Tom Blyth as Billy the Kid
The McCarty family: Eileen O'Higgins and Joey Batey as Kathleen and Patrick, Leif Nystrom as Joe and Jonah Collier (with traveling bag) as young Billy
Blyth as teenage Billy the Kid
Jonah Collier and Timothy Webber as Old Moss
Tom Blyth as Billy the Kid
Eileen O'Higgins and Tom Blyth
As a boy in West Yorkshire, England, Michael Hirst would play-act as he ran to school. But instead of pretending to be Robin Hood or Sir Lancelot, Hirst opted for Billy The Kid. "Even though I was growing up in the North of England, I really loved Westerns," he says. And Billy The Kid — one of the American West's most legendary outlaws — "ignited my imagination."
So when EPIX president Michael Wright came calling recently about a project, Hirst didn't hesitate. "I told Michael that I'd always wanted to write a Western," says the writer-producer of such series as The Tudors and Vikings. "And, in my heart, I knew if I was going to write a Western, it would have to be about Billy."
Write it he did. The eight-episode series Billy the Kid — which had Hirst also serving as executive producer and showrunner — follows the son of Irish immigrants born in 1859 as Henry McCarty (and later known as William H. Bonney). Billy's family had left Ireland near the end of the potato famine to find opportunity in New York, but when good fortune eluded them in the city, they moved west, initially to Kansas. "They very innocently went into a world that was almost completely lawless," Hirst says. "And when they got there, they found there were no jobs and no opportunities, either."
In fact, Coffeyville, Kansas, was really no town to speak of. "It had only been founded three years before they arrived," he explains, "so it was more of a building site."
As he was writing, Hirst tried to envision the desolate prairie land through the eyes of a very young Billy (played by Jonah Collier). "He was a young boy out on this adventure. But all our expectations of what a town in the Wild West looked like had not yet arrived. We were dealing with a world where the railroads hadn't even yet arrived."
In fact, Hirst and executive producer–director Otto Bathurst (Peaky Blinders, His Dark Materials) took to calling the series a "pre-Western," because for all intents and purposes, it didn't look like a Western. The setting (Calgary, Alberta, standing in for Kansas) was prairie, awash in ankle-deep mud. There were no wooden sidewalks or saloons or much of anything that fans of Westerns recognize as typical backdrops. But fans will no doubt recognize the daily degradations that eat at the souls of its inhabitants.
In the series Billy watches his beloved mother struggle to feed her family, and her suffering weighs on him greatly. Bathurst believes it was Billy's deep love for his mother (who died when he was fifteen) that fine-tuned his awareness of the ruthlessness around them. "Billy had a radar for the truth and, even as a young boy, he saw how people took advantage of his mother. And he saw corruption — in banking, in business, in organized religion."
For his part, Hirst feels a profound sadness as he contemplates the early life of Billy the Kid, a sadness Billy himself could have carried. "Who knew that one of the most famous outlaws in the world loved his mummy so much," he says wistfully.
In real life, Billy lived large during his brief years. Before he was shot and killed at age twenty-one, he became known for skill as a gunslinger, his recklessness and, yes, moments of bravery. It's reported that he killed eight men.
"There is a lot of evidence as to why he remains so fascinating," Hirst says. "He was a very sensitive young man whose mother brought him up with a deep moral sense, based on her Catholicism. I don't think he ever lost his moral compass. Circumstances forced him into a life of crime. He always said, 'I'm more sinned against than sinning.' And I believe that's true."
It's perhaps ironic that this story of a Western gunslinger is being told by a Brit. In fact, many of the principals — including the series' star, Tom Blyth — hail from across the pond.
"And I love that!" Michael Wright enthuses. "Westerns, for so long, have been made by Americans, people who are steeped in the lore. What really mattered to me was that Michael Hirst, from a very young age, had been fascinated by and was reading about the American West. This story was so clearly in his heart. When you find that, you lean in. When a writer has a story that is clearly personal to them, I find those are the projects that work out the best."
As the production prepped in 2021, during the ongoing pandemic, there was much to be done on Zoom — scouting locations, casting roles and finding crews. There were also negotiations to be had with Canadian authorities about bringing people across the border.
"Otto was coming from the U.K. and I was coming from Los Angeles," executive producer Donald De Line recalls. "Initially we were told that we would only have to do a modified quarantine once we arrived. So we flew in thinking we'd have enough time to visit the locations and decide which would work best."
That was not to be. Upon arrival, the team learned that regulations for entry had changed; each person would be required to do a full two-week quarantine in a local hotel. With a filming start date just over three weeks away, "Our prep time became very compressed," De Line says. "It really was trial by fire."
