TV Fan Favorites 2020: Tom Payne Reacts to 'Prodigal Son's Win as Show to Watch With the Lights On

Prodigal Son Season 1 finale
Q&A
David Giesbrecht/FOX

Here we go, TV fans. Welcome to our re-booted, re-vamped and reinvigorated Fan Favorite Poll results! You spoke and we listened, so stay tuned as we roll out the winners over the coming days!

“I beat my old show? That’s amazing!” Prodigal Son star Tom Payne says upon learning his giddily dark freshman drama topped chilling veterans like The Walking Dead to be crowned Fan Favorite Show to Watch With the Lights On.

His new gig is spookier: On the Fox freshman hit, Payne plays traumatized criminal profiler and NYPD consultant Malcolm Bright, who strives to solve a personal mystery concerning his convicted serial killer dad, Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen). The win especially delights Payne because even he was surprised by how “horror film-y” the series became at times. Malcolm’s haunted dreams provided jump scares aplenty and the season’s final, shocking twist involving his sister Ainsley (Halston Sage) was a bloody mess (in a good way).

Here, Payne looks back at the successful first season —and what comes next.

What does it mean to you to know that the show has resonated this way with fans, especially in its first season?

Tom Payne: I really am happy about that. It was really fun to hear the feedback from people, that “I can’t watch it when it’s on at night. I’d rather save it until the next day.” Because I wasn’t expecting that element in our show. The dream stuff is really fun because it means we can play with time, and circumstance, and place. So it adds a whole dimension to the show, which helps us be very different. I think that’s what people have enjoyed. Walking Dead is fantastic, but The Walking Dead  has been on for 10 years now, and we’re a different type of show with a different touch to that kind of thing.

What's amazing to me is that the creators of the show, Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver, had the season's final twist in their original pitch to Fox: Ainsley kills a man and Martin proudly says, "My girl!"

I didn’t know that! I didn’t know that until the interviews [they did after the finale]. I was like, “Really?” I mean, that’s a really strong pitch. [Laughs] Halfway through the season, they told me where we were headed. The moment that the killing happens was just so wild, and out of character, that it shocked us all on set. We were all a little bit, like, "Oh my god, what just happened?" Which is amazing, and we knew this is gonna really work. And it really did! I was so happy, and then the phone call with Martin... I’m just a storyteller at the end of the day. I’ve said that’s kind of why I was getting frustrated with Walking Dead, because I want to be involved in new stories. In Prodigal Son, to have that twist and to know where that puts Malcolm now... There’s just so many more questions to be answered. He spent the whole season analyzing himself and comparing himself to his father, and trying to understand what makes [his father] a serial killer—and now there’s the potential of someone else right in front of him to look at and analyze and try to understand. That’s going to be a big challenge. And then, of course, there’s only a few people—three—that know exactly what happened [to Dermot Mulroney's Nicholas Endicott]. That’s a whole big secret to keep as well.

When I spoke to Michael earlier this season, he told me that, somehow, fans seem to find him more approachable now than they did when he was starring in Masters of Sex.

Oh, that’s funny.

Does that surprise you? What about that character do you think helps draw people into the show?

He plays this smiley, cardigan-wearing father. And that’s also what’s so fun and genius about the show, is that the audience sees him as my character does: Malcolm never saw any of the horrible stuff that he did. I mean, we know it happened, but on the face of it, for Malcolm, he remembers this lovable dad and then has to face all of these stories about what he did. The audience is in the same position. You meet him in this cell, and he’s this kind of lovable rogue type character. He has this danger, but also ends up being kind of cuddly in a way. It's really, really odd. [Laughs] And that’s what makes the show. That’s why it works. Michael is very adept at playing that.

What are some moments from the season that represent when you enjoy the show most?

