the tarmac there, but that was really fun actually. But yeah, when I saw that for the first time I was like, “That looks really horrible.” Yeah, not a very nice sound effect to go with the fall.
How does a nice guy from Essex get to get on a racetrack with a bunch of trainers and everything?
Yeah, it was kind of amazing. I had been working in England since 2005 when I left drama school. I had a regular gig on a TV show for a couple years and in between that I was doing stuff and one of the things I did was a little parody comedy called “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” which was with Frances McDormand and Amy Adams and some other wonderful British actors. I used that as an opportunity to come over and take my first steps in America and get some representation. I did that the first year and then the second year I came out and I tested on a couple of things like “The Vampire Diaries.” I went back to England in 2009, which was when the recession first hit and it was just awful. I only worked two jobs the whole year and I just—it just wasn’t great.
So I took out another credit card [laughs] and decided … I needed to make something happen out here because I had had such a rubbish year. I was quite discerning the first year and when I was doing “The Vampire Diaries” thing I was like, “I'm really not sure if I want to do this; it’s this whole teen thing, which I've done in England.” My agent was like, “Don’t be silly, you’ll make great money and everything.” But I wasn’t sure.
So the second year I came out proper I was like, “I will do anything!” I hadn’t been working and it was just crap and I figured I don’t care what it is, I just need to get a job.
And then “Luck,” it was just amazing really. It turned up after me being out here a few weeks.
How did that process work once your agent told you about it?
I met the casting director, … Bonnie Timmermann, who is lovely, but she was really sick, so she didn’t want to greet me properly. I went in and just did my reading on the other side of the room and they called me to come back in, I guess a week later, [and read for] Michael [Mann] after he had seen the tape.
So at that point I was like, “OK so that’s cool, Michael is interested.” I love going in and auditioning and working with the directors. I kind of come out of my shell and shine a bit, so I was looking forward to that actually. But Michael really works with people, and Michael works by his own timeframe. So everyone auditioning for that was kept waiting for hours, no matter who you were. … I did see a couple of actors have hissy fits in the waiting area because they had been kept waiting so long, but I didn’t care how long I had to wait. It was amazing.
And then I had to go in a third time … and I started a few weeks later. It was a real whole whirlwind really. A couple of weeks after that I was walking around Santa Anita [racetrack, where “Luck” is filmed] with Nick Nolte and Michael Mann and I was like, “This is just bizarre.”
Did you know how to ride a horse?
I had been on a horse once or twice, and I was very honest about that in my audition because I know of people, like friends of mine, who have gotten jobs and then been in the shit because they can’t ride. … I said, “I’m up for doing anything, but I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a horseman.” [Laughs.]
I understand Michael Mann sort of created new ways to work with the horses.
Michael was learning as much as the rest of us about how to film with horses and what you can do with them, how close the camera can get, what they will put up with. So it was a whole lesson for everyone, but just fantastic. The horseracing scenes, really starting with Michael in the pilot, developed a whole language for filming horse races.
How much of the racing or riding is you?
There are certain things that I can’t do because of insurance, but I did as much as I can and in the race sequences we devised certain ways of putting me in there, but we are trying to keep a little bit of mystique about that. [Laughs.]
It's you riding when you’re warming them up.
Yeah, we did a fair bit ourselves and it was a lot of fun. The jockeys are stunt men. They risk their lives every race. It’s incredible really. To be that close to the animals running at full pace, I just can’t believe it; but it’s such a rush. The jockeys live their lives on adrenaline rush basically and everything is a competition and they’re always trying to win. They’re amazing, amazing personalities, jockeys, because you have to be of a certain character type I think to be able to put up with the stress and the strain and involved in the physical aspects and the mental aspects of just being involved.
How did you do with the horses?
I’ll tell you, a lot of the acting that I did on the show was me hiding my fears of what might happen next. Actually later on in the filming, because the wranglers did such a good job and we knew more what we were doing, or we looked like we knew what we were doing, everyone got a bit relaxed. There was one day when I was on a horse and a lighting thing fell down or something and the horse freaked out and everyone was surprised. I'm on the back of the horse … and I stayed on. Moments like that made me see quite how far I had come.
It’s a whole give and take. They’re never going to hit the mark exactly right. They’re never going to go exactly the right speed that you want them to go. If you try and rein them in to go a bit slower, in the end they’ll just get pissed off at you and they’ll let you know. So it was a whole learning thing.
But I think certainly when the horses are on the set they’re the most important people on set. I love the way that the aesthetic of the show builds on that, so straight from the pilot lots of the shots come off the backs of horses or in their eyes. I think none of us would be there if it wasn’t for the horses. It’s through the horses that the humanity comes in the show.
