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Tom Blyth was immediately lassoed in when he was offered to play gunfighter Billy the Kid.
The British-born, New York-based actor is taking on the role of the legendary outlaw for a new EPIX series titled “Billy the Kid.” The 27-year-old, who grew up watching American Westerns, said he was eager to explore the brief and bloody life of the 19th-century gunslinger.
“I grew up with Westerns — reading and watching them,” Blyth told Fox News Digital. “I grew up very seriously wanting to embody that world. I remember how, at a very young age, I would stay up late at night reading articles about Billy the Kid, Jesse James and people like that. So, for me, this role feels fated to a certain extent. It feels like it was always on the horizon as an actor.”
“I moved here six years ago as a 21-year-old, coincidentally the same age that Billy died,” Blyth shared. “I made America my home. I came and trained here as an actor at Julliard. I’ve always felt this pull to America in the same way that his family did because it’s an immigration story. These were Irish immigrants who moved here. So actually, I found more in common, than differences, between us. The more I dug, the more I realized that, yes, he may have been born in New York, but … [his family] came here seeking a better life. I did the same.”
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“Billy the Kid” is written by Michael Hirst, creator of “Vikings” and “The Tudors.” The show promises to be an epic adventure surrounding the life of the outlaw known as William H. Bonney — from his humble Irish roots to his early days as a cowboy on the American frontier and beyond.
Billy the Kid was swept up in what was known as the “Lincoln County War” after his British mentor was gunned down by corrupt Sheriff William Brady. He organized the assassination of Brady in revenge, which escalated into a war between immigrant factions. Pat Garrett, an Old West sheriff, shot and killed the 21-year-old in 1881 after he escaped from the Lincoln County jail in New Mexico. Garrett, who briefly lived in Texas, was later killed in a dispute over a New Mexico ranch.
The original series comes at a pivotal time for Hollywood where the Western, a seemingly forgotten genre, is experiencing a comeback.
After Kevin Costner-led “Yellowstone” became a smash hit, the Paramount+ streaming service ordered the series “1932” about the roots of the Dutton ranching family first introduced in the contemporary drama. In February, the service also announced that the first prequel, “1883,” will be back for a second season. Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are among its stars.
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In 2021, “The Harder They Fall” made its mark in both theaters and Netflix, while “Outer Range” can be found on Amazon. At this year’s Oscars, Jane Campion won for best director in “The Power of the Dog,” which earned 11 nominations. “Old Henry,” an action Western, also premiered late last year.
Blyth noted that “it’s undeniable” that Westerns are having a resurgence, but he isn’t surprised.
“We’ve just come out of this two-year period where we were locked down and there was a real restriction on our personal freedoms and ability to go outside,” he reflected. “People are longing for the Western genre again, where it’s wild. We have to remember it was one of the first Hollywood genres. It was one of the first types of movies we ever got to see. So there’s already that nostalgia there for it.
“But I think it’s really that longing for the open range, the feeling of someone riding out into the dusk with that pack on their saddle and a gun on their hip,” he continued. “There’s a romanticism in it, which I think we’re longing for after two years of being locked up. We’re longing to see those heroes who had this slightly rogue freedom about them.”
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It’s a longing Blyth could identify with. He was eager to do his own stunts, as well as learn how to ride and shoot.
“We filmed in Alberta, Canada, which is very much still the Wild West. Those guys still live and breathe Western culture,” he said. “They’re very proud of it. So when I got up there, first of all, I was glad to be in a place where people were living that reality every day. As an actor, you don’t want to feel like you’re doing a bad impersonation. You want to feel like you’re experiencing it with them. It also comes with a slight pressure because I only had three weeks of horse training before joining the real cowboys of Alberta.
“I definitely was intimidated,” he added. “I jumped on a horse the first day and thought they were going to laugh … but they didn’t. They were really welcoming … And after five months out there in the mountains and the prairies, I felt like one of them. That’s a testament to how much they wanted to share the Western culture and ride with me. I became part of the posse in a way. And it was an absolute joy to do so.”
There was another challenge Blyth was faced with. Despite Billy the Kid’s notoriety in history, there’s also plenty of mystery behind the man. There’s only one photograph of him to date that’s been authenticated by both scholars and historians.
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Several photographs purporting to feature him have surfaced over the years. However, they’ve been dismissed by experts. Little is known about his early days, and some even speculated that he wasn’t killed in 1881. In the late ’40s, one elderly Texas man claimed he was Billy the Kid, but his story was discredited.
Billy the Kid’s legend grew as Hollywood was formed. His story was first told on screen in the 1911 silent film “Billy the Kid.” He has since been the subject of more than 50 films featuring stars like Roy Rogers, Paul Newman, Val Kilmer and Emilio Estevez, among others.
For Blyth, he’s hoping that audiences will come along for the ride once more.
“In a way, it gives you license because he is well known and yet so much about him is based on people’s opinions,” said Blyth. “He lived a long time ago. We don’t have any footage of him. [But] in a way, it gives you freedom because you get to honor [the role] as best as you can.
“Emilio Estevez got to do his version, as did Val Kilmer and many others, many amazing actors before me. At this point, I have to give myself permission to let him spark something in me. Once the pressure subsided, it’s just an honor to be able to follow in the footsteps of some incredible, iconic actors … it has been a joy to play this character who’s so dear to me.”
“Billy the Kid” airs on Sundays on EPIX. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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