Out of the 473 articles I have posted on this site, only one has been about an individual acting performance as opposed to a film as a whole. The recipient of that was Chris Conner, who played John Wilkes Booth in Gods and Generals. There is a catch there, however, because like many others, Conner had to wait more than eight years for the general public to finally view his scenes. This is not one or two minutes we are talking about here, but eight scenes of advanced dialogue and monumental importance. Booth’s role, as he shows the truer, less politically correct side of the famous actor who became an assassin, provides the “Greek Chorus” for the American Civil War, as director Ron Maxwell put it to me in our interview.
But as good as he was, his scenes were not spared from hitting the cutting room floor. Because of the massive running time, and the crew scurrying to trim minutes here and there, the entire subplot involving Booth was axed, and as Chris told me in his initial email, he feared his work might have never been seen. As a fan of the film, I can say that the eight year wait was worth it, because Conner did not just have to play Booth, but two Shakespearean title roles in Hamlet and Macbeth, and to a lesser extent, Brutus in Julius Caesar. To be honest, I was never much into Shakespeare until I saw his scenes in this movie. Just listen to the words he recites, as they basically parallel themselves with what is going on in the war. Backstage, we see Booth’s conflict with fellow actor Henry Harrison, who cannot see acting as being as important as being a soldier. But as the film progresses, so does Booth, and thankfully, I am able to get to speak to the actor who played him, Chris Conner, after he contacted me to tell me that he liked this blog. Below is our interview:
GC: Where were you when you heard the news that the scenes you filmed would not be making it into the theatrical cut? What was going through your mind?
CC: I think I was back in New York and Ron called me and I think he sent me a note. It was a long time ago, but it was nice of him to contact me and let me know. I have friends who have shown up at the opening of films thinking they’re going to watch their work, only to be shocked as they slowly realize they are no longer in the film. It could be an awkward moment trying to explain to your date, “I swear. I was in that movie!! Don’t leave…”. Only two people in fifteen years of being an actor have contacted me personally with “bad” news. George Clooney let me know I didn’t get a part I auditioned for in something he was producing and Ron Maxwell let me know they had to cut the Booth subplot. It’s just the right thing to do and shows a lot of class. It sucked to be cut out, but I totally understood why. It’s the nature of the business. I have gotten pretty good at not personalizing what happens in show business.
GC: What did you do in preparation for your role as one of America’s most notorious figures?
CC: A couple of things: A lot of reading historical accounts and theories, John Wilkes Booth’s own writing, and his sister’s. I still read about him. I’ll probably read My Thoughts Be Bloody by Nora Titone—I think it was published last year and it sounds interesting. I watched and listened to a few other people portray him. Just a few I remember seeing were Rob Morrow, Victor Garber, and even Jack Lemmon on a TV show in 1954, which you can see at the Museum of Radio and Television. They were all cool to watch, but not much help. My favorite bit of research was when I went down to Harford County, Maryland and into Washington D.C. across to Richmond finding some of his old haunts. We are such a young country and some of them are still there. And it also gave me a great excuse to eat my way from Maryland into Virginia. There is some great food all along the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. Can we just talk about Millies in Richmond! A truly great breakfast—great grits and that ham…wow! I’m hungry!
GC: Did you know anything about Booth or the Civil War prior to your involvement in the film?
CC: I had a simple grasp of the facts. But learned a lot of the details and acquired a greater understanding of how we became the “United States of America” because of working on G & G. Ron is professorial by nature and would impