Anthony Boyle, ‘Manhunt’

In these days of prestige television, it’s difficult to find an actor right now with a more impressive one-two punch than Anthony Boyle. The Irish actor currently stars in two highly touted series on AppleTV+, Masters of the Air, in which he plays the narrator/hero Lt. Harry Crosby, and Manhunt, where he takes on the role of John Wilkes Booth, presidential assassin and narcissistic blowhard. Both series are gargantuan productions and Apple clearly went all out to tell two key stories in the history of the United States, both series made infinitely better by Boyle’s exceptional performances.

While his performance as sweetly heroic Harry in Masters of the Air is the best thing about that series, a big thing to say in a show with impressive air combat sequences and Austin Butler, it is Boyle’s performance as Booth in Manhunt that shows not only Boyle’s versatility (Booth is anything but sweetly heroic), but reveals an actor with an intensity and charisma for days, playing a legendary figure in American history as a caged tiger, snarling and grandiose, injured and deluded, charming and traitorous. Boyle’s Booth is hypnotic, compelling, and impossible to ignore, the kind of performance that jumps out and makes you take notice.

I sat down with Boyle to discuss Manhunt and his performance as Booth, one that is sure to be remembered by voters as Emmy season begins to ramp up. We talked about what draws him to historical dramas, how he felt about playing one of history’s greatest villains, doing cartwheels in the White House, and how The Simpsons continues to be the world’s greatest teacher.

Catherine Springer: I just watched Masters of the Air and I remember you from The Plot Against America, but what you did on Manhunt was next level, I was so impressed. I’m really happy to be able to talk to you about this and raise awareness, get everyone to see this show.

Anthony Boyle: Yeah, I’d like people to watch it. We worked really hard on it and I think it’s a good piece of writing. I think it’s a really crazy, interesting story that not many people know about, so I’d love for people to give it a watch.

CS: Well, that was going to be my first question. You were raised in Ireland and so I’m just curious, were you taught American history? Did you know about Lincoln’s assassination or Booth at all?

AB: I knew that Lincoln was assassinated. I knew the name John Wilkes Booth. My first introduction to it was through an episode of The Simpsons where Bart Simpson plays John Wilkes Booth in an elementary school play. So that was my first introduction to Booth, but we weren’t taught too much about it. So, it was news to me that he was one of the most famous actors of his generation. It was news to me that he came from this acting dynasty. It would be like Tom Cruise shooting Joe Biden. It’s just so crazy, people could not get their heads around it.

Plus, it wasn’t in the days of the internet or even television. This is when news traveled slow. Someone said it on a farm somewhere, and then, “What do you mean John Wilkes Booth? What the actor, he killed the President? In a theater?” There was mass confusion about whether it was a prank, whether it was real, what was really happening. So the hysteria of it, I felt was just a really interesting bit that we tried to capture in the piece.

CS: And that’s really what I loved about this, it’s not just you’re learning so much about history, but it’s structured in such a way that it keeps you engaged. You’re able to give them the history in a way that they don’t even realize they’re taking in so much. It’s so well done.

AB: Yeah, I think so too. [Series creator] Monica [Beletsky], it’s her first time show running a piece, I think she should be given the keys to the kingdom. I think she’s such a clever emotional writer because she balances, like you said, giving people all this information, but also just the emotions of these characters and what they’re going through. She does it so well.

CS: Yeah, absolutely. But let’s talk more specifically about your performance. Booth has to be the emotional center–we have to hate him and we should hate him. But I want to ask you, as an actor, you have to find something in there to hold on to make it bearable to play. So what was it for him that was complicated enough for you to grab onto so you didn’t fully despise him?

AB: I never despise anyone I play. I think whether it’s Crosby who’s a hero or Booth who’s a villain, I would treat them both the exact same. I think you have to find the child in everyone you’re playing. You also have to find the bastard. The Jesuit priests say, “Show me the boy for the first eight years. I’ll show you the man.” With every character I play, I try and go back and paint a vivid picture of what their first eight years are like. That gives me a good scope. Building up these sorts of fake childhood memories helps me understand them. I never try and set out to judge a character to like them or hate them. I just try to understand. So I’m not thinking in terms of is it bearable or not or how much do I hate this guy?

Booth doesn’t think he’s a villain. Booth, in his fucked-up misconstrued way, in his letters is saying, “I’m going to free the white man”, and all this shit. So obviously as Anthony Boyle, I can look at that and go, “He’s a racist asshole. He’s a fucking idiot.” But as Booth, when you’re playing it, when you’re in it, you’re thinking you’re the hero. I mean, you are freeing your people, whatever. So you can’t play him as a villain because then you are sort of doing some pantomime mustache-twizzling, which I may have done. [Laughing, as he strokes his mustache] But yeah, I guess it’s more about just trying to understand them as opposed to judging them.

CS: Do you feel he was a true believer and not just in it for the notoriety and the fame?

