Anthony Boyle On ‘Manhunt,’ Not Being Changed By Success, And Why Irish Actors Nail American Accents

After co-starring with Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan in the Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg-produced Masters Of The Air and playing one of American history’s most reviled figures in Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth in Manhunt, you could say Irish actor Anthony Boyle is riding a wave. The action verb is key. One can also be carried away by these kinds of waves, right into some bad career choices. But that isn’t going to be Boyle.

My interest in talking with him was partly related to that. How does someone about to break out process the reality of that? We get into that. There’s also the intensity of his on-screen work as Booth, an absolute demon of a man. How did Boyle make such a giant villain digestible? How could he stomach wearing him around for a while? That part of the conversation dips into a really interesting counter to the idea of method and actors who never break character while shooting. That is very much not Boyle’s style, and he breaks down the why not of that perfectly. Also, I may have talked him out of buying a horse and provided a sense of hope that Americans can, occasionally, do a passable Irish accent.

This is a gargantuan monster villain of history. How do you shrink that down and find a way into him as a character?

Always go back to the childhood. The Jesuit priests say, “Show me the boy for the first eight years and I’ll show you the man.” And with Booth, I went back and looked at all these letters that he had. He had all these letters when he was 15 until he’s 26. But before that there’s lots of books written about him. His family were called The Mad Booths of Maryland. They were known as this crazy, eccentric actor family. There’s one bit in the book, which is insane, which is when his one sister dies, his father goes back, his father’s playing Hamlet. He comes back and he digs up his little sister’s corpse. She’s been rotting for a month or two, but turned this on Booth and parades him around the town saying, “She’s fine, John. Tell her she’s fine. Tell her she’s fine.” His childhood was just so fucked. The whole family exhibited really severe mental health issues, but obviously this is 1830, so they were just called eccentric. They were called actors, so no one really knew what was going on.

So yeah, how I got into him, how I humanized him was going back to the childhood, looking at how growing up in that environment would affect someone’s psychology. And a lot of things, a lot of what happens to kids is when severe trauma happens to them the brain breaks in two and you have one version of yourself that that happened to and another version, and it’s a way of protecting yourself to be like, “It happened to him. It didn’t happen to me. I’m Booth, I’m godlike. My mother says I’m going to be special. I’ve got these special hands. I’m God, I’m the most beautiful, I’m the most talented.” This innate narcissism and arrogance thing comes into him.

Is it harder for you to play a character where there is nothing you can identify with, there’s nothing that’s likable about the person? Do you have to sympathize with them in a way?

I don’t like bringing too much of myself into the work in that respect. I like it being something that I step into.

Has that always been the case or is that something that has evolved over time?

I’ve always done that. I’ve always liked performances like that. I’ve always done that or tried to do that. I just enjoy it more and I think I produce better work when I don’t try and make him close to me. If I separate it and step into it, it always feels more interesting.

Obviously, there are schools of thought where some actors do that, some don’t. Is there a part of you that is afraid that it might fuck with your own hard wiring if you get too close? The horror stories about people going a little too method and things of that nature, is that a part of it, that you’re a little concerned about the impact of that on you, the person?

It is an interesting question. I mean, maybe. I’m usually quite good at leaving it at work. I’m usually quite good at once they call cut stepping away, but sometimes you do it and it lingers a little bit because you’re walking around as someone for 12 hours a day.

The shaving scene with Lovie Simone (who plays Mary Simms) is super close, super intense. The threat of violence is… you’re so menacing in that moment and you’re saying some horrible things that I know obviously you don’t feel in your heart. It’s very hard to say to a person that you are working with. When you’re able to separate like that, does it make it easier to do those scenes without feeling the anguish of that physical action of what you’re doing and the actual pain of having done that, even though obviously it’s acting and it’s not real? Is that separation a defense for that?

Yeah, the separation’s easier for that because you’re saying some racist things and no matter what context, you’re acting and everyone is in communion with each other and you know that you’re acting, but you’re still a white person saying the N-word to a black person. That’s still a fact of what’s happening and I think it’s easier if you’re not feeling like yourself in that moment and they’re not feeling themselves in that moment. And if you’re both in the character thing. And it’s also easier if you have a decent relationship with the person and after the take come up to Lovie and hugging her and saying, “Are you okay? How are you?” And checking in. That also helps. I think it doesn’t help if you’re doing that work and you stay in it and you’re not speaking to that person and stuff. I think it helps if at the end of the day to go, “That was tough. Well done.” It’s just humanizing. That makes it feel a little bit easier. She’s such a brilliant actress, man. She’s so good in that scene.