Oh God, OK. I need to think about everything. I loved that whole episode ["Silent Night," the fall finale with guest star Sean Pertwee as Det. Shannon], when we went around to the Junkyard Killer’s grandmother’s house and it had that whole turn. Stuff like that, where it just feels like you’re in a scary movie. But I also love the humor that the show has, because it’s a huge part of it. That kind of knowing nod and wink that Michael has throughout the show. Any scene with Keiko [Agena] in it, where we’re at a crime scene and [medical examiner Edrisa] is laughing and joking and flirting with Malcolm and there’s the terrific death scene in front of us. There’s just so much. But I feel like in most episodes, we have a touch of everything. It’s pretty unpredictable in that way.

I was talking to the showrunners about Season 2, and we’re keeping most of the same writers. They’re excited because now everyone knows what the show is—everyone gets the tone. And I think that goes for the audience as well. Because in the first season, you’re always comparing it to other shows. People would go “Well, it’s not Hannibal.” And I’m like, “Well, no, it’s not Hannibal. That’s the point.” We’re not trying to do something that’s been done. We’re trying to put a new spin on it and be entertaining in a different way. I think we really got there.

There's also this great family dynamic. I love any scene with mom Jessica (Bellamy Young), but also moments when we see Martin calling at the worst possible time—like when Malcolm has his hand on an explosive or right after Ainsley has slit a man's throat. 

It’s a family dynamic, but it’s massively heightened. The first scene that I ever shot was Malcolm walking around the water with Ainsley [in the pilot], and it just worked. [Halston and I] have a brother-sister dynamic naturally, then it's fun to add lots of sauce on top of that. Next season we’ll be playing the brother-sister dynamic with this huge elephant in the room. And then the same thing with the mother and father relationship. There was a moment in the first season where Jessica and Malcolm go to Martin's cell, and she’s going to kill him. There was so much going on in that scene, because there was that, but then I’m also standing there going, “This is the first time I’ve been in a room with my mom and dad for 15 years" or however long he’s been in prison. So there’s all of those dynamics of my mom and dad are divorced and they hate each other—and that’s something that happens in life—but, it's not often that the father is a serial killer and the mother owns half of New York. And that’s, again, what I love about the show. We can play this high drama, but then there’s always a nice grounding underneath, which is identifiable.

You mentioned you’ve been talking with the creators. What's the status of Season 2?

We’re supposed to start filming within the next three months. Who knows? Everything changes all the time. But the plan is to be going back and doing the same show, just with certain restrictions. I think the gift of what we have is that we don’t have to set up everything if we play [the story] in the COVID world, because it’s something that everyone in the world is familiar with. It's not something you have to explain. If you put it in that world, which I think we will be doing, at least initially... that’s kind of fascinating for Michael’s character. Martin’s very valuable as a surgeon in a prison. What do crime scenes look like now? All of this stuff is still happening in this world, so if you go with it, I think it can work.

I’m not sure you can sustain it for a whole season, but we’ll see. And who knows how long the season might end up being? Obviously everyone really wants to get back to work—but safely. So we’re all just biding our time and making sure that it all happens in the correct way when it does. [The series is] starting to roll out across the world now, too, which is really fun. We’re huge in France, and we’re going to be starting in other territories as well. So yeah, everything is looking great moving forward.

How do you think Malcolm would be faring in quarantine?

[Laughs] Um, he has a pretty big space in New York to hang out in. He has lots of weapons to practice with. I think him hanging out on his own... the intricacies of that are also very interesting. I mean, when did COVID happen after the end of last season? Maybe that helps with everything, because everyone has to quarantine.

And that’s why people haven’t seen Endicott! Because he’s in self-isolation!

Maybe, maybe. Actually, I’ve gotta mention that. I haven’t spoken to the guys about that, but that’s a pretty good idea. You get a credit on that if we do that!

Check out more of our Fan Favorite Poll winners over here!

Repeats of Prodigal Son air Tuesdays at 9/8c on Fox. Catch up on Season 1 on Fox.com and Hulu.