“Vikings” creator Michael Hirst takes on his childhood hero in “Billy the Kid.” Starring Tom Blyth as the legendary gunslinger, born Henry McCarty, the eight-episode series – co-produced by Epix Studios and MGM International Television Productions, in association with Viaplay – is currently screening at French TV festival Series Mania ahead of its April 24 premiere.
“It’s probably true that you shouldn’t meet your heroes; I have met a couple of mine and it didn’t go particularly well. But what I want more than anything else is for people to love this Billy,” Hirst tells Variety in Lille.
“Michael [Wright, president of Epix] allowed me to tell a story I wanted to tell, which doesn’t happen very often. This show is saying to people: ‘You think you know Billy the Kid because you have heard his name.’ You think he is a bit of a rough guy, a gunman and a killer. But everything I am about to tell you is the exact opposite.”
While most takes on the outlaw focus on his crimes and the alleged killing by Pat Garrett in 1881, the British writer wanted to show Billy’s difficult upbringing by Irish parents, forced to leave New York to look for jobs in the Midwest. But there was nothing waiting for them.
“We started calling it a ‘pre-Western.’ At that time, the West hadn’t really gotten going, so we rejected all these pre-built towns, creating our own houses on the edge of wilderness,” he says, calling his new creation “a story of immigration.”
“You understand how lawless and primitive it was, how unfair and racist. But the figure that has emerged was very much like the figure Tom plays in the show: Very sensitive, very respectful. Who knew that a great outlaw really loved his mum?!”
Played by Eileen O’Higgins, Billy’s mother Catherine, a devout Catholic, is the one who carries on as his father gives up, plagued by depression. As Hirst points out, many of his lead characters have been women.
“I wrote ‘Elisabeth’ and [in ‘The Tudors’] I was more interested in Henry VIII’s wives than Henry. In ‘Vikings’, Lagertha was almost the main character. The more I read about Catherine, the more I realized the impact she had on him. Billy’s whole moral compass came from her and everything she told him,” he adds.
“He grew up really quickly. He had no choice: no parents, no anything. He is not a fake hero, not something out of the Marvel universe – he is a real guy. He has failings.”
Hirst, who will also deliver a masterclass at the French festival, still gets recognized by the “Vikings” fans, he says.
“TV used to be expendable, full of soap operas and dramas with shaky backsets. Now, people really get involved in the shows. Once, I got a special tour at Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum. They said the show made them proud of their heritage. ‘We were embarrassed by our past. We thought of the Vikings as these brutal, ignorant, violent people. You have redeemed them.’ I almost cried when I heard that.”
While he loves history and research, the beliefs, the philosophies, the clothes and the music, he always tries to find ways of making the issues his characters talk about resonate with the people today.
“For me, history is a continuity. There is a saying by T.S. Eliot, ‘Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past.’ That’s what I feel, very strongly.”
He adds: “I don’t read social [media], but someone posted: ‘They are celebrating another mass murderer.’ It’s a story of a violent man with a very moral code. Billy wanted to stop being an outlaw – nothing would have pleased him more.”
Playing with people’s expectations was the key, he says.
“It was slightly a gamble, because they go: ‘O.K., this is about Billy the Kid, so there will be shootouts straight away.’ We do tease that, obviously, but where did he start from and who is he actually? Did you know he had a beautiful voice? He would sing and play the fiddle, and identified with Mexicans because he was an immigrant, too. Although every episode is full of incidents, it never seems hurried. It has a beautiful rhythm to it, which carries you along. I am probably prouder of this show than anything I have ever done.”