With the titular role in EPIX’s acclaimed series, Billy the Kid, as well as his role in HBO’s period drama The Gilded Age, the Nottingham native could be said to be having a moment. As further proof, next up, he’ll be playing young Coriolanus Snow in the film that’s got teenagers and moms the world over (and ok the rest of us too) salivating, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, out next year.
LEO: Tell us about Billy the Kid.
Tom Blyth: Our show is a closer look at the life and soul of this legendary American outlaw, who we think we know, but really don’t. It takes a magnifying glass and asks why and how he became this anti-hero figure. But more than that, it dissects the world that shaped him. A world of hard immigration, survival, political corruption, inequity of every kind. The list goes on.
Coming from Nottingham seems about as far removed from the Old West as one could possibly get. Were you nervous as a Brit taking on such an iconic American role?
Not really! I’ve been fascinated by The Old West and American history for as long as I can remember. I trained in America and call New York home now. Also, Billy was the son of Irish immigrants, so at its core, this is an immigrant story, which I relate to.
How did you go about choosing your accent for Billy, since we don’t have any audio recordings of The Kid.
It was kind of like building a Frankenstein’s Monster of accents. He’s Irish, born in New York, and then grew up in New Mexico. So I developed a sort of hybrid-dialect based on those factors. Then I layered in a dry, gravelly quality to his tone, due to him growing up in a dusty, arid environment, which makes him sound more worn down than his years.
Was there anything specific about this incarnation of Billy the Kid that drew you to playing him?
There’s so much people don’t know about him! We think of him as this gunslinger, but he was also a musician, a sly and witty conversationalist, a lover and a charmer, and a mommy’s boy. He was also a strong ally and friend to local Mexican farmers who were being discriminated against. Michael Hirst has really delved into the complexity of him in a way we haven’t seen before. I’m always most drawn to characters that have complex contradictions within them. That’s about as human as it gets.
Did you find any interesting similarities between the mythology of Billy the Kid and that of Robin Hood who, like you, also hails from Nottingham?
So many. It’s one of the first things I noticed. I love how humans rally around these mythical and controversial folk heroes. The romanticism of it all. It speaks to our collective need for storytelling and mythology.
Were you familiar with horse riding and firing guns before taking on the role? And were there any other skills you had to learn specifically for the part?
Not at all. I’d ridden twice before and fallen off once. So this was very much like learning to walk for the first time! Once I learned though, I couldn’t stop. I was hooked. I was able to do like 95% of my own stunts which involved some crazy stuff. Some days we were riding full gallop in stampedes of 200 cattle. I love the adrenaline rush.
What’s been the best part about making this show?
Getting to film every single scene out on location. Some days I’d look around completely spellbound by the epic scenery. That’s my office where I go to work every day. How lucky is that? I can’t help but feel that my nine-year-old self, who rode his bicycle to school each morning pretending it was a horse, is proud of where we ended up. It’s a total dream.
And what has been the most challenging part about it?
My arse hurt for five whole months! Riding for that long every day makes you discover muscles you didn’t know existed. Ice and salt baths became a close companion.
Being on set can often be a very long and sometimes tedious experience, especially on a period piece. Are there any hobbies you do to pass the time and keep you sane?
I love to surf to clear my head. Unfortunately, Calgary is land-locked so that wasn’t possible. We hiked a lot on weekends in the Rocky Mountains. The nature up there is incredible.
Is there an actor or other person from the industry that you would describe as a role model? And if so, who might that person be?
I was fortunate to be taught a few years ago by Daniel Day Lewis, who’s always been a hero of mine. He’s every bit as wise, principled, and specific as you would expect him to be. If I ever feel lost, I think of his lessons. I’d text him but I’m pretty sure he only communicates via carrier-pigeon.
Did you go back and watch any of the old shows or movies about Billy the Kid? And how does it feel to be in the same company as Paul Newman, Emilio Estervez and Kris Kristofferson?
Those guys are acting legends, but no. I didn’t want to accidentally absorb and mimic any of their Billy qualities. It was vital to me to build my Billy from the ground up and let him speak to me from beyond the grave, through Michael Hirst’s writing. I’m sure one day I’ll watch them and think, “Damn, I should’ve thought of that!”
CHECK OUT TOM
As Coriolanus Snow in Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
As Billy The Kid in EPIX’s Billy the Kid
As Archie Baldwin in HBO’s The Gilded Age