De Line, whose recent credits include EPIX's Chapelwaite and Fox's Wayward Pines, says he's always had a particular fondness for Westerns but had never worked on one before. In Calgary he found crews of wranglers and cowboys who were a rough-and-tumble lot. The weather and working conditions there tend toward extremes, but the hired hands were up to the challenge. "It's exquisitely beautiful," De Line says of the region. "It's just a lot of unspoiled nature."
Bathurst notes that the area where they shot has one of the largest concentrations of dinosaur skeletons in the world. Once they were out of quarantine, they had eight days to visit potential locations and ready everything for filming. "We didn't have the time to travel very far out of Calgary for locations, but the place we chose was amazing."
Two of those eight prep days were spent creating mud — literally. "The idea was to create this godforsaken, lonely, forbidding place," De Line says. "So we brought in giant water trucks and watered the ground like crazy. It was extremely hot. Everyone was knee-deep in mud, and it was really slippery."
Bathurst, who directed the first two episodes, sought to drive home the idea that when Billy and his family finally make it to Kansas, it's much worse than they could have imagined. "The Western is a very typed genre, and I was keen that this was ultimately not a Western, but rather, a character study. There would be no big set pieces that you expect. From the point of view of this kid, who came from a tenement in New York, this had to feel very raw and real and visceral and wild."
But who, exactly, would portray Billy the Kid? At one point the producers had four casting directors searching directories of young actors worldwide, looking for someone who could offer a tough but soulful portrayal of the gunslinger. A photo of Tom Blyth, who'd graduated from Juilliard in 2020, found its way to Hirst's desk early in the process. "The extraordinary thing was that he actually looked like Billy," Hirst says. "He has those deeply sensitive eyes."
In real life, Billy the Kid reputedly lit up a room when he entered. He had a beautiful singing voice, he could play the fiddle, he could read, he was multilingual and he could turn on the charm. "People loved him," Hirst says.
And because he came from a family of immigrants, Billy was also empathetic, particularly to the plight of Mexicans and Indigenous persons. "He identified with them, so much so that people often said that no Mexican would ever take a shot at Billy," Hirst notes.
Hirst was pleased that Blyth looked like Billy and began to throw little challenges his way. "I told him that Billy had this beautiful singing voice and the next thing I knew, he sent me a tape of him playing guitar and singing, beautifully."
Blyth, who grew up in the north of England and had been on a horse only once or twice in his life, at first blush didn't seem a good fit for the rough-riding outlaw. But, like Hirst, Blyth had grown up with a great love of American Westerns. He would often walk to the library after school — where his grandmother was the librarian — and pore over books about the American West.
"There's something about the Old West genre," he observes. "It's about defining yourself in a new world. There's something about coming into this completely lawless world and having to define your own morals. It's all fascinating."
Once the producers decided on Blyth, the hard work began. And much of it took place in a hotel room, under quarantine. Billy was reportedly the fastest gun in the West, so Blyth used his two weeks to practice drawing, spinning and sliding his gun back into its holster. "I practiced for hours and hours and hours in that hotel room," he says. "It was actually useful that I was locked up for so long."
He also had to master riding — and then manage a full gallop in the middle of a cattle drive. The challenge was physically grueling, he says, and also tons of fun. "Sure, I was aching from being in a saddle for ten hours a day, but I figure that's how Billy lived. And I think it's palpable when you watch the show. I think you can almost taste the dirt and feel the sweat because we were authentically living it."
That authenticity is exactly what Wright was looking for when he reached out to Hirst. It not only fits the channel's positioning as "television for movie lovers," it also addresses contemporary topics — such as immigration and racism — through the lens of drama.
"I would argue that a Western offers an environment that, in theory, creates a meritocracy," Wright says. "The West was so brutal and hard, and it favored people who are self-reliant, tough, smart, clever. But the people who moved West brought all the original sins having to do with class and race with them."
As for Hirst, his study of Billy the Kid has taken him to places he never thought he'd go. "Even though I was attracted to the charisma of Billy and his reputation, I was always concerned that the clichés might be true — that he might have just been a psychopathic killer, that he was ruthless and unkind. But what I found through my research was a man with a deep sensitivity. I truly grew to love him. I hope audiences will share my love and respect for him."
Besides Michael Hirst, Otto Bathurst and Donald De Line, the executive producers of Billy the Kid include Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey and Toby Leslie. The series is available on EPIX and EPIX Now.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #5, 2022, under the title, "Law of Their Land."