Billy the Kid
Australian actor Daniel Webber’s first major role was playing Lee Harvey Oswald in a mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.23.66, which sees a time traveller [James Franco] attempt to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Then came another – albeit very different – real person role: Mötley Crüe’s wild frontman Vince Neil in Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, followed by a star turn alongside Daniel Radcliffe in Escape from Pretoria. In Webber’s own words, it’s a repertoire that’s offered a “banquet of opportunities… I would never have anticipated it
His latest role sees him take on gang leader of the Old West Jesse Evans in Michael Hirst’s latest period drama Billy the Kid, chronicling the life of the frontier outlaw from his youth up until his notorious reputation got the better of him aged just twenty-one. For Webber, who grew up riding horses, hiking across scenic New Zealand landscapes, and as a competitive gymnast, the Wild West life was a natural progression – although he’d prefer Middle-earth.
Ella Joyce: In the formative years of your career were there any films or actors in particular that sparked your interest in cinema?
Daniel Webber: I didn’t want to be an actor, I didn’t even understand this was a job at that point, but I was captivated by Star Wars. I must have watched the first in the trilogy a thousand times as a kid, it was that point when my imagination just exploded. I didn’t really have any interest in cinema or acting until I was out of school. As I got older I really started to enjoy fantasies, I think I was around fourteen or fifteen when Lord of the Rings came out. My family is very active and we were actually hiking through New Zealand for about four weeks when the movie came out so we were in the same landscapes, camping and exploring. Those moments are probably the clearest, I remember my imagination just going into overdrive. It was around nineteen or so when I was like, “I think I want to figure out how the hell I get into this crazy business of acting.”
EJ: The penny dropped and you thought, “Wait, that could be me!”
DW: Yeah! It’s interesting I grew up on those sci-fi fantasies but I went on a very cinéma vérité naturalistic bent for the longest time. I was obsessed with a Spanish film called Biutiful – films that were very realistic in some way, and very human. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to enjoy more of those genre pieces again, fantasy and sci-fi. I think you convince yourself you have to prove yourself when you’re coming into the business, especially in Australia. We don’t often have an option for big sci-fi fantasy stuff, we do a lot of kitchen sink drama here – we do it really well. There’s also a lot of stuff surrounding the darker gang world, you grow up watching people like Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper, or Heath Ledger in Ned Kelly, or Cate Blanchett in Little Fish, and Eric Bana in Choppers – that could be one of the best Australian performances. So you grow up in that culture and it is very naturalistic, very real, honest cinema and that’s the path you see before you.
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“Being able to get on a horse and cause havoc across the West was too appealing to not do.”
EJ: As an actor what kind of stories or roles excite you? Is there something you always look for?
DW: They’re all so different, my career has been so varied. I’ve really enjoyed the banquet of opportunities I’ve had with characters and roles, I would never have anticipated it. I do love Billy the Kid because we get into the action world and we get on horses, I thrive on that because I’m a very physical person. I grew up as a gymnast and competed globally, so anything where I can get my whole body involved I’m there a hundred percent. But I’m curious about everything and as soon as one world opens up to you, you might not have had any interest in it at the start or known anything about it, but by the end you’re the biggest fan.
EJ: As you said, your career has been so varied. Has there been a stand-out moment?
DW: I feel like I’m still growing and I’ve still got so much to learn, as a person and hopefully as an actor. There are so many moments, it’s such a beautiful life as an actor, being on the road, seeing different countries, meeting new people and diving into new worlds. The early days of getting into Hollywood and starting the whirlwind of getting on the carousel were special. When you finally make it across the pond from Australia it’s a huge commitment, you’re basically saying, “I’m gonna burn all the bridges and might not have any money but I’m just going to go there and I’m going to make this work. I have to, I don’t have an opportunity to not make it work. It has to happen.” That’s really exciting, especially when it starts to happen. For me, that was with my first job, it was about as good as I could have ever dreamed. We had an Oscar-winning director in Kevin Macdonald, we had a great writer in Stephen King, great showrunners as well as James Franco, Chris Cooper, Jerry Jones. And, I had a plum role. It was one of those ones where it was just too good to be true. It was an incredible experience, so I guess I’m always going to be looking back on that moment.
EJ: What are the big differences in the industries between Australia and the US?
DW: It’s a huge difference. Australia is a small country with a relatively small economy and compared to the US our industry is small by virtue of that, so the opportunities are nowhere near as abundant. There is a sort of set path in Australia, as you get onto the soap operas, you work your way up that way and I really had no interest in doing that. Working five or six days a week on something I didn’t love. I ran a business before, I was a rope access technician so I’d be working on wind turbines, skyscrapers, energy plants and concrete plants, all sorts of things, just so I didn’t have to do the jobs I didn’t want to have to do. It was tough and dangerous work but it allowed me the opportunity to wait for jobs like 11.22.63, so when they came around I could go 110 percent at it. When you get to LA you get this real fire in your belly because you realise they’re looking for the next big thing. They want to find somebody who is the next Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio or Heath Ledger, and so they’re really willing to take a chance on people. When I came in on 11.22.63, I was essentially a no-name actor who had never worked overseas, I didn’t have a resume. But doors open for new, young talent who really want to do a good job. I think that’s the biggest difference, Australia is a little bit more risk averse, rather than taking chances on people they tend to pick from a similar pool of actors constantly and you see the same faces on TV rather than getting a broad spectrum of new talent.