They’re gorgeous, even when they’re in the stalls and you just see their faces.
Yeah, and the steam coming off them and all that kind of stuff. It’s amazing. I love the fact that Dustin’s character and Nick’s character, you see the affinity people have for the horses. You just wouldn’t expect it. So it’s great. I love it.
A lot of the characters hold them in great reverence. Did you find you thought that way after awhile?
Yes, and I think what’s interesting about that is that it’s a really deep, deep relationship, because obviously the horses can’t talk to you. You can’t have a discussion on that level, so it has to be a deeper kind of connection.
I remember when we were doing Phillip Noyce’s episode [airing Feb. 19], I was rehearsing with him and Kerry [Condon, who plays jockey Rosie]. He was making lots of references to how when she rides that race in the episode she feels like she’s been touched by the hand of God and it’s a religious experience. We spoke a lot about that on that episode. I hadn’t spoken about that before and I think yeah, a lot of it is some kind of religious experience because it’s just a very pure emotional connection. When you’re riding that race you’re just in tune with each other because you have to be.
Did you talk to a lot of the jockeys?
Yeah, I spoke to a bunch of them, yeah. … People often say to me you’re too tall to be a jockey and I say no, I've met 5-foot-7 jockeys, but they just have more trouble keeping their weight down.
It’s a dangerous sport too. Broken collar bones happen to 100 percent of jockeys and that’s one of the lightest injuries you can get. Everyone has broken bones and you basically stop when your body can’t take it anymore. That’s basically what stops most jockeys; they just can’t do it anymore.
Another thing that surprised me is it’s not specifically a young guy’s sport, so it’s not like American football or soccer or anything. You can do it until you drop. I went out to Louisiana, to Evangeline Downs, where my character would have raced and there was a guy in the jockey ring there in his 60s, whose wife had left him. They had broken up and he had to make money and horseracing was the only thing he knew how to do, so he had come back to the track. There were 18-year-old bug boys there and this guy and it’s the only thing he knows how to do. That’s another part of it, you know a lot of these guys value what they do and outside of that they find it difficult. The life and culture, it’s its own microcosm for them.
How did you find racetrack culture?
A fascinating thing about the track, which I certainly didn’t realize before we started shooting, is the amazing collection of people from all different parts of society that all congregate in one place to engage in the same pursuits. It’s wonderful really, and everyone has the same amount of respect for each other. It doesn’t matter who you are at the track because everyone is connected by the horses, by that deeper connection. They look after each other because they’re all in the same game really.
I like Leon as a character because he’s ambitious, but he is still so sweet. He feels a huge disappointment at the same time Rosie triumphs in Episode 4, but he wasn’t jealous of her or mean to her. Tell me what you think about Leon.
I think from that standpoint he gets it; he understands that life isn’t fair. Leon’s storyline is really that his body is betraying him, and he understands that that’s what’s going to happen. He says to Joey about his brother how they measured hands against each other and Leon’s hand is bigger than his yet he weighs a lot more than me. So Leon knows that there is going to be a huge problem with his weight as a he grows into a man.
What was it like working with all these big names? You have a lot of work experience, but this is kind of a bigger scale?
It’s amazing. Yeah, I've been kind of fortunate. I’ve worked with great actors, but this is kind of on another level, especially since it was everyone together. First of all, it was David Milch and Michael Mann and then secondly onset it’s Dustin and Nick and Michael Gambon ... and Richard Kind and Jason Gedrick and Ritchie Coster and Ian Hart and just everyone in the show is someone you would recognize.
I was around Dustin a lot, but I only had one scene with him proper in the show, which actually wasn't that difficult because my character in the show has the same kind of relationship with him as I do in real life. He has been around and I'm like the young guy just starting out, so that was kind of easy to do, that scene. But Dustin does like to horse around a bit onset and he did change things up a little bit when we were doing it, which is quite amusing. Well it was quite stressful for me because we were losing the light and Dustin was like, "Well why don't try this? Why don't you do it this way?" And I'm not going to say no to Dustin, so I was like, "OK, we'll do that. Oh God, we don't have much time, but OK." So we did and it was great. He still has the spirit of playing when he is acting, which is great.
