The National Geographic original scripted drama Killing Lincoln, adapted from Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling book and narrated by Academy Award winner Tom Hanks, chronicles the final days of President Lincoln (Billy Campbell) and the plot devised by one of the most notorious and complex villains of all time, John Wilkes Booth (Jesse Johnson). Booth viewed Lincoln as a tyrant eager to eradicate the Southern way of life, and took matters into his own hands, which resulted in a murder that shocked the nation. Executive produced by Tony and Ridley Scott, the film also stars Geraldine Hughes, Graham Beckel and Shawn Pyfrom.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor Jesse Johnson (the son of actors Don Johnson and Patti D’Arbanville) talked about how he came to be a part of Killing Lincoln, how he approached his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth, they type of research he did, what it was like to reenact the assassination, and his new understanding of the very complex man. He also talked about what led him to acting, how he ended up starring in a Spanish television show, and that he’d also like to branch out into producing, writing and directing. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JESSE JOHNSON: Absolutely! First of all, I enjoyed Lincoln. I went to see it and I was very excited that it set up our film so well. I walked out of Spielberg’s Lincoln having such a thirst for more. It used such a microscopic albeit enormous event in American history. It used such a small piece of his presidency to illustrate him as a president through the lens of that event. It was a very intelligent and effective way to tell that story. At the end of that movie, we were positioned to tell another side of the story, with the assassination. It’s an amazing opportunity to tell our story now.
How did you come to this project?
JOHNSON: I have known the writer of the project, Erik Jendresen, for a few years now. We became friends on a reading of one of his plays at the Manhattan Theatre Club. So, when he was beginning to do this project, he had contacted me and said, “Is this something that you’d be interested in doing?” I was in Spain at the time, shooting a television show, and I said, “Yeah, absolutely!” I had to go through the normal process of auditioning and proving to the producers and the network that I could do this and that I was the right guy for the job. So, when I got back to L.A., I had a conversation with Erik, and then prepped my audition and went in and got the role. Then, I went to work because I knew it was going to be a real quick shoot. There was about three weeks between when I booked the job and I started working, so I put my nose to the grindstone.
How did you approach your portrayal of John Wilkes Booth?
JOHNSON: What an opportunity I had to play a historical figure and a biographical character. Also, what an enormous opportunity to create what that is for myself. There’s no video footage. There’s no factual existing representation of what this was like. So, I had to go through a dirth of literature and research all of the different facets and aspects of this person’s character and his life, not only as a man, but as an actor because they’re so inextricably intertwined. There’s almost a fading and blurring between his dramatic life and his real life. The real humanity of this character is what makes this depiction of him, in this story, unique. You see that he’s not just this two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain. He’s actually a person and he believes in something. That’s what you see unfold in this.
JOHNSON: I focused mostly on examining him through his actions, as an actor, and through the literature that I could find, that described his theatrical career. All of those books go back into his past and develop from once he came. There’s a chronology of his theatrical career, which, if you look at it from an outside perspective, matches the chronology of his allegiance to the South and the way the Civil War was progressing, and how he was becoming more and more obsessed and infatuated with the South being the victor of this war. He was positioned to become one of the greatest actors of the 19th century stage and, through his work engagements, he achieved an enormous amount of wealth, notoriety and fame. But, as his involvements with the Confederacy increased, his performances become more and more sparse. There’s a correlation. You can chart the arc of where he was going and what he was endeavoring to do, by looking at those things. Those are the sources that I chose to focus on because that gave me the biggest clue into how this character operated and where he was at, during the time of this event. Mind you, we focus on literally the couple of months, with jumping back a year prior for a couple of scenes, that includes when the conspiracy was hatched, when it was executed and the manhunt that ensued.
What was it like to have to shoot the assassination? Was that completely surreal?
JOHNSON: It was exhilarating! It was amazing! When the vestibule was finished and we were unleashed, as actors, to play in that space, there was a weight unlike anything I’ve ever felt before, being on a set. I had a very solemn and contemplative countenance to me, before walking in to do that. I felt like, outside of the objective of the character that I was playing, I also was holding a very significant piece of American history, cradled in my hand. Of course, when I went to work, I just let that go and focused on my objective, which was just killing this man who I thought was a tyrant. But, the environment was electric. You could see it on everybody’s faces. You could see the weight of the subject matter with which we were working. Everyone’s heart and soul was invested in this, and that particular scene was weighty. It was also complicated. It was a small space, and everything had to be so historically accurate. The #1 objective of the telling of this story was to tell it as accurately and as factually correct as possible. So, that created a complex environment, but one that was incomparable to anything else I’ve ever done.
