How Prodigal Son Stars Tom Payne And Michael Sheen Got Inspired For Fox’s Serial Killer Drama

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(Image credit: Fox)

Prodigal Son is poised to bring former Walking Dead actor Tom Payne to network television in a big way, with none other than Michael Sheen (recently of Good Omens fame) playing his father. The new show definitely isn't a family drama a la This Is Us or A Million Little Things, though, as Michael Sheen's character just so happens to be a serial killer.

After a surprising recasting, Tom Payne plays Malcolm Bright, a brilliant young man with a knack for knowing how killers think due to the fact that his dad, Dr. Martin Whitly, was a prolific serial killer back in the 1990s. Known as "The Surgeon," Whitly's actions alienated him from his son, who nevertheless uses the unique edge that comes with having a serial killer dad to help the NYPD solve crimes and catch killers.

Now, despite the fact that Tom Payne has some experience with fictional killers and death thanks to his time on The Walking Dead, a show revolving around a serial killer and the impact of having such a person in a life requires a different approach. Both he and Michael Sheen shared their inspiration for the series during the Prodigal Son panel at the Summer 2019 TCA press tour. Tom Payne put it this way:

I think we’re really lucky in that there’s a wealth of material out there, fictional and true-to-life, to draw from. From my experience for the characters of the show, there are a few pockets out there of people who are in the same position as me in the show. There’s one in particular in which [executive producer] Sarah [Schechter] actually put me on to, called Happy Face, about the daughter of serial killer, and it follows her and her journey to talk to people who were affected by her father, directly and indirectly, and with her mother, and her relationship with her father, and the fears that she has and the intense pain that having a father who’s a serial killer caused.

For as much as Prodigal Son has a peculiar premise, arguably more similar to The Blacklist than anything else on television, Tom Payne revealed that there's plenty of material that he was able to use as inspiration for his work on the series. Interestingly, he noted that there were both fictional and real-life cases that he was able to "draw from."

Apparently, Prodigal Son executive producer Sarah Schechter is responsible for putting Tom Payne onto the grim case of the Happy Face Killer, a.k.a. Keith Jesperson, who raped and murdered eight women back in the 1990s. His daughter, Melissa Moore, has publicly spoken about dealing with life when her father is a notorious serial killer.

That case sounds on the money for Tom Payne's character on Prodigal Son. He went on to share his personal reaction to Melissa Moore's case:

So that was really helpful to me. It’s really hard to listen to and made me cry many times, because there’s a lot of pain and hurt there. And the character in the show is in pretty much the same position and has a lot of walls up, but is intent on trying to understand his father and the similarities that may or may not exist between them.

Tom Payne's emotional reaction to what he learned about the real-life case of the Happy Face Killer and his daughter suggests strikes me as a good sign about what he'll bring to his character as the series progresses.

Michael Sheen also drew upon a real-life serial killer case for Prodigal Son, but not the same one as Tom Payne. After all, Sheen will be playing a character who has done some very different things than his son, even if his son does have some troubling similarities to his dad.

That Michael Sheen is playing a serial killer for Prodigal Son is definitely a departure from his most recent regular TV role, which was the angel Aziraphale in Good Omens. Sheen explained the real-life serial killer case that was particularly helpful in his Prodigal Son preparation:

As Tom said, there’s a sort of wealth of material out there. I think over the last couple years, there’s just sort of been an explosion of content around these sort of issues. So there’s no lack of being able to read or watch stuff. I think one of the most useful things for me is I spent a few years working on a script that I wrote myself about what became known as the Green River Killer case, so I spent quite a long time looking into the psychology of that particular serial killer, which even though it’s not the same as the character I play, it was very useful in giving me a kind of broad background on these personality traits and that kind of stuff.

The Green River Killer, a.k.a. Gary Leon Ridgeway, is a serial killer initially convicted of 48 murders, which he committed by strangling. Back in 2016, news broke that Michael Sheen had written a screenplay for a crime thriller feature based on the story of the Green River Killer, and was slated to direct and star as the killer as well.

While the feature has not yet released, the research for one project evidently came in very handy for a project Michael Sheen could not have seen coming a few years ago. Based on his comments, viewers shouldn't expect "The Surgeon" to be interchangeable with the Green River Killer, but research on one serial killer is an advantage in playing another, even if the other is fictional.

That said, Michael Sheen did find a documentary about an English serial killer who also happened to be a doctor. Sheen explained:

I also watched a couple things that were particularly useful, there was a documentary about the British doctor Harold Shipman, [which concerned] the idea of how a doctor, someone very trusted in the community, very loved, very respected, very admired, could also be doing these terrible things. And also, there was one that was useful about watching someone who, whilst being in prison, then kind of tried to reclaim a relationship with a daughter and grandchildren, and that was interesting as well. Very useful.

So, folks who tune in to Prodigal Son on Fox don't have to wonder if the stars did any digging into serial killer psychology to bring their characters to life. Tom Payne and Michael Sheen found their inspiration in different ways, and it should be interesting to see the nuances they're able to bring to their characters for the new series.

Prodigal Son airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET on Fox. That's only one of many new and returning shows hitting the airwaves this fall, so be sure to check out our premiere schedule for when you can watch what you want to watch.

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. CinemaBlend's resident expert and interviewer for One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and a variety of other primetime television. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).