Then I had a few scenes with Nick and Nick is just another kettle of fish. He represents to me a masculine archetype that doesn't really exist in Hollywood now and people are desperately touching around to find it. I was watching that Hollywood reporter roundtable of the actors and they asked someone what it was that marked out an actor and it was--oh, shit. What was it?--it was danger, like the anger or something. It's like that sense of you can really break out at any moment and I was really excited to see him do that in the show because he plays this guy who is kind of a bit broken down and unassuming and then that whole lawyer storyline happens and he goes off at the guy. I was like, "Yes, that is Nolte, that's what I wanted to see and it's just great." I'm so pleased to hear this morning that he got nominated for "Warrior" because he was so great in that as well.
I think Richard Kind, who plays Leon’s agent, is really good in this.
Do you know what? I've been saying while he’s been filming. I think this is career changer for Richard. I really do because he’s known as a light comedy guy apart from “A Serious Man.” I just think yeah, every day we’re filming and Milch will write for you, so he was giving Richard all this great stuff and it was really sweet because Richard is quite neurotic and so he would be asking me, “Is this OK?” And I was like, “Richard it’s going to be amazing, don’t worry, it’s going to be so great for you.”
But I think the casting has been brilliant and everyone fits their roles really, really well. I think Jason Gedrick, it’s going to be a great thing for him ... I think it’s really, really great for everyone involved.
How difficult was the Cajun accent for you?
The Cajun accent was interesting. … I made a concerted effort to go to Louisiana because I had not been and met a bunch of different people and took some recordings and I worked with a voice coach in Los Angeles when we did the pilot. I went out there and made sure that I met these people and spoke to them, but in the end you have to get some kind of approximation because you can talk to one person and then a mile down the road they’ll tell you they say that word differently. … It’s really difficult and I know I'm going to get flack for it, but I know that I don’t sound like me in the show, so for me that’s enough and I'm working on it all the time. I did as much as I could, so I think it works.
How was working with Michael Mann as your director? I hear he is a real stickler for detail.
You know what, Michael does everything in his power to get the job done the best that he can and I loved it. I loved working with Michael because I need someone to push me through it and be a perfectionist. I need that. I need to be directed and I love it.
You learn little things. I learned that shorthand before this, but if I just need to know where I am in the shot then I'll ask the camera guy. Michael doesn’t like that, so he’s like, “No, you ask me.” As soon as he said I was fine. I know now that Michael is the only person I talk to on the set when he’s on the set.
We did a scene with another actor. Michael really wanted to get this other actor to do this line a certain way and we must have been on like take 25 or something and the actor wasn’t doing it, but Michael isn’t getting pissed at him. He is trying to work out another way of describing it, so that he’ll do it. Michael has all the time in the world. He just wants to make it the best thing and he loves actors. He loves working with actors and making art and during the racing scenes he sat on the back of the truck with a camera in his hand. He filmed a lot of it, a lot of the footage with the cameramen. He is heavily involved in every aspect of production and I love it. I think it’s great. Yeah, I really like Michael; we get one really well. He’s great.
Here’s the toughest question. Are you ready to become a sex symbol?
[Laughs.] I don’t know about that.
You get the love scenes [in this Sunday’s episode].
[Laughs.] If that’s going to happen, I'm not sure it’s going to happen from this. [Laughs.] Do you know what is so amusing because it’s not really a sex scene? The first trailer that came out for the show had me and Kerry in that scene. Of course that’s in there because it’s the only sex scene in the whole show apart from Jason and [Weronika Rosati]. ...
On the face of it it’s an older guy show, so I was quite aware that I'm like the only guy under 30 in this. That means I’m going to be getting my clothes off a lot, but it didn’t seem to happen quite as much as I thought it might. I’m sure if we do it again then it will.
But no, actually it’s funny, I’ve only really just started to engage with that side of things. I had a Vogue shoot, which came out this month and I did one for Details last week and so all that stuff is starting to happen. I still find it a bit strange. So we’ll see. I don’t know.
You want to give me your pitch for the show?
I just hope people enjoy it. There was a roundtable that we did a couple of weeks ago where we were asked what the show was about and I said—and maybe it was a bit strong—but what I said is it’s not about horse racing. I know a lot of people will go, “Oh, it’s about horse racing. I don’t care about horse racing, I'm not going to watch that.” Well then you’re missing out because what the show is about, the hook that it’s hung on, is about so much more than that. It’s about the title. It’s about luck and its many different connotations. Horse racing just happens to be the soul of the piece.
I think when you watch the show and get into it you get that definitely. I hope it reinvigorates the sport because if anything I want more people to experience how beautiful Santa Anita is. It’s just the most amazing place and it’s a great sport. In my teenage years I had a very anti-cruelty orientation and all that kind of stuff, so having spent a long time at the track and around the horses and around the people that are there, I realized the saddest thing that can happen is if anything happens to a horse.Copyright © 2015, RedEye