Very good. Yeah. I know you’ve talked about this a bit, but you’ve been in a lot of historical dramas of late. I know you’ve got another one on the horizon. Is that also a genre that you yourself like as a viewer? Or are there other genres that you love that you want to explore?

I just watch reality TV. I don’t watch any prestige period dramas. I just watch Love On The Spectrum, Down With Love, anything that’s just nice, anything that it’s good fun. (Laughs) I watch a lot of quiz shows. There’s a quiz show in England called The Chase.

Do you try to keep up? Is it a spectator sport or do you actually try to participate?

I play it with people. It’ll be on the TV and I’ll go, “Capital of France, Paris!” and try and count them and beat the other people in the room.

How does a project like this imprint on you? What’s the lesson you take away? Maybe it’s a lesson about villainy. I’m just curious about how these things change you. As you said, there’s a separation between you and the role, but anything you put your passion into is going to change you.

How has it changed me? I mean, I learned how to ride a horse for Booth, and I’ve been riding horses ever since. My mate’s uncle tried to sell me a horse a couple of days ago.

Are you going to buy it?

I don’t know, I mean, it’s $3,500, but then the horse stays in his stables and I’m like, “Wait, so I’m just going to give you $3,500 and then you just have a horse.” I’m not sure.

I used to own a horse — well, my wife did, but it was quite the upkeep. It’s like buying an old house. There’s always a vet bill. I’m not anti-horse. I’m just saying it’s an investment. But you do get to say that you have a horse. That’s a good conversation starter.

That’s all I got though.

Get a picture. It’s like people with kids, you just say, “This is my horse,” and you come up with a charming name and it works.

(Laughs) Yeah, yeah. So I don’t know if I’m going to buy it because, I mean, it is in Donegal and when I live in Ireland, I’m like an hour away from Donegal. I don’t know, it’s a different thing. But yeah, maybe I might buy a horse.

What I took away from Manhunt was horse riding and I don’t ever think I take away too much like parables that I can transfer into my life or whatever. It is very rare that it changes the molecular structure of me as a human being.

Is that because the structure of you is in a really good place and you just like where you are?

I feel like I know who I am and I’ve always just known who I am. Doing a role, I don’t come away with a big life lesson. I usually come away with amazing experiences and loads of new friends and I really love doing it. But it’s very rare that I’ll come away from a job and go like, “Wow, that’s changed me. I’m going to now become a monk.” You know what I mean?

I’ve seen things where people are saying, “You’re the Internet’s next Irish boyfriend.” Or that you’re, “going to blow up” and all this stuff, all the buzz. All very helpful when you’re promoting a show. But is there a pressure felt by you where it influences how you pick your next project and you feel like, “Okay, well, I need to really capitalize on this,” or are you just going about things the same way you always have?

No, I’m going to do a small, independent movie next. There may be pressure from other people on me. But I am just always going to follow the role, the character, the writing. As you say, all that stuff’s helpful when you’re promoting something. But I don’t pay any mind to it. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and keep working away and yeah, I just like the work, man. I just really like it.

You’ve had a couple of roles where you’ve channeled the American accent. How do you find that? Is that a product of pop culture? Is that a product of speech coaches?

Watching The Simpsons every day after school, listening to Kanye West growing up. Yeah, we constantly have the American accent in our ear. You come home and Friends is on the TV, the movies that you’re watching, you’re watching Scorsese or whatever. We constantly have an American accent just in our ear. So I think it’s easier for Irish actors to do the American accent more than it would be for an American to jump into, say a Belfast accent.

So I do voices, but I can’t do a voice to somebody who does the voice. I will literally stop breathing if I try it. I don’t know what it is.

Come on, give me a Belfast. Come on.

(Shames ancestors by doing a mildly passable Irish accent) “All right, come on give me a Belfast. Come on.”

That’s good!

That’s as close as I can do. It’s not bad. That is impressive that you got me to do that.

I’m actually impressed. I work with a lot of American actors that can’t get close, so I’m very impressed, man. That was good, bro. Genuinely.

This was great. I really appreciate it. If I get to talk to you again, we will talk about the horse. I want to know an update on the horse.

I’ll give you an update on the horse.

And I’ll do the whole interview in an Irish accent.

I look forward to it.

New episodes of ‘Manhunt’ release on Apple TV+ every Friday