For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
It takes a certain type of someone to lead a franchise as major as The Hunger Games. And whereas Jennifer Lawrence had already broken out with Winter’s Bone when she joined the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular young adult novel, Tom Blyth, who will take up the mantle of its star in its prequel installment in 2023 (The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes), is only just beginning to make a name for himself. Earlier this year, it became clear why Lionsgate took a bet on the 27-year-old up-and-comer: With his role as the titular star of the Epix series Billy the Kid, Blyth proved to the industry that he’s leading-man material. He managed to make the infamous outlaw—who killed between eight and 10 people before his death in 1881—not just human, but surprisingly sympathetic. It was precisely the type of role Blyth, a graduate of The Juilliard School, had been wanting to play ever since he first fell in love with complex, deeply flawed characters like Jack from Lost. Here, the British star explains his enduring love for the ABC series and looks ahead to what life might be like post–Hunger Games.
Were you at all familiar with Billy the Kid’s story before starring in the show?
Vaguely—I'd heard his name, and at some point during my childhood, I Googled him. I was a bit of a dork about Westerns when I was a kid. I remember sitting up late at night, researching the Old West and characters like Jesse James when I should have been in bed. I don't know why that was something I was into, being a kid from Northern England, but it was.
Billy the Kid died when he was in his early 20s, but he really lived hard in a short span of time.
All the stuff he did before the age of 21 most adults don't ever do in 80 or 90 years. He was this very young kind of vagabond character, but he was probably wise beyond his years at the same time. I think our show lifts the veil of the slightly clichéd version of him we all know. Why did he end up killing people, and what did he go through that turned him into someone who was willing to do that? I also asked the question, Was he always in the wrong? If you look at it, you start to realize that he was often on the right side of history more than we think.
Had you ever shot a gun before playing Billy?
I think I shot one once, out in the countryside at a target range. But it was a very old-school, single-load shotgun. I'm from England, and just no one has guns there. It's not a thing.
Your two most recent projects, Billy the Kid and The Gilded Age, take place in the late 1800s. Do you want to continue doing period pieces?
As a Brit going to drama school in America, I was told from the start that I was going to get cast in period pieces. And they weren't wrong. [Laughs] I guess Americans hear a Brit and they just automatically think you’re from the Victorian era. Which is fine—there are fun parts out there for those kinds of roles. When I graduated, the first thing I did was a period piece that was set in the 1930s. Then I did The Gilded Age, which was in the 1880s, and then Billy, which was in the 1870s. I'm slowly moving backward. Eventually, my aim is to play a caveman. Like, 2000 B.C. times.
What inspired you to portray Jack from Lost for this portfolio?
Lost was the first show that I remember thinking, I want to do that. I was 10 years old. Remember when you had to look through the television magazine to see what was going to be on? I used to go to my grandma's house on the weekend and flick through it, and [one day] I saw that the premiere of Lost was that Sunday. I pretty much watched it from the day it first premiered in England into my teens—some very formative years.
I remember always being amazed at how Matthew Fox [the actor who played Jack] had this permanent frown throughout the whole six seasons. It's amazing that his head didn't explode from frowning. He's kind of a reluctant hero. A lot of the characters I'm drawn to are slightly fucked-up people who have a chance to, and manage to, do good. Even though they're all kinds of messy, they get to still be strong and overcome their mess at some point. I like characters that remind us that we're not black and white, or that we're not one thing.
They really did make everyone feel very human on the show.
Sexy and fun, too. They're all buff and running around the beach—and they're all angry and fighting with a big smoke monster and a polar bear. [Lost] has everything. When I was emulating Jack in this photo shoot, I was like, Man, I wish they would remake this show so I could be in it. I would so love to do that show.
Oh yeah. I hate reboots just for the sake of reboots, but maybe this is the one that I’ll make an exception for.
If you knew you would be stuck on a deserted island, what’s the one thing you would bring with you?
This is such a cliché actor answer, but I think it would be the complete works of Shakespeare. Not even because I'm a huge Shakespearean actor fan. I don't think you can ever fully understand him: There's layers on layers on layers on layers. It would give you decades of trying to work it out and also keep your mind sharp. It’s like reading poetry—you have to deduce the subtext beneath what's actually written.
What about the one person you would choose to get stuck with?
It would have to be someone funny. If they’re too funny, they could get a bit annoying after a while. But you could always banish them to the other side [of the island]. So a great ridiculous, absurd comedian—someone like Jack Black. Someone who, no matter what the situation was, they could manage to make it ridiculous. You’d have to have the ability to laugh at yourself and the situation, even if you were in dire straits.
You’re gearing up to star in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, a prequel to The Hunger Games. Have you met your costar, Rachel Zegler, yet?
We’ve spoken a lot on FaceTime and over the phone and Zoom, but we haven't yet met in person. That will happen soon. I'm a big fan, and I feel very lucky because I think she's going to be perfect. I think she's going to bring a lot of life and nuance to the role that seems required, based on the book.
The Hunger Games is such a massive, beloved franchise. Have you thought about the fact that this project might change your life?
Honestly, I try not to. I actively try not to think about it, because it can drive you crazy. It's important to keep around you the people who ground you. I didn’t mean to rap that, but I did. [Laughs]
Now you sound like Shakespeare.
Yeah, you know what? I don't even need Shakespeare's full works, because I can write them myself. [Laughs] No, all I've really thought about is how, when things get a bit crazy in this industry, I find myself gravitating toward my family and friends, reminding myself what's important. It's very much about the work and not the hype of it all. Yes, it's nice to be recognized, but the main thing that I want is choice over my career. I want to be able to choose from all the fruits of the great scripts that are out there, and that's something you get when you do bigger things.
Grooming by Melissa DeZarate.