THE PHYSICIAN tells the story of Rob Cole (Tom Payne), a boy who is left a penniless orphan in an 11th-century English mining town when his mother dies of a mysterious illness. Vowing to become a physician and vanquish Death itself, he travels to Isfahan in Persia to study medicine under the great Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley). Through countless ordeals and challenges, and making many sacrifices along the way, he struggles on unwaveringly. His unflagging quest for knowledge leads to the blossoming of friendship and true love.
Interview by Fabiano Carvalhof.
How was your preparation to to play this character? How difficult it is to play a doctor from the Middle Ages?
Payne: A lot of it comes from the research from the time period which I’ve found fascinating, I didn’t realise that we were so far behind in the Western world and the Middle East was so far ahead and in the movie from scene to scene he is always moving forward by learning so he is a sort of different kind of heroic character which is always moving forward by gaining more knowledge. It is curiosity that drives him and that’s how I felt myself about learning about the character and the world he is in. So when you are coming to the set to film with the same attitude that is all you need to become that character, to be open hearted and curious.
This film is based on a bestseller by Noah Gordon. Did you find it hard to portray a character from a famous book in terms of limitations on how fans expect the film to be? How much of your own input could you play whilst filming and how was to deal with the expectations from the fans?
Payne: I was involved in the film a couple of years before the production actually started, when we had a different director and a different writer and the book was quite difficult to adapt, it is 900 pages long, you can’t really make all that content to be in a three hours long movie. And initially the first draft of the script was trying to be as faithful to the book as possible but that didn’t quite worked because the narrative became too fragmented and that halted the first production a bit.
When Philipp [Stölzl] took the role as director later on, he took the central concepts of the novel and the heart and soul of the character and made a much more concise narrative. Initially, I felt that I should read the book and use it as a guide but I have soon realised that the character I was going to play in the film was not exactly the same from the book, so I have used the script as my bible.
I think that the film is a good taste of what you could expect from the book, we tried to tell an old style, epic historical movie which is hugely inspired by the book, but it is a separate experience. If you are a fan of the book, you have to separate it from the film. This is not the first adaptation I have that I’ve been on and one thing that I have learned is that you have to separate yourself because you will never be one hundred percent right in everyone’s head, in how they have envisioned that character, they will differ about your height, your hair colour. You have to focus and try to do the best you can when playing the character and try to win people over, which I think we definitively did that.
Your character Rob Cole seems to have a special trait which is almost supernatural. How difficult it is to portrait that emotion on screen?
Payne: I quite enjoyed that, the less dialog you have, the better because feeling an emotion and showing an emotion on screen brings people into that story. For those scenes we have used a camera called the Phantom Camera, which captures that ultra-slow motion that you see in the movie. But it is very strange when it comes to acting because you feel a huge range of emotions over a few seconds and that comes out as a really long sequence because of the camera.
So it was quite odd, because if I would just do what I would normally do in a scene using that camera, in that shot it would look like I haven’t moved at all. So, when we actually shot it, I had to really throw yourself into that emotion so it would be captured within a few seconds, which was a bit strange!
Also, you will notice that there is always something moving in the background, in one shot there is the snow falling and in another one it is the fire, there is always something to maximise the effect. I remember that in one particular shot we had to make sure that there enough snow in the background and I love how the snow slows down in that shot, it is such a great effect.
How was the experience to work with Sir Ben Kingsley?
Payne: It is one of those magic twists where your roles in life meets the roles in the film, where you meet a well-respected, travelled and studied actor playing a very well-respected, travelled and studied character. It is pretty simple because the relationship you have in life is the one you carry onto the screen. I have had something quite similar when working with Dustin Hoffman with a TV show I did for HBO [Luck]. I think it that relationship shows on screen and when that happens, it makes everything a lot easier, it was a great experience.
You have been quite active about your opinion regarding the refugee crisis in Europe. The experience from this film which is partially set in the Middle East, how do you see this experience coming from the film and the human relations portrait in the film and the relations today?
Payne: For this film, I didn’t know the science and the learnings at the time that medicine was so far advance in the East than in the West, and the movie shows that duality with a lot of honesty and respect, the legacy of the Middle East in modern times. I had no idea that they were doing cataract operations at that time, I didn’t believe it at first and I had to make sure I would look it up and I think it is actually amazing what they were doing back then. It shows a great side of the Arabic culture.
I also enjoy the fact there is not judgement passed in any of the religious aspects of the movie. There are no good or bad sides in all of the characters in the film. Even though Rob could be seen against religion, it is not that way at all, he is just a Christian boy existing in that world. Every time he comes across he comes up against something which has to do with religion, he doesn’t judge the religion at all, but he thinks “why is this stopping us from doing things, we should just move forward”.
And I think that is a nice lesson for everyone, that this has nothing to do with religion, which can be twisted and change people’s words, unfortunately it has happened a lot and it is happening now. I think we should have a more open-hearted view like the character does and I think everyone would get along a lot better that way.
It’s recently been announced that you’ll be playing Jesus in The Walking Dead. Are you a fan of the comics? What can you tell us about your role on the show, when do you start filming?
Payne: I can’t really say much (laughs). I can say that I’m really, really happy to get the part and everyone is just having a wonderful reaction. I didn’t have any idea on what I was getting myself into. I had auditioned for a character which had a different name, I thought it was going to be a small role and I thought “Ok, I will audition for that.” And suddenly I was sent to this role and it is far bigger than I ever thought it would be. I’m just getting prepared for this worldwide phenomenon. When it got announced the other day, it went all over the internet and I got hundreds of thousands of messages and it is all a bit mad, really.
But I’m really honoured to be playing this character, he is a lot of people’s favourite and he is simply awesome, what a great character to be playing. I’m really excited and I can’t wait for the fans to see what we are doing.
Also, let’s talk about your next project, called DxM. Can you share a bit more about it?
Payne: That is a film from Red Bull Studios, it was shot in Romania last year. It is a bit like Flatliners. It is about a group of young scientists pushing the boundaries of science and it involves neural connectivity. I hope people who know nothing about it are going to be into the film because it is definitely one of those movies that you really have to concentrate, but it is also visually spectacular and exciting. It is a film that you need to watch more than once.
I am excited to see that coming out, I’ve always wanted to be in a sci-fi movie and it was exciting to be in one of those films where you swiping with your hands and things are moving in front of you (laughs). I’m looking forward to see it what people will think, I’m curious to hear what they think!