Tom Cullen: Love at First One-Night Stand
By William Van Meter
"They're too busy on Grindr showing off their arses," quips a character in Andrew Haigh's strikingly accomplished debut feature, Weekend. But Haigh doesn't dwell on the symptoms of the modern gay condition. He makes something altogether more universal and interesting: a story that isn't so much about being gay as it is about love.
"Gay-themed films have never talked about how I see being gay," says the writer-director. "That was the fundamental thing to start with. I was trying to say something honest about relationships."
Haigh's vision immediately resonated with one of the film's stars. "It's not about sexuality," Tom Cullen says of first reading the script. "It's a story about two people who fall in love, who connect. Haven't you fallen in love at first sight?"
There are equal moments of passion, pain, and high comedy in Weekend, all played out against a dreary backdrop of the English Midlands. "Nottingham is a nowhere town," Haigh says. "So many films are about hipsters in cool parts of town. A lot of people don't exist in those worlds. They might live in ugly tower blocks but find beauty in what they do." Haigh discovers the splendor as well -- his camera lovingly frames smoke delicately wafting from a council tower's chimney and the contrast of illuminated high-rises against a polluted sky.
In Weekend, Russell and Glen meet for what they think is a one-night stand, only to stumble into something much more profound. The languid, yet emotionally powerful film traces a relationship that was bound to fail: Glen is leaving for art school in America in two days.
"Both characters change each other's lives," says Cullen. "If it wasn't just for the weekend, it wouldn't work. When you hear that clock ticking, you're able to let your baggage go and give yourself to somebody knowing that you will never see them again."
Cullen, 25, is sipping a vodka tonic in the bar area of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Weekend is screening as part of BAMcinemaFest. He is equally handsome in person as onscreen and looks dapper in a houndstooth blazer over a T-shirt and vest. His eyes are dark, liquid-brown, and framed by strong brows. Cullen was raised in a small farm town in Wales by 'hippy' parents (from whom he apparently received his extreme earnestness and open-mindedness).
The actor delivers a standout performance as Russell, a smoldering lifeguard whose childhood was spent in foster care. Glen (played by Chris New) is an aspiring artist damaged from a previous romance. Glen and Russell drink, have sex, and talk. A lot. Their late-night, coke-fueled conversations are mortifyingly authentic. "That faux passion!" Cullen says. "Yes, those scenes are very realistic." It was easy to find his muse -- in actuality, the actors were snorting glucose. 'It's in energy drinks,' he says. 'We were getting a sugar rush.'
The film's leading men were both new to cinema, but have lengthy stage CVs'their theater chops certainly added to their quiet, emotive performances. Their celluloid chemistry began offscreen. The two shared a Nottingham apartment during filming. "We cooked for each other," Cullen remembers fondly. "You'd think it would be really intense, but it was wonderful. It might have helped the connection, but I think it would have been there anyway. I've fallen head over heels in love with Chris as a person."
Don't get too excited, though -- this was only a bromance. Cullen is straight and New is gay. (New was prevented by visa issues from making it to Out's shoot.) Still, the two have convincingly passionate gay sex onscreen. "Gay for pay!" Cullen says, amused at hearing the term for the first time, "Oh God, I absolutely would not consider myself that." Well, gay for art's sake, then?
Weekend's depiction of sex is frank and mature (and as non-judgmental as its representation of drug use). "He's a normal bloke who has sexual urges," says Cullen of his character, who originally tries to pick Glen up at a urinal in a tacky gay club. The sex is neither whitewashed nor neutered, which is part of Haigh's hyperrealist approach.
"A lot of people aren't honest about being gay," Haigh says. "I wanted to show it as it is." Another memorable exchange: when Glen tosses Russell a towel to wipe off post-coitus. 'I see the sex as sweet,' Haigh says. 'They have gone through the passion of having it, and now there is an awkwardness between them. I never wanted to have these things with music. You have sex and don't make a massive deal about it.' It's also an excuse to have the characters spend a good portion of the film in their briefs. "The film is a document of guys over the weekend," Cullen says. "Guys always spend the weekend in their underwear."
Weekend was the breakout hit at SXSW and virtually every festival where it played. Odds are it could crossover to mainstream audiences when released in the U.S. this September (it will simultaneously air on Sundance Selects). Cullen is more than prepared for broader exposure. He takes a last sip of his drink and enthuses, "I would love to be a gay icon!"