Tom Payne attends the Jan. 25 premiere of HBO's "Luck"… (AFP/Getty Images )
February 16, 2012|By Curt Wagner | RedEye
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.