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Q&A With Actor Jesse Johnson

Playing "John Wilkes Booth"

Jesse Johnson Sits With Crew

Jesse Johnson sits behind the camera between takes on set. (View larger version)

Photograph by National Geographic Channels

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“The prevailing image of Booth is one of a two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain. My job was to dig deeper. Show that he was as complex as a Shakespearean character he portrayed on the stage. Demonstrate the artistry, obsession and Southern rigor as well as the virulent disdain of an “inferior” president that culminated into his own bloody, one-act play.”

— Jesse Johnson

Q:  What was it about John Wilkes Booth that drew you to the role?

This character is its own history lesson. While I was in Europe working on another project, I picked up some books on John Wilkes Booth and started doing my research. I was immediately fascinated by the richness and complexity of the character as a man. The prevailing image that has been propagated about Booth is one of a demonic, mustache-twirling villain, and understandably so. But upon further investigation you find that he’s a rich and complex human being.

Q:  Any hesitations on playing such a reviled, historic villain?

Quite the contrary, I leapt at the opportunity. Playing villains can often be the most rewarding experience as an actor because you get to examine deep dark places of yourself that might otherwise remain unexplored.

Booth is a particularly rewarding villain to play because there is so little of his personal life and stage career that is known by the general public. Being able to lace all of the action that takes place in the film with his potent history and to ignite the context of the story with his theatrical upbringing and magnanimous demeanor could very well shine a brighter light on a mysterious and misunderstood pivotal figure of history.

Q:  What did you learn about Booth’s craft as an actor?

Booth came from a family of actors. In 1800s theater, everything was huge and elevated. It was all about grand gestures, and his entire world is based around drama. His father was also an actor, and he brought his children up reciting Shakespeare.

Coincidentally, Booth’s father’s notable roles were some of the same ones that would make Booth himself famous: Richard III, Hamlet and King Lear. What defined Booth, however, was that he was spontaneous, unpredictable and oftentimes dangerous on stage. He was all about being in the moment.

In most of the material about him, Booth is written off as a two-bit hack actor. But in a lot of the research I did, he was a matinee idol. He was incredibly charming, magnanimous and had the ability to hold a room in the palm of his hand. The public was in love with him. He had starring engagements all over the country, even up to the few months before the assassination of Lincoln.

Q:  Describe what it was like to be an actor playing an actor. Did you feel any similarities?

It comes down to being able to relate to Booth and make everything more personal. Every career is fraught with frustrations; I just happen to know the particulars of acting extremely well, so I approached Booth’s career in the same way I do mine.

Most actors really thrive on recognition and notoriety, and Booth was so fixated on leaving his mark in this world (something far more achievable with film and television these days as opposed to the theater in those days) that once the curtain drops and the lights go out, all you are is a performer in the audience’s memory and maybe a visage in a newspaper article.

I truly believe he wanted to do something that would ink him in the pages of history forever. And I certainly don’t mean to belittle his political cause, because I maintain that he TRULY BELIEVED in his actions and what he was doing, it just happened to coincide with this insatiable lust for fame. 

Q:  You come from a well-known cadre of actors in the family. How has that helped or curtailed your career at this point?

It’s only helped, although I don’t really think it helps as much as some people might think it does. Like all businesses and careers, a lot of things boil down to relationships. However, well-established people tend to have relationship levels that are not necessarily beneficial to your cause starting out.

Everyone works their way up from ground zero in this business. Some faster than others, and some reach higher heights than others, but at the end of the day, a relationship might get you in the room, but unless you have the chops to knock their socks off, I don’t think anyone gives a s*** who you’re related to. And I like that.

Q:  How was it to film in the Richmond, Virginia, area, where many of these events actually happened?

Being there fueled my imagination so much. It would have been an incredibly different project if we were shooting it in Vancouver, Toronto or even Los Angeles. You just wouldn’t have the same feeling. As soon as I got to Richmond, I dyed my hair dark and had grown a mustache and stepped out into the streets. It felt as if I actually became Booth.

Q:  What do you hope people take away from your portrayal of Booth?

I want people to learn and to be informed about this man that committed this crime. I remember personally being fascinated by this event in history class and specifically remember asking, “So… why’d he do it?” and not being given a satisfactory answer.

People will just have a much more well-rounded understanding about why Booth did such a thing and what his life circumstance provided that motivated this heinous act of murder.

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