Do you feel like you have a better understanding of what this guy went through that led him to the actions he carried out, and do you feel like there are misconceptions of him?
JOHNSON: Yes, absolutely! This is a guy who was the son of an acting dynasty. He had an older brother and father who acted. He was raised on Shakespeare. He was incredibly intelligent, well-spoken and articulate. He was charming, magnanimous and totally narcissistic. He was also very complex. The way that the script is written, it’s crafted in such a way to illustrate that, and my objective, as an actor, was to show this human side of him, from whence he came, and why he’s driven to do such a thing. For John Wilkes Booth, sweeping, grand gestures were a way of life. It was how he navigated his way through this world. The bigger and bolder, the better. And we love people like that. He was an adored figure, in 19th century theater and also just in the communities in which he circulated. His humanity is what I really wanted to shine through here. He’s fighting for something real. He wasn’t just crazy. I remember, in high school, I had a thirst to know more and the textbook was incredibly limited. I was like, “Well, why did he do it? Nobody just does that. Somebody with that kind of ingenuity and planning has to be hyper-intelligent and fascinating.” I think he’s interesting and the depth of his character is far more than anybody has ever seen in a textbook or in any of the previous films. You really get a slice of that in this film.
After you play a role as complex as this, is it hard to find another role that will live up to the experience?
JOHNSON: It’s just a different thing. Every role that I play is a gift and is something that I approach differently. This one had its own set of requirements that you had to approach it with. And then, there’s another character that may require the same amount of work, but just a different style of approaching it. It’s all about reaching into your tool kit and finding what you’re going to bring from yourself to the character, to make that work for you. It’s just a job. I don’t really think about it as being any different. I put all of myself into each role.
Had you always wanted to get into acting? When you see it growing up, is it something you just automatically find yourself drawn to, or did you find yourself trying to run away from it?
JOHNSON: I’m a musician as well, and that was my original plan of action. You’re right, having grown up around it, you’re like, “What can I do to make myself different than this? I know what this is.” And that’s with any family, for whatever it is. But, it was just something that I was drawn to. The school plays needed kids that were big and bold and weren’t afraid to be on stage, and I fit that bill, so I was expected to do it. And then, I went to college and the exact same thing happened. I went to college intent on studying music, and I was like, “I don’t want to learn to play the recorder. I’m going to go do theater. I like doing that.” So, I ended up in the theater again. And then, I just started working when I got out of college, and I just kept doing it. I caught the bug. I still maintain several different outlets of artistry, like my music, photography, writing and all those things. I don’t pigeonhole myself into one thing. I do all sorts of things, and that’s so important to me. But, this is the most fun and amazing way to pay the bills.
How did you end up doing Spanish television?
JOHNSON: Isn’t that weird?! I studied Spanish in school. The elementary school that I went to offered only one language, which was Spanish, so I didn’t have a choice, and I continued it in high school, through to AP Spanish. And then, I continued it in college, where I minored in Spanish. When you study language in school, you never really get fluent unless you go and finally immerse yourself in the culture and go live there. So, I did study abroad in college. I knew enough from traveling with my family to communicate. I would say I was 60% fluent. And then, I was like, “I wanna work in Spain.” I’d seen all these examples of Spanish actors coming to the United States to work, and I was like, “I wonder if that works the other way.” People in the United States work their asses off to go and live in Europe on their vacations or retire there, and I was like, “Fuck that! I’m just going to go work there ‘cause that sounds awesome!”
So, I met an agent at a party who had an agency in Spain, and he loved the idea that I had because he thought it was different. I was literally one of two people doing that in Spain. So, I got a movie (called ¿Para Qué Sirve Un Oso?) there. I shot the movie, and then off of that, about nine months later, I got offered the television show (called Con El Culo Al Aire) there and went and shot a season of it. Obviously, my goal is to reach a larger audience, so after that experience, I said, “Thank you very much. This was an amazing experience, but I’m not going to return for the second season.” I couldn’t do the second season, if I wanted to do this movie because they were conflicting schedules, so I just said goodbye to that, came back to the United States and did this picture.
Are you looking to get into producing, writing and directing, as well?
JOHNSON: 100%. I’ve always found the entire creative process of making movies and television fascinating. Something I’ve learned through my family is that you cannot be so myopically focused on one thing that you forget all the other facets. It’s truly a collaborative process. So, I think that directing and producing is definitely in my future. I have a couple scripts that I’ve stumbled upon, that I’m working on. I’ve got them set up at a couple different production companies and I’m working on getting them financed and ready to go. That’s something that I’m passion about. And I’m also writing my own material. I’m just staying busy.
Killing Lincoln airs on National Geographic on February 17th.