Billy the Kid is EPIX’s new series that follows the life of the legendary outlaw. The first few episodes of the season depicted the titular character’s early years with his family including his mother, Kathleen McCarty, played by Eileen O’Higgins. Last Sunday, tragedy struck Billy when consumption struck his brother and mom. Recently, we spoke with O’Higgins where she breaks down the emotional final moments between mother and child as well as her overall experiences on the show.
AIPT: Before getting into your character, Billy the Kid is a notorious figure in American history and has been depicted in media in different forms. What were your first impressions of this historical figure and how has your perspective on him have changed having worked on this project?
Eileen O’Higgins: Oh, great question. Lots of questions within your question. I grew up in Ireland and American Culture, and sort of Western Culture I would say, is very big. Probably due to the amount of immigrants that are of Irish descent. When I was younger, I knew who Billy the Kid was, only from the fact that it was my uncle’s friend’s nickname.
He was Sundance and his best friend was Billy the Kid. But they would be loveable rogues. Not, I’m not proud to say this right now. Not well behaved but like get away with s--t and you’d want them to succeed. Can I say that? So that’s how I always saw them as in bold but not bad. Does that make sense?
AIPT: Yeah, yeah.
O’Higgins: Like somebody who you want to succeed. There’s no malice or evil there but get away with stuff. Cheeky. That was the sort of connotations that I would think of when I thought Billy the Kid. When I was sent the audition and I read Michael’s [Hirst] scripts, I was like, “He’s what? Billy is the son of Irish immigrants? He was a real person?” I know that might sound really naïve but I genuinely did not know this. This just completely changed the game because somebody who seemed quite mythical and far away suddenly became very real and present and real.
The scripts were so well written in their humanity. It was almost like the description of the family and coming to America and heading out West and this tale of immigration and a little bit of Irish history at the time. I would have liked to play that role. I suddenly felt Billy the Kid is connected to all these things so that changed my perspective once I got the scripts and started reading and understanding who he actually was and that he wasn’t my uncle’s friend.
AIPT: For a period piece like Billy the Kid, it tries to capture the era and make it as authentic as possible. I was curious about how much the cast really has to rough it out during filming and does this experience help you get into character?
O’Higgins: What was a real gift is that we shot everything on location. We shot everything in Alberta. We travelled around different bits. Alberta is incredible from the different kind of outlooks that you have. We started off filming in Coffeeville which was in the Badlands. I don’t know if you’ve seen the big aerial shots of the horses coming. The wagon procession coming through all those canyons. All those things actually happened and we were packed in.
Otto [Bathurst] use to have great joy in it. We’d be like, “Where are we going?” and he’d be like, “You’ll see.” Then our wagon went into the river. Anything that it said in the script is what happened. I realized after day one whatever that Michael had written in the stage direction – wagon overturns, Patty nearly drowns – this is what’s actually going to happen. We’re all going to be thrown in and that’s what was so fun about it. We really did live it is the answer to your question.
When the boys are doing the cattle rustling, after a take, Tom [Blyth] and Dan [Webber] and stuff would have to bring the cattle back themselves to set up the scene again. We were really in a wagon for a very a long time. I have got to say it was during a heatwave in Canada.
I had never experienced heat like it and Charl [Boettger], who is our amazing costume designer, had made me an amazing outfit that would have come from Ireland that was all wool, which makes total sense because you’re going to come with what you have but Irish wool in desert heat was unbelievable.
But then again it totally accurately summed up what it was like to arrive in this place with literally the clothes on your back that might not match. In Ireland, you’d wear wool because it’s cold. You wouldn’t wear that there. It just doesn’t make any sense.
The attention to detail was next level. In some of the restaurant scenes, we were filming them at night, the mice were literally like “ping, ping, ping” across the floor. I actually put on a coat one night with a mouse in the sleeve. I went to look. It wasn’t on camera though. It wasn’t in the scene. I put my hand in the coat and felt a thing shoot up to my armpit.
What could move that fast and be that size? I realized it was a mouse and flung the coat off and the mouse went flying. I think the horses as well added those kinds of dynamics. While we went home and slept in a bed, I would say the rest of it felt very much like this journey from New York heading West. Gosh it was joyful.
