In National Geographic’s Killing Lincoln – from executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott and narrated by Tom Hanks – the final days of Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, are re-created to present the true story behind the first-ever assassination of a United States President. And with it, the tale of one of America’s most famous forgotten actors is revealed.
This past summer, while filming in Virginia, Screen Rant visited the set of Killing Lincoln to talk to Jesse Johnson, the actor tasked with portraying John Wilkes Booth, about the amazingly interesting and largely unknown story behind the man who killed Lincoln.
“He’s not just this little blurb you read about in your history text book,” says Johnson. “This was a man who was raised by a famous acting father, and he was brought up on Shakespeare and the great classic plays.” Son of world-renowned actor Junius Brutus and his equally famous brother, Edwin, a Lincoln supporter, Booth’s true fame as a thespian has long-been lost to the infamy he found as a murderer.
At one time earning today’s equivalent of $500,000 a year as a stage performer, Booth was considered one of the top actors of his time. A man whose performance Walt Whitman once said “[had] flashes, passages, I thought of real genius,” referring to Booth’s ability to engage his audience.
John Wilkes Booth in 1865, the same year he killed Abraham Lincoln
“Interestingly enough, alot of people wrote about how his stage presence and his acting on stage was so evocative of real life; it was like it had never been seen before. It was one of the first unpredictable moment-to-moment actors that had harnessed alot of what Stella Adler, Stanislavski and Meisner really teach: acting is reacting. The whole “you did this so I’m going to do something different” created this really fierce unpredictability about him.
So what, then, would make Booth, who was today’s equivalent of an A-list actor, want to throw that all away in order to assassinate the President of the United States? “That’s the real crux of the issue here,“ notes Johnson. “He’s not a mustache twirling diabolical villain. He’s a real human being with a deep passionate love for the South and for the Constitution that the country was predicated upon.”
“He’s basically created this entire play where he is the writer, director, star of his conspiracy, and he goes out in his final battle scene,” Johnson explains. “The weight of the truth of this story plays out is so dramatic. You’re sitting there going, ‘This really happened?’ And the writer is saying, ‘Yeah.’ And all the books, the material back it up.”
“He really believes [killing Lincoln] is the right thing to do. He really believes the South will be free if he does this. This is his last-ditch effort. It started as a kidnapping attempt for prisoners of war. At some point it shifted to, the only way to save the country and what it’s based upon is to kill the tyrant; to be Brutus and kill Caesar – to be a tyrant.”
Although successful in his assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Booth, who was now on the run for his life, was surprised to find that the death of the President was not viewed by the public as the revolutionary act he had intended it to be, as Johnson explains:
“He really missed it. What he did had far greater ramifications to the converse of his original intent, because Lincoln was the only hope for the reconstruction of the South in the proper way. His assassination essentially martyred Lincoln – which is NOT at all what Booth wanted to do – and he put Andrew Johnson in the presidency, who many felt were incompetent in putting this nation together that had been torn and ravaged from war. And you see that moment in the film, when he reads the reviews and the things that are being said of him are completely the opposite of what he expected it was going to be.”
However, instead of reinvigorating the South, as he hoped, Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln brought an entire nation together to mourn the loss of its leader, leaving the man behind the President’s murder without a place to turn. And as Booth’s final days were spent attempting to avoid capture, the memories of his illustrious acting career were forgotten, instead replaced with the tagline that he will forever be known as: the man who killed Abraham Lincoln.
On a final note, Johnson gives his theory about Booth:
“This was before the days of film and television, and he was never going to be remembered forever. Once that curtain goes down, you just remain in the memory of the people who were there the night that you performed and the press that’s written about you based on other people’s opinions; there’s no hard copy. He had such an insatiable lust for fame and notoriety, and to crawl out from the shadow of his father and his other brother and outshine them.
His decision to kill the President wasn’t his way to do that, because it was motivated by what he truly believed. But I also think that it helped that he had this quest to be inked in the pages forever. Again, just not like this.”
Killing Lincoln airs Sunday @8pm on National Geographic Channel. You can check out the trailer below: