Manhunt: Anthony Boyle on why Lincoln assassination TV series is still relevant

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Manhunt is on Apple TV+.
Manhunt is on Apple TV+. Credit: Courtesy of Apple

Like many people around the world, actor Anthony Boyle learnt about American history from The Simpsons.

Boyle’s introduction to one of the world’s most famous assassinations came from an episode in which Bart Simpson, dressed up as John Wilkes Booth shoots Milhouse, in costume as Abraham Lincoln.

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Now the Belfast-born Boyle (Masters of the Air, The Plot Against America, Tetris) is playing Booth in the streaming series Manhunt, a historical thriller of the operation to catch Lincoln’s killer while the US grappled with the fallout of its Civil War.

“All my American references or American history have come from The Simpsons or Family Guy,” Boyle told The Nightly. Of course, since then, he has picked up more details about the Booth story.

“He was from an acting dynasty and one of the most famous actors of his time. It would be like Brad Pitt shooting Joe Biden. It’s just such a crazy, crazy story.

“His family were famed for being known as ‘Mad Booths of Maryland’. They lived on a farm, everyone knew they would go off into fits of rage or go off and pretend to be other people.

“I think they were all suffering from some sort of personality disorder or bipolar but it was undiagnosed at the time, so they were just called mad or eccentric.”

Manhunt is on Apple TV+.
Anthony Boyle is an actor from Belfast. Credit: Courtesy of Apple

Also starring Tobias Menzies as secretary of war Edwin Stanton (who led the manhunt), Hamish Linklater as Lincoln, Matt Walsh as Samuel Mudd (the doctor who set Booth’s broken leg) and Patton Oswalt as Lafayette Baker (the Union’s spymaster), the series deploys modern-day thriller tropes to tell the story of a 160-year-old investigation.

Had Booth acted alone, who was aiding him and how high up does it go in the Confederacy ranks?

When Booth burst into Lincoln’s box at the Ford Theatre in April 1865 and shot the US president, his actions would alter the course of history. Only days earlier, the Confederacy had surrendered at Appomattox and Lincoln had grand ambitions for the future of the re-united states.

His death scuttled the plans for reconstruction and greater rights for the newly freed African Americans as well as holding the Confederate accountable. Instead, his successor, Andrew Johnson, who was from South Carolina, granted amnesty for the south and the ugliness of racial violence continued, still continues, for decades more.

There’s a piece of dialogue in Manhunt, in which Stanton classifies Booth as an “aberration” because, he argued, that in the US, presidents change over by election, not a “coup”. The words are obviously telegraphing Donald Trump and the January 6 Capitol attack but it also draws a direct line from the Lincoln assassination to now.

Manhunt is on Apple TV+.
Tobias Menzies as Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of war. Credit: Courtesy of Apple

Johnson’s failure to enact substantive changes in the South following the US Civil War, by enabling prejudice and hate to flourish, it gave rise to the Lost Cause mythology, that the South’s actions were “heroic”. That narrative still pervades today – and it’s one Trump exploits.

Boyle says Manhunt is, “unfortunately”, still relevant. The production had filmed in Savannah, Georgia and Boyle saw Confederate statues and flags.

“On my way to where I would go ride horses, there would be people proudly flying Confederate flags. It’s a period of history, the Confederacy only lasted four years but people would be flying these flags and it’s almost like a dog whistle.”

But in order to portray Booth, Boyle couldn’t bring his own feelings or Irish outsider perspective into the role.

“Booth thinks he’s the hero of the piece,” Boyle explains. “What we wanted to do with the Booth we were creating was to show someone who was prideful, someone who was arrogant, someone who was spiteful, someone who was filled with hate and someone who was charming, who could manipulate others. He was an arsehole.”

In order words, someone who was dangerous.

Manhunt is on Apple TV+.
Anthony Boyle went to ‘cowboy camp’ to prepare for the role. Credit: Courtesy of Apple

But there is one thing from his experience of inhabiting Booth that Boyle wouldn’t mind keeping in his life, and that was what he learnt at “cowboy camp”.

“We rode horses for three weeks, we chewed tobacco and we drank whiskey,” he recalls fondly, “It was, honestly, the highlight of my summer. It was bliss.

“I understand now why people go off and live on ranches. I would love to have a ranch somewhere in Ireland and maybe that’s what I’ll do when I stop acting. I’ll go and build a ranch somewhere.”

Manhunt is Apple TV+ from March 15

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