Jesse Johnson as John Wilkes Booth in "Killing Lincoln" (left)… (Nat Geo and Brian Higbee )
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.