“I didn’t really realise it was a job, these figures in this small screen were just there to entertain me and as a kid, I accepted that and then went to play out in the backyard with my sisters.”
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“In all the news clippings you read [about Jesse Evans], he’s so bombastic, bold, charismatic, and dangerous.”
EJ: Billy the Kid has recently premiered, how does it feel to finally have that out in the world?
DW: Quite a relief, it’s always stressful putting a show out and I can’t help but get caught up in the whole thing. It’s nice to see the reception we’ve been getting, I’m just really proud of it. The people we worked with, the storytelling, the characters. Fingers crossed we keep going with this series and do a second season because by the end of this season the characters are so beautifully fleshed out. I was just a fan watching the show and wanting to know more about who these guys were and where their story took them.
EJ: What was it that drew you to the character and the script?
DW: Being able to get on a horse and cause havoc across the West was too appealing to not do, and then we’ve got an amazing British writer in Michael Hirst who did Vikings. We also had Otto Bathurst directing who has done Peaky Blinders, he knows the gang world and has a beautiful aesthetic and a beautiful tone. I just thought, with those two people mixed together and an incredible production team, there’s a chance of doing something quite unique.
There are something like 50 movies and probably hundreds of books written about Billy but I’d never seen a film really about the whole story. They seem to focus on one period of time with Billy whereas we’re telling a story about Billy’s family trying to form a life for themselves in this promised land as Irish immigrants coming across from New York. They realise there are no towns, no work, no opportunity, there’s just mud and they’re going to have to build this society up. I thought it was a really interesting approach, taking it from his childhood and then growing into a man. The Lincoln County War has never really been discussed either and it was a fascinating bureaucratic political situation in America during that period of time, you start to understand how Billy was created through the machinery of the war.
Plus, I have a fantastic character to play. Jesse is one of those roles that don’t come around very often. He’s a leader of men, he’s so capable and confident within his own skill set and ability – he’s so purposeful in where he wants to go. That was in the writing, but it was also in the history. The first thing you hear about him outside of getting put in prison for counterfeiting money with his parents, was being a foreman at John Chisholm, the cattle king of America, and then he eventually becomes a gang leader. Then he brings Billy the Kid into the outlaw world and becomes central within the Lincoln County War by guiding the strategy and running raids. He’s so central to the Billy the Kid myth, yet he’s never been portrayed on screen. The newspapers talk about him as being more troublesome than the raiding parties or the Apaches, and in all the news clippings you read he’s so bombastic, bold, charismatic, and dangerous. They share this incredible journey of best friends, getting into the outlaw life, cattle rustling, and then eventually becoming great enemies on opposite sides. It’s just one of those almost Shakespearean situations – you can’t ask for a better setting for storytelling.
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EJ: Speaking of the physicality of it, you mentioned earlier riding horses and having always been a very active person but what was the preparation different knowing you’d have to do all of that on screen with props, and a cowboy hat? [both laugh]
DW: I was kind of lucky because growing up my family were fairly adventurous. We used to race horses long distances in Australia, anywhere from 40 kilometre to 400 kilometre rides. I hadn’t ridden for about fifteen years though, so it was about getting back on the bike again and seeing what skills I still had. My legs struggled for the first couple of weeks but I picked it up pretty quick. I’ve got a horse here, so I jumped on him for around two months before going across. We were lucky enough on this show to have World Champion rodeo riders teaching us. I had to learn a different way of riding because I grew up riding English saddle, which is much more held together and formal. Whereas the Western saddle is a looser, relaxed style of riding based around riding for stock and cattle. So there was a process of unpicking what I knew, and getting that muscle memory back. You’re spinning guns on set the whole time, it’s very fun.
“These sorts of roles are very rare, I was like a pig in mud with this one – I loved it.”
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EJ: It’s interesting because depictions of the Wild West have always held a prominent place in film and popular culture but we rarely get the facts. How did it feel to tap into that topic from a modern point of view?
DW: Absolutely. Learning about the formation of America was new to me, the immigration story which happened there and for our characters coming out of the Civil War. Jesse grew up in the Civil War, I think he was probably about thirteen when it finished and so they’re living through Reconstruction in the South. You’ve got a country that’s flooded with guns, a lot of poverty, inequality and racism. I think immigration is probably one of the biggest topics of our time right now, especially in America and the refugee crisis, which no doubt is probably going to get worse. I think we do touch on themes that are really present at the moment. We’ve also got really powerful female characters who are raising Billy, and then we have what I would say is almost absentee fathers and men who are very damaged raising these young men, both Jesse and Billy are orphans very early on within our story. There is so much damage… Especially Billy, the whole way through the series he is trying to learn what it is to be a man in this really dangerous, violent and corrupt world.
EJ: They’re universal themes.
DW: That’s what Michael does so well, if it was just a straight history piece, I don’t know if people would really latch on to it. He’s got a good instinct for opening up conversation. I was a bit nervous at first about how he might portray Jesse but then as soon as I saw more of his work, I was like, “Oh, this is just a treat.”
EJ: What projects are coming up for you next?
DW: I’ve got a film we’re about to release here. It’s a musical comedy called Seriously Red about a young woman who has left her real estate job and become a Dolly Parton impersonator. I play a Kenny Rogers impersonator, we fall in love and it’s just wonderful. It’s with Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale and Krew Boylan, It’s a film that’s good for now, because it’s been a crazy couple of years and I wanted to put something out there that was just pure goodness.
Billy the Kid is available to watch on Epix.
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