When they were 12 years old, friends Mark, Pru, Danny and Slade were out together in the woods. Mark’s five-year-old brother Jesse was bothering them. They were mean to him. They told him to get lost. Jesse ran away. He was never seen again. Twenty years later, Danny, now a detective, learns some shocking news: Jesse’s DNA has been found at a murder scene. Could he really still be alive? If so, why has he come back? And how is he linked to this murder? Only one thing is certain: the lives of these four friends are about to be turned upside down as they desperately search for the truth. And redemption. Tom Cullen talks about playing Mark Wells on the series. The Five can be seen on Friday evenings at 9pm on Sky 1 from April 15th.
What was your reaction when you first read the script?
You know the way that Harlan writes those incredible hooks and twists and cliffhangers that just make you want to carry on reading? Well, that’s what the script was like. The first time I read it I was just completely addicted. When I first got the job, only three episodes had been written and it was so annoying because I just wanted to be able to read more. It’s a really nice marriage between Danny and Harlan.
So rather than a whodunnit, it’s more like a ‘what happened?’
Yeah, it’s a bit of everything. This is set 20 years after Jesse’s disappearance so it’s as much about the unravelling of grief and guilt as it is the immediacy of trying to find the answers to what’s happened. It’s also about how your history and your past completely construct who you are and how that’s so brittle and how it can really easily fall apart. And it’s also about redemption. It’s really cool. It’s different to anything I’ve ever read before.
And when you were reading the script could you guess where the story was going?
Absolutely not. I had no idea. As we went along we were all constantly theorising and trying to work out what the hell was going to happen.
And when you eventually discovered the ending?
I was wrong! The whole time I was completely wrong, which was great!
Was that satisfying?
So satisfying. I’m not going to tell you anything but the way the last episode is done is so brilliant and so unexpected. The structure and the style of it is going to be incredibly satisfying for viewers, I think, and very different. It’ll be a satisfying watch throughout all episodes, one to ten. You won’t feel cheated in any kind of way.
What does Mark think happened? Does he have any theories at the very outset?
Well, Jesse is presumed dead. He’s been missing for 20 years. But I think Mark had always hoped that he was still alive. So when his DNA turns up I think he latches on to that idea because he feels guilty for what happened. The day Jesse went missing Mark bullied him and sent him away. His life has been completely affected by this one moment when he was 12 years old. So he’s not going to let go of the chance of redemption and the hope that it has given him. He doesn’t really have any theories but that’s why it’s quite good because it’s one of those great stories where you jump into the rabbit hole and your whole world falls apart and you start questioning everybody around you: your best friends, your parents and yourself.
What sort of effect has it had on him as he’s got older?
That was actually really interesting for me because not only did he lose his brother that day, he also lost his childhood and his parents. They’re not the same people. They’re perpetually mourning the loss of one of their children. As much as he wants to find his brother he also hates him because he’s ruined his life. If he hadn’t gone missing that day he would have had quite a normal life. I think it’s quite telling that the four main characters all live in the town they grew up in. None of them have spread out, they’re all still friends. They’re all bound by this event and I think that it’s massively affected him. He’s never had any relationships. He struggles to fall in love. He’s a very vulnerable man I think.
Is he fundamentally alone?
Completely alone. Harlan said something when we first started shooting, which is that my character is everyone’s best friend, he’s the glue, which is nice. But although that’s the case, he’s completely alone. He’s a very nice person on the surface but inside he’s very sad and wracked with pain.
It sounds quite intense...
It is intense, but what’s great about the series is that it’s also full of life, really effervescent and there’s lots of great humour and love in it. The fact that it’s set 20 years after Jesse disappeared means the characters start to question the relationships in their lives and start to see them again for the first time. They stop taking their lives for granted. It’s like every single aspect of their lives turns into technicolour. They all go on these huge journeys of self-discovery.
Was it a fun set to be on?
Definitely. I’ve always heard other actors say it’s when they’re doing the darkest stuff it’s the most fun on set and that’s certainly been the case here. We’ve had a really good time and we all get on with each other. And everyone is insanely good at acting. So we had a lot of fun working with each other and everyone’s very, very funny. We will be friends for life.
Did the show have the feel of a big premium drama when you were working on it?
I’ve done some big shows and this is definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever worked on. In terms of its ambition, Mark Tonderai, the director, has this unrelenting vision and he’s done all ten episodes. He’s done an unbelievable job because there’s such specificity to it, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen on British television. We’re constantly filming with two cameras, but he has cranes and drones and gadgets that I’ve never even heard of or seen before! It’s given a scale to the piece which is just so exciting to be a part of. It feels big and when you watch it the script, which is already good, is elevated to new levels. It’s incredibly engaging and sophisticated and it’s just really cool.
What was it like working with Mark?
On this project Mark was very much about the shot, the look and the aesthetic of it but in terms of performance we were left alone and that was a bit scary at first. But you find such incredible freedom and ownership over the work. Acting and making films isn’t a maths equation. It’s a real living organism that depends on every single factor and person involved in it.
Can you pinpoint Harlan’s secret to incredible storytelling?
Do you know what? I don’t know. I think it’s incredible structure, incredible hooks, great twists and being completely unpredictable. The thing about this, which is really what hooked me, is that it’s driven fundamentally by an incredibly human and very emotional story. What’s clever is that this isn’t just a procedural drama about the police trying to solve a crime. This is a group of people whose lives, at the age of 12, were changed forever. And they want to heal. So it’s a drama from an incredibly deep emotional place that’s driving the plot forward and I think that is really exciting. So not only are you getting the really fun thriller aspects, it is also incredibly emotionally engaging. When I read those scripts that’s what really came across, these incredibly three-dimensional, messed-up, brilliant characters.
What was Harlan like to work with?
He’s an incredibly charismatic guy. He gave a great speech in the first read-through and his passion and belief in the project ignited a fire in all of us. It’s so great to be on a project that someone like Harlan Coben, who has sold tens of millions of books worldwide, says is the most exciting thing that’s happened to him. But he’s very good at letting go and letting us take ownership over it. I think he understands it’s something that has to happen. I think in television, in any kind of art, there’s an exciting transference of energy that happens, in this case from Harlan to Danny, from Danny to the cast and then from us to Mark, and from Mark to the editor. And through these transitions and through this collective experience you get something that’s this amalgamation of all of our ideas. That’s exciting and I think Harlan is appreciative of that process. Every time he came on set he was just like, “oh man, this is cool!”