Yes, acting is a lesson in rejection. But for those who really want to get a sense of what being scorned, dismissed, and ignored feels like, try a few shifts as a sidewalk charity campaigner, says Tom Blyth, the 27-year-old British actor who spent a summer volunteering for an on-the-move charity fundraiser. “I’ve never had so many doors slammed in my face,” he says.
It was on the way home from another long, rainy day spent unsuccessfully soliciting that Blyth first decided to try acting. “I was reading something about Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver going to Juilliard,” he says. “I’d read about Juilliard my whole life and thought it was a complete pipe dream. But I was so sick of my day job and felt stuck in a rut … where I was like, I know I can achieve more.”
Applications for Juilliard closed that night, and, for Blyth, “it felt like a sign.” The audition in New York took place on his 21st birthday. He was accepted.
After graduation, the parts started to drip in. He played a schoolboy in the coming-of-age locker-room production Scott and Sid; an army officer in Benediction, a melancholy biopic about the poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon, from the much-lauded British writer and director Terence Davies; and a debonair suitor in the latest Julian Fellowes period piece, The Gilded Age.
And then he landed it big, with the role of William H. Bonney, better known as “Billy the Kid,” in a gritty new look at the smooth-talking yet volatile outlaw played by Paul Newman, Kris Kristofferson, Emilio Estevez, and Val Kilmer before him.
“He’s an incredibly complicated young man,” Blyth says of the American gunslinging antihero, son of Irish Catholic immigrants who was orphaned at 15 and is rumored to have killed eight men by the time he was fatally shot, at just 21. To prepare for the series, which premieres on Epix tomorrow, Blyth did his homework, embarking on a road trip to Billy’s grave, in New Mexico, and across Arizona to take in the Western landscape. He also honed a thick American accent.
“I think when you … lose your entire family and you’re forced to fend for yourself … from the age of 15, you become cynical,” Blyth says. The new adaptation’s show-runner and screenwriter, Michael Hirst, was drawn to the moral gray areas that defined the young outlaw. Hirst, Blyth says, was willing to ask what it means for a “white family from Ireland escaping … oppression … to then move into someone else’s territory, where Native Americans have lived for a long time.... They were subjugated where they came from and they ended up subjugating someone else.”
Next up, Blyth stars alongside Chris Diamantopoulos and Jay Mohr in the upcoming film Discussion Materials, set on New York’s Wall Street. For now, at least, the American accent is here to stay.
Billy the Kid premieres on Epix on April 24
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for AIR MAIL