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Tom Blyth: 'Billy the Kid' digs deep to show the man behind the myth

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Tom Blyth: 'Billy the Kid' digs deep to show the man behind the myth
Tom Blyth can now be seen in the fact-based western, "Billy the Kid." Photo courtesy of EPIX

NEW YORK, May 1 (UPI) -- British actor Tom Blyth says his new EPIX drama, Billy the Kid, offers fascinating, little-known details about an Old West legend born in New York City to Irish immigrant parents and died at the hands of lawman Pat Garrett in 1881 at age 21.

Written and produced by Vikings and The Tudors creator Michael Hirst, the eight-episode series airs fresh installments Sunday nights.

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Eileen O'Higgins plays Billy's hard-working, compassionate mother, Kathleen, and Daniel Webber plays Jesse Evans, the influential leader of the Seven Rivers Gang.

Blyth credited these characters with making Billy the man he was, for better or worse.

"He's so complex in this version of the story, which I don't think we've seen before," Blyth told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

"What really hooked me in and made me desperate to play this character is the fact that everybody thinks they know who he is, but they don't," he laughed.

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"He's a man of many different facets and faces. What Michael has chosen to do is take this icon, this figurehead that people think they know a lot about, and he dares to go a lot deeper."

Blyth said the show answered questions about Billy's life and legacy that he never thought to ask, noting he was particularly intrigued by Billy's close relationship with his mother, going so far as to visit the real Kathleen's grave to pay his respects as he prepared to play the screen version of her boy.

"[The grave] is like a shrine to her power and the fact she raised this son and everything she went through and there are notes from women in New Mexico saying, 'Thank you for inspiring me,'" Blyth said.

The actor said he hopes Hirst's impeccable research, which was unexpected, as well as factual flourishes and well-drawn characters, will make for intelligent, thrilling entertainment for viewers.

"He shaves away all the myth and all the legend -- it's all there, it's part of the story -- but he says why and explains why that is worth paying attention to," Blyth explained.

"Billy is this incredibly inspiring character," his portrayer said. "Yes, he's a survivor and survivalist and a killer, and all of these things that make for good drama, but he's also a musician and an artist and a singer and a lover-- all these different things that make the scales constantly shift when you think you know who he is."

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O'Higgins immediately connected with Kathleen.

"She was so strong and it was just such a gift of a part, considering what they go through on this journey. The fact that it's based on real people just completely blows my mind," she said.

"It's not the time to be an Irish immigrant in New York," the actress added. "There are no jobs. There are no opportunities, so they head out West on the promise of this land and then along the way you see the struggle."

The show spotlights crime and corruption, but also contains a lot of hope.

"There's a real humanity to the story," O'Higgins said, pointing to how Kathleen took menial jobs, and then married an awful man to support Billy and his younger brother, Joseph, after her first husband, who suffered from mental health issues, died, leaving them penniless.

"Who she is as a person, telling an Irish immigrant's story and seeing a western done in a completely different light -- all of these things were like, 'yes, yes, yes!'" O'Higgins said.

Webber said his admiration of Hirst's storytelling style and the chance to play a colorful character made this project easy for him to sign on to.

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"He's pragmatic and wiley," the actor said of Jesse.

"He's very charismatic as a leader and a person. He was kind of seminal in some ways to Billy the Kid coming into Lincoln County [New Mexico] and becoming an outlaw. Our story charts their friendship," Webber added.

"He gets him into this way of life, which is about cattle rustling and stealing and stepping away from society and society's values and morals."

Together, Billy and Jesse become almost brothers, set their own moral code and create their own community.

"Jesse believes the world is corrupt, and there's no changing it. Billy believes in justice and fairness and morality," Webber said.

"They have this incredible friction between them throughout the series and throughout history, becoming great friends and -- not to give anything away -- but then bitter enemies. That too, is really exciting to chart."

Blyth, who now lives in the United States, thinks the current surge in the popularity of westerns like Yellowstone and The Power of the Dog can be attributed to Americans craving stories about independent or rebellious people making lives for themselves in beautiful, wild locations, while also re-examining the country's complicated past.

"People are more openly and more widely confronting how America was built," he said.

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"Different pockets of immigrant groups fighting for the same land and trying to fight for their own survival - it's a brutal way to build a country, but it is the way it was built.

"I think America is at this kind of watershed moment where it is saying, almost collectively, that to move forward, we have to look back and acknowledge some things."

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