Even that opening of [episode] two, where they start on the Santa Fe Trail and the wagon, it’s just after Patty dies and we’re moving on again, coming up the side of the canyon. I’ve never seen anything like that. I was genuinely in the canyon going [facial expression of awe]. I’ve never seen anything like this. But what a gift as an actor. You do so much pretending but there were things like that. It was adding so much richness and authenticity.
I have to say the entire cowboys and everybody; they are real by the way. I did not know that before I went to Canada but they are so real. They were chuckwagon racing horses and things. When we were in the wagon, the cowboy driving the horse was actually hidden in the wagon underneath us and the actors had false reigns on top.
The company and the grip, the team, everything from hair and make-up, to getting the accurate costume, to have them sitting, bless them, on a cowboy <laughing>, he’s the one actually driving the horses. And heading up on these huge expanses of areas of Canada, which is accurate to how the West would have been. There are huge untouched areas of Alberta that are just perfect for the filming of this. Yes, all of these things. I got really excited for that question.
AIPT: Kathleen has a complicated relationship with her new husband, Henry Antrim. Over the course of the past two episodes, we see what kind of man he is but yet your character still tries to remain respectful towards him and the marriage. How would you describe their relationship and what your character was looking to receive from it?
O’Higgins: I think what she’s expecting from it is really well discussed in the scene with little Jonah [Collier] after they go around for what is one of the best dinner scenes <laughing> ever, with Jonah. Little Billy sizes up Henry and that is really just a bit of security. I think the chat with Hattie kind of spelled out the options for women at the time. I think she genuinely did think that he was a good man.
I think what’s beautiful about the relationship with Patty was that you could tell the two of them were totally in love. It was really nice to see a love story. But I don’t think Kathleen had any expectations for a love story with Henry. I think she put her hope in him being a good man and maybe he didn’t quite get his character right. There was a little hoodwink there.
It’s very hard to be a single mother of two at this point and she’s a respectable lady and has an incredible moral compass so to marry a man that she thinks of good character is a much better option than to turn to prostitution or something like that. It doesn’t fit who she is but it’s disappointing how it works out. She’s a religious lady and that’s why she hopes for him to become better and see the light.
AIPT: I guess we’ll leave off on this. In the final moments between Billy and Kathleen, they are so emotionally packed and somber. How do you prepare and get yourself into that mindset for these scenes? Can you also describe your working relationship with Tom Blyth to properly execute what’s needed?
O’Higgins: Tom’s so generous. Actually, one of the first things that I shot with Tom was this scene where Henry comes back and he’s beaten up and I say you don’t have to come with us because I’ve realized that I’ve tied myself into this man but I’m not going to tie Billy into this man, into coming with us.
And he says yes, I’m going to come with you and I felt from that moment, it was the first thing me and Tom ever did, I was like “I completely believe that you are my son, Billy.” From that moment on it was such a gift when you work with someone so talented, that is so generous and, you know, and thoughtful and emotional. It’s a gift.
Actually, to do a scene like the last one, I find that not overthinking things is the way to go about them. Because really, it’s just about being truthful and listening. I had such a love of Kathleen and, also, I’ve physically, as I’ve just described to you, gone on this whole journey. And then I just find what Michael created in the montage of having fear. Expressing the fear and sharing that with Billy, like the dynamic of even admitting that you’re scared of what’s to come.
Then the next section, which is total Kathleen, to make it absolutely okay for him, and not only okay, the last building block of what any parent, like she is an exceptional parent, in that telling them that they’re good and they’re going to be fine. Like it’s selfless to the last.
I like that there was the vulnerability of seeing that this isn’t a person that is invincible but then who she becomes for him and then leaving, I get emotional about it and I think it’s so nice. I feel there was something that Michael captured that I’m sure loads of people have experienced in their life of death is inevitable and it has touched all of us. There is something so real and human in the moment that it didn’t need overthought because it is just one of those things that is human. Yeah, sorry.
AIPT: It’s good see that even though after you’ve filmed that scene that there is such an impact on yourself.
O’Higgins: Well, I feel very connected to Tom Blyth for life. It’s very interesting when I see him, I think there is, I nearly feel that way about how incredible he’s been in the series. I couldn’t be prouder almost to a maternal level. He is generous. He is kind. He is so talented and he led everybody from the front and he did an exceptional job with Billy, who was already a character that was loved by so many. But it’s so his Billy. I couldn’t champion him enough.
Billy the Kid airs Sunday nights on EPIX.
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