AB: Both. I think he was mixed up in all this racist ideology and all this bullshit, but of course he was a narcissist. I’ve read all the letters that he had written from 15 to 26, and there is that sort of racist ideology that’s still in America today. You see all these sorts of racist views that shooters espouse when they write their manifestos online. They’re very similar to the stuff Booth was saying in his letters in 1863. It’s still this sort of cancerous rot in the American psyche that Booth may have been one of the first to spark. What was the question? [Laughs]

CS: Was Booth a true believer or did he just want fame?

AB: Yeah, both. I think he was, but also there was that one side of it that was the racist ideology, but also on the other side of it, when you read his letters, he was a narcissist. He was full of just self-grandeur and lies. I think he lied about himself in his letters when he was talking to his friend. I didn’t like much about the books that were written about him because so much of it was conjecture, so much of it is just another author saying Booth walked down the street and he must have felt a hundred feet tall when people looked at him.

And I think, “How do you know that?” So I went back to the letters, which are just cold, hard facts. This is what he wrote, this is what he received. And in that I found the racist ideology, but also the self-delusion and grandeur. And lies. I think at one point he’s telling his friend he survived an attack from a pack of wolves or something. I’m going, “What are you going on about?” Reading these things, it’s clear this guy’s really struggling here with some sort of craziness.

CS: Being an actor, obviously fame is something that’s going to come in what you do, especially on your trajectory. Does it change the way you think about fame, having played this role?

AB: No. I’ve been asked recently things like, “Do you take anything from playing the role?” I really don’t. I don’t know if maybe I’m doing it wrong, but I always see it as something that I step into, a separate entity that I go into. I don’t see it as; I’ll take playing John Wilkes Booth as a parable into my own life and I’ll learn from him. The things that I learned from playing him were things like horse riding. Practical skills. I didn’t take too much. It didn’t make me look at fame differently because I think I have a very healthy outlook on all that shit. I think it’s a byproduct of doing a job and it’s not something I crave.

CS: Regarding your approach to the role, Booth breaks his leg jumping off the balcony, so he has this horrible limp the whole time, and is in pain, which makes him even angrier. And he’s obviously got the famous mustache. Did these physical elements play into your performance at all?

AB: I broke my leg and grew a mustache. No, I’m joking. What was interesting about that is we only get to see Booth at the height of his “Boothiness,” as Carl Franklin, the director, would say to me. He would either say to me during takes, “Too Boothy,” or “More Boothy,” and that was our shorthand. I knew exactly what he needed.

We only get to see him at full height of peacock plume in the first episode for only the first 20 minutes, looking good with the cravat and stuff. And then we get a couple of flashbacks of him and then immediately he’s got all that taken away from him. He’s on the crutches, he’s falling all over the place, he’s in pain. So it was interesting to build a character and then put them into that extraordinary situation immediately, so you don’t actually get to go on a journey with him as this sort of character that I was thinking of and building.

I was imagining this person and then straight away he’s just thrown into this like, fuck, how does he react when he doesn’t have all the adulation, all the women around him and all the people saying you’re amazing. And it really fucks with him. It really gets to his head. He’s lying there. He’s saying, “I’m going to send this stump. I’m going to post this to my mother.” He’s reading this thing that says Booth killed the president, and he’s reading it like it’s a review. He’s reading them say “Booth shocked the audience,” and he reads it and goes, “Wow!” There’s something so insane about that. Monica wrote some really cool stuff, you know?

CS: I can’t not look at this performance in the scope of the last few things I’ve seen you in, like The Plot Against America, which truly moved me, and Masters of the Air and now this, they each have something to say about where we are now in this country, where we’ve come in our history and how the world is now. They all feel like they have deep examinations of America. Was that coincidence, because you seem to be a very passionate guy about what’s going on in the world.

AB: Yeah, I think growing up in Belfast, you’re coming out of a civil war and everything’s political. We still have 80-foot walls separating Catholics and Protestants. So your postcode is political, your name, if it’s a Protestant name or a Catholic name, is political. So you can’t really escape politics. So I think that’s probably shaped subconsciously some taste that I have that I wasn’t aware of until I was choosing what job I wanted to do next or what job I wanted to audition for. Political dramas were something that I felt just really interested in, something that were commenting on society as a whole as opposed to say romantic comedies. So yeah, I think it’s something in retrospect that I’ve thought of only recently that maybe that’s a reason: growing up somewhere where everything’s quite politicized. It’s probably got something to do with why I’m drawn to that kind of work.

CS: I have to ask about this. You visited the White House, having just played John Wilkes Booth and you and [Master of the Air co-star] Barry Keoghan did a cartwheel in the White House. Was that totally surreal for you?

AB: Yeah, I just thought it was a fun thing to do. I mean, we were on our way to the White House. We were blasting Biggie Smalls. We were like, “This is great. This is going to be a fun day.” And then we got too excited and started to do cartwheels. It was a lot of fun. I’m so happy I was invited. Hopefully they’ll invite me back at some stage.

Edited for brevity and clarity.

Anthony Boyle is Emmy eligible in the categories of Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for Masters of the Air and Supporting Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for Manhunt. Full seasons of Master of the Air and Manhunt are both available to stream on AppleTV+.

Interview originally published at