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Tobias Menzies on the Apple TV+ miniseries about the search for Lincoln's assassin

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One night toward the end of the U.S. Civil War, an off-duty security agent falls into conversation at a bar with what we now call a B-list actor who always plays supporting roles.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MANHUNT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I think you'd be much more famous, like your brother or your pa, if you played the heroes. Why don't you?

ANTHONY BOYLE: (As John Wilkes Booth) You know, tomorrow, I'm going to be more famous than anyone in my family.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah?

BOYLE: (As John Wilkes Booth) I'm going to be the most famous man in the whole world.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Really? What show you in?

BOYLE: (As John Wilkes Booth) "Our American Cousin."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why I ain't seen you on stage?

BOYLE: (As John Wilkes Booth) I haven't made my entrance yet.

SIMON: Anthony Boyle is John Wilkes Booth in the new Apple TV+ miniseries, "Manhunt," about the search to find Abraham Lincoln's assassin in 1865. It's adapted from James Swanson's book of the same name. And the story is mostly told through the eyes of Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's friend and secretary of war. Carl Franklin directs.

Edwin Stanton is portrayed by yet another British actor playing in American role. Tobias Menzies, who played Prince Philip in "The Crown" and Brutus in HBO's "Rome," joins us now from New York. Mr. Menzies, thanks so much for being with us.

TOBIAS MENZIES: It's great to be with you.

SIMON: Does Stanton, who loves Lincoln, feel that somehow he failed his friend?

MENZIES: That's certainly the story we tell - that, yeah, he does feel some guilt. I would put it like this, that he, having navigated the Civil War together, which has finished only days earlier, Lincoln wants to go to the theater. He was a regular theatergoer, invites Stanton to come with him. Stanton declines and suggests that maybe he shouldn't be going to the theater. And, yeah, Lincoln persuades him otherwise. And in that moment, Stanton does maybe let his guard down momentarily and, yeah, lives to regret it. And that moment, I think, haunts him, and he feels that, yes, he should have remained vigilant for longer.

SIMON: We can sometimes forget on that night of April 14, 1865 - well, it began with a brutal attack on William Seward, the secretary of state, and his family. What were the team of assassins trying to do, in addition to outright murder?

MENZIES: I mean, it seems like they were trying to sort of decapitate the government, taking out the top three. There were attempts on Johnson's life as well, who was the vice president. What was interesting for me going into this project is I think I knew just the headlines. I knew that, you know, Lincoln have been killed in the theater. I had heard the name John Wilkes Booth. But beyond that, I knew very little. And what's fascinating about the story is it's much deeper and more vivid and more strange than I had expected.

SIMON: You get to utter, as Edwin Stanton, I think one of the most cited short quotes in U.S. history. And it's just after Abraham Lincoln has taken his final breath.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MANHUNT")

MENZIES: (As Edwin Stanton) And now he belongs to the ages (crying).

SIMON: Wow. Just seven words but engraved in history. How did you approach deciding how to deliver them?

MENZIES: When they first met, actually, Stanton really didn't rate Lincoln very highly. They were both lawyers in their earlier lives. I think Stanton underestimated Lincoln as a country lawyer, really. But, you know, obviously, Stanton was brought in to Lincoln's cabinet partway through the war. They had gone through that extraordinary experience together. And by the time we - the story starts, Stanton understands the stature of Lincoln and that he was, you know, one of the political giants of his time or maybe any other time. All that is baked into, you know, that line, which is both understanding the loss of what it means for the country, but also on a personal level, the loss of a very close political ally and friend.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, may I ask, I mean, did you did you try different ways of saying those seven words? And now (emphasizing) he belongs?

MENZIES: (Laughter).

SIMON: Now he (emphasizing) belongs to the ages.

MENZIES: I don't want to give too many of my secrets away, but I might have rehearsed it a little bit in the mirror.

SIMON: When Stanton tells a typically cynical, heartless, dispiriting reporter, this is America, we replace our president with elections, not coups. I have to ask, in 2024, did you feel a special resonance with that?

MENZIES: I mean, I think that's partly why Apple were interested in making this show. You know, one doesn't want to fall into hyperbole around this stuff. But I think, certainly, the argument of this story would be democracy is fundamentally fragile, and it needs to be defended. And that was certainly true then. And it feels like maybe the country is headed towards, you know, uncertain waters anyway, as you approach this election in November, where some of the tenets or, you know, pillars of democracy are certainly under attack. And so that's why it feels like a maybe a relevant and important story to be retelling ourselves.

SIMON: Let me ask for your warm, outsider's view into American history. As we mentioned, you played Brutus in the series "Rome" - an assassin - significantly different motivations than John Wilkes Booth. Do you think Booth was motivated by his Confederate sympathies or his desire to play a leading role?

MENZIES: I mean, who knows? History does not record. I guess he would have argued - I don't know - that he was defending a way of life that was represented by the Confederate States. But, yeah, who knows? I mean, obviously this country has a rather extraordinary history of assassinations of your leaders. But, you know, you could definitely make the argument that Lincoln's assassination is maybe the most consequential of those, given that - you know, one of the things that the show tries to dig into is the loss of reconstruction - you know, the land rights and the voting rights that Lincoln, and Stanton as well, were very committed to delivering to the freed slaves. And there's a strange poignancy watching the show now, 'cause obviously, as a viewer, we know that it then took a further hundred years for those rights to be delivered - again, one of the reasons why I think it's a relevant story to be revisiting.

SIMON: Is Edwin Stanton a little overlooked by history?

MENZIES: I didn't know about him before I started this project, so I guess that tells you something. And having now dug into this period and dug into his life, he's certainly a significant figure in this pivotal moment in U.S. history, both in terms of what he did to execute the Civil War and then, obviously, in terms of his involvement in the manhunt. But also, I think he was an important ingredient in the political program that Lincoln did deliver. Maybe this show will go some way to bring this man to a wider audience.

SIMON: I mean, maybe someone will write a musical called "Stanton."

MENZIES: (Laughter) OK. I'll see you at first night.

SIMON: I don't know, maybe - I don't think a musical about an overlooked American - nah, no, no, it won't...

MENZIES: That would...

SIMON: ...Work, right?

MENZIES: ...Never work. It would surely never work. Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: Tobias Menzies, he stars in the miniseries "Manhunt." First two episodes now on Apple TV+. Thank you so much for being with us.

MENZIES: Very nice to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRYCE DESSNER'S "BOOTH SUITS UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.