Before he began playing John Wilkes Booth in "Killing Lincoln," Jesse Johnson celebrated a private triumph: He grew a jumbo mustache for the role.
"I'm very proud of it, by the way," the 30-year-old actor told me Thursday by phone from New York. "I wasn't aware I was capable of growing such robust facial hair. But now that I know, I feel more of a man."
Johnson stars as Abraham Lincoln's assassin in the National Geographic Channel film that premieres at 7 p.m. CT Feb. 17, with Billy Campbell as the 16th president and Tom Hanks narrating the documentary sections of the drama.
The blond Johnson spent two hours in makeup each day to get his black-dyed hair curled tightly just as Booth wore it. The result was such an uncanny resemblance to Booth that people in Richmond, Va., he encountered did double takes.
"People were like, 'John Wilkes Booth, glad you got that guy,'" he said, laughing. "I said, 'Whoa dude, you need to slow your roll. I'm just playing a character. No problem with Abraham Lincoln over here. I'm an Abe Lincoln fan.'
"I had to see the world through his eyes, and they were unique and curious lenses."
Johnson not only captures Booth's look, but also presents a three-dimensional human being who may surprise viewers. Johnson hit the books to learn more about Booth and his acting family and discovered that a lot of what history says about him isn't totally accurate. He wasn't a second rate stage actor, but was so famous he often couldn't walk down the street without being recognized.
He also was passionate in his support of the Confederacy, so much so that he "leveraged his fame and his power and his wealth" for the cause, Johnson said. He was far from being simply a pro-slavery madman who shot the president at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865.
"He wasn't crazy," Johnson said. "He was just wrong."
Like Booth, Johnson grew up in an acting family. The son of actors Don Johnson and Patti D'Arbanville, stepson of Melanie Griffith and brother of Dakota Johnson said family members were "really stoked" about his biggest U.S. role to date.
"Everybody's going to be crowded around the television Sunday to watch it," Johnson said, laughing, "and we'll see what they say."
Johnson talked more about his famous family, what he was surprised to learn about John Wilkes Booth and which of the famous characters Booth portrayed he'd like to tackle.
Spielberg's "Lincoln" is an Oscar favorite. You do not have to suffer comparisons to anyone else because Booth is not in "Lincoln."
No, not at all. I had zero competition on a performance level, which I'm thrilled about. … I thought that the Spielberg movie was fantastic because it sets our movie up kind of perfectly. I remember walking out of there and being like, "Cool. There's no John Wilkes Booth component at all so people will have a real reason to tune in and watch this and learn something else."
Was the idea of playing Booth the biggest reason for you to sign on to the film?
I think the character always in the work is what drives my decision in project choice. John Wilkes Booth is such an enigmatic character. He's so misunderstood in the context of American history. And I think it was a real opportunity as an actor to dive into some deep, dark places that would remain otherwise unvisited. But also as an opportunity to show a different side of John Wilkes Booth that maybe people don't know about. That he was a passionate feeling, three-dimensional human being, not just this two-dimensional mad man, villain guy that just hauled off and killed the President because [Booth] was pro-slavery. It was much more complicated than that.
I love the concept of him being raised on Shakespeare--his father being an actor and his brother being an actor and his fight and paying his dues in coming up in the 19th century theater and up to being like one of the biggest stars. He couldn't go anywhere without being recognized. He was loved and he was starring in engagements all over the country.
It was all based around the fact that he had this upbringing that was based in the dramatic context. I feel like he saw the world through the eyes of a dramatist always. There's this notion that I latched onto that the whole world for John Wilkes Booth is a stage and that the lines between drama and reality are blurred.
And so he eventually ended up orchestrating his own one-man show, his own one-act tragedy, as it were, and living that out in real life much like the famed villains he portrayed on the stage.
Somebody who's that magnetic and is that larger than life is such a gift for an actor to play because you have so many options and so many things to play with with that. It allows you to be bold and make choices that are rich and provocative for viewers.
Which of Booth's famous characters would you want to play?
I think that Richard III is a pretty phenomenal role to play. Oh, and Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar." I'd love to play that. I love Shakespeare; I'm a fan of the classics.
Did you adjust your approach to acting a little bit to create Booth's over-the-top, theatrical style?
I think my performance is right on the razor edge of where this man lived. And I'm not really concerned with results as an actor. I'm concerned about living moments. And each of those moments in the piece raise the stakes. The cool thing about this having the narrative component is that every single piece of action is hugely important. When it drops into the feature film component of the film, which is the majority of the movie is action, is dramatic narrative. It's all important and high stakes and the story's moving forward rapidly.
To John Wilkes Booth making his impression in each of these scenes is the characters ultimate goal. And so it's my responsibility to bring myself to that and figure out, "OK, well if I were in these set of circumstances how would I be?" I obviously am not a racist and I am not an actor in the 19th century theater but I am an actor and I know what it's like to use language to sort of command the situation and to get an audience to portray a character in a way that an audience will respond to and understand. And so if you apply that concept to John Wilkes Booth in his real life, that's where you'll see that he was just living this dramatic interpretation of his own life.
Spoiler alert, but Booth is killed in the piece and you have to play him dead on the slab. You said earlier you really felt the weight of the project at that moment.
There were two moments that I really felt the gravity of what we were doing. It was while I was lying dead and we were recreating a poster that Alexander Gardner had taken that had never been found. And everyone was being so meticulous about what this photo would have looked like and how his autopsy would have gone and he would have been performed.
Honestly, my job was pretty easy. I just laid there in rigor mortis with my mouth open. But it was the sense of everybody around me and the recreation of this moment that is unclear [in history]. Everyone was doing the best they could because there was something in the crew and in the producers' minds that we wanted to see this picture that's never been found. And we wanted to see it in the way that it would have been done, so we shot it with a real glass--collodion glass plate and the way that it would have been done in 1865.
The other scene, of course, was the scene in the presidential box committing the crime. Things got real quiet on set and everybody understood that we were handling something that was delicate and special. And there was a painstaking attitude about getting it right. We were under an enormous time crunch but we made sure that everything was perfect.
Did you do a lot of research?
I stayed away from the Internet and went old school with my research by reading books. I read "American Brutus" by Michael Kauffman, and "Lust for Fame" by Gordon Samples. As far as understanding the chronology of events, "American Brutus" was really a terrific book. "Lust for Fame" was about his stage career and family, so as an actor playing an actor that was helpful to see John Wilkes Booth as a man.
Any surprises about Booth from your research you did?
Something that was interesting about it and maybe surprising was how much he was involved in a subversive way with the Confederacy before the crime. He leveraged his fame and his power and his wealth to help the Confederacy in whatever way he could. Whether it was organizing for the passage of goods over the border to the North or from the North into the South. Or meeting with secret service agents and doing his best as an ancillary member of the Confederacy in the war.
I found that surprising--how passionate he was about it. It wasn't just about etching his name in the pages of history. It was about what he really believed--that what he was doing was right. That's a surprising thing for anybody to hear, because you would think it takes a certain amount of derangement to kill somebody. But he really, really believed in it.
That's the paradox about John Wilkes Booth that's so interesting and that people are going to take away from it. He's lying in the pine thicket as he's reading these newspapers thinking that he's going to be applauded and lauded as a hero for this act. And it turns out that his play is a failure. He's reading the worst reviews of his life and there's nothing he can do about it but end it in the tragedian way.
What's the family think about this project?
Everybody's really supportive in my family. No one is unaware of how difficult this business can be, and I feel like everyone's really proud of me. So I'm honored for that.
Has coming from a family of actors been an asset or a hindrance?
I'm always surprised when people think that it hurts. It's only helped, but like any other actor you have to prove yourself. Having actors in the family might get you through the door, but you have to earn the part yourself with talent and hard work.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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