Belfast Manhunt star Anthony Boyle: ‘It was me, seven cowboys, a bottle of whiskey, some tobacco and a horse’

David Roy chats to Belfast-born actor Anthony Boyle about the stranger than fiction storytelling of his new Apple TV+ series Manhunt, in which he plays Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, his recent turn in the Spielberg-produced Masters of The Air and an upcoming role which hits close to home...

A scene from Manhunt showing Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth
Manhunt Belfast's Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth (Courtesy of Apple)

“JOHN Wilkes Booth was just a real a*****e,” says Anthony Boyle (29) of the infamous real life assassin he plays in Apple TV+’s lavish new seven-part historical thriller, Manhunt.

“I’d just come off Masters of The Air, where I played someone who was motivated by love. He was a real sweetheart and a really beautiful person.

“Booth was like the direct opposite. He was driven by hate, he was driven by ego, he was driven by racism.

“Going from one extreme to the other is always interesting, so I really wanted to get under Booth’s skin and see what made him tick.”

As the perpetrator of one of the most infamous crimes in US history, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Booth is at the heart of the new Monica Beletsky-created and written series adapted from James L Swanson’s book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.

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Bizarrely, the charismatic, notoriously mercurial and impressively moustachioed murderer was one of America’s biggest stage stars when he shot Lincoln in the head on April 15 1865 in front of 1,500 people at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC.

Appropriately, the 26-year-old Thespian was best known for portraying villains at the time. However, as Boyle explains, Booth always coveted the heroic roles played by his father, who was also a stage star.

Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth in Manhunt
Manhunt Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth in the wake of the assassination. PICTURE: Chris Reel

“I think he was always being pushed into being a villain to the point where he decided, ‘Alright, I’ll f***ing show you a villain, you know?” offers Boyle, who also has two other new TV series coming in 2024, via Disney+: Say Nothing, based on Patrick Radden Keefe’s non-fiction book on the abduction of Jean McConville, and Shardlake, an adaptation of CJ Sansom’s hit historic crime fiction novels.

“After he shoots Lincoln, he jumps down onto the stage and shouts ‘sic semper tyrannis’, which means ‘death thus ever to tyrants’ – a line he said when he played Marc Anthony and his father played Julius Caesar.

“So there’s this sort of blurred line between reality and make- believe throughout his life.”

Manhunt, which also stars Tobias Menzies as Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s war secretary who takes charge of the murder investigation, is set to shock viewers with stranger-than-fiction details relating to the assassination and unsettling parallels between the racial tensions and political unrest of America’s past and present.

Tobias Menzies as Edwin Stanton in Manhunt
Manhunt Tobias Menzies (right) as Edwin Stanton. PICTURE: Chris Reel

Indeed, the Lincoln’s murder was the cornerstone of a vast Confederate conspiracy aimed at scuppering the president’s plans for sweeping civil rights reforms in the wake of the Union’s Civil War victory.

“There was so much written about Booth by those who had interactions with him, and the one thing that stayed true through all of them is that his moods would be shifting constantly,” explains Boyle of his research into the killer, who broke his leg while carrying out the attack and relied on a secret network of Confederate allies during the cross-country cat and mouse chase which ensured.

“His family were known as ‘The Mad Booths of Maryland’. From our modern perspective, they were clearly all suffering really severe mental health issues – bipolar disorder, depression – but back then they were just called ‘mad’ or ‘eccentric actors’.

Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth in Manhunt
Manhunt Anthony Boyle. PICTURE: Chris Reel (Chris Reel/Courtesy of Apple)

“I read all Booth’s letters from the age of 15 to 26, and you can really start to see his descent into madness. When he’s 15, he’s writing about mooning people at fairs. Then a bit later, he badly injures someone for disrespecting his sister.

“By the time he’s 23, he’s writing things like ‘the black man is enslaving the white man in America’.”

Indeed, Booth could not be further removed from the Belfast-born star’s most recent role as the loveable, air-sick airman Harry ‘Cros’ Crosby – another part based on a real person – in the Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks-produced Masters of The Air.

Masters of The Air Anthony Boyle in Masters Of The Air (Apple TV+/PA) (Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Apple)

Manhunt’s cowboy-style action scenes are also a world away from the simulated airborne combat involved in the Second World War-set series.

“Anything that sort of makes you not act is good when you’re acting,” explains Boyle of performing Master of The Air’s bomber-based scenes using a visceral combination of practical effects and state of the art immersive on-set visual effects known as The Volume.

“We were 50-feet in the air on these hydraulic gimbals, being thrown around. It felt like you were at Alton Towers, but without a harness. So we were genuinely terrified and just trying to hold on.”

Will Harrison and Anthony Boyle in Manhunt.
Manhunt Will Harrison (left) and Anthony Boyle (right) in Manhunt. PICTURE: Chris Reel (Courtesy of Apple)

Naturally, Manhunt’s 19th century setting necessitated the actor picking up a whole new set of skills for the show, which was largely filmed in Savannah, Georgia.

“I’d never ridden a horse before – but I got on the back of one and I took to it like a duck to water,” enthuses Boyle, a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, who got his big break in 2016 when he was cast in the West End production of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, for which he won an Olivier Award.

“I absolutely loved it. It was me, seven cowboys, a bottle of whiskey, some tobacco and a horse. And we learned how to ride horses for three weeks. So, by the time we were on set, it felt like second nature.”

Another aspect of the role which also required weeks of preparation was Booth’s signature moustache.

Anthony Boyle in Manhunt
Manhunt Anthony Boyle and moustache. PICTURE: Chris Reel (Courtesy of Apple)

“That was my first time growing a massive moustache, and I loved it,” enthuses Boyle, with a chuckle.

“On the show, when Booth is reluctant to get rid of his famous facial hair, that wasn’t acting – it was me genuinely not wanting to shave it off.”

And, while his American accents have proved impeccable recently, the Belfast performer will sound more like himself in Say Nothing when he plays IRA hunger strike leader and Bloody Friday mastermind, Brendan Hughes.

“I used to walk past the mural of Brendan Hughes coming home from school,” notes Boyle of his days at St Louise’s Comprehensive and De La Salle College, “so it’s kind of crazy to be stepping into those shoes and playing someone from our city”.

Before that, the final episode of Masters of The Air will ‘drop’ on Apple TV+ next Friday, just as the first two instalments of Manhunt arrive on the streaming service.

Of this scheduling quirk, the actor jokes: “Yeah, that’s my new thing - I won’t take any job now unless that happens.”

Manhunt premieres globally on Apple TV+ with the first two episodes airing on Friday March 15. Episodes will then debut weekly on Fridays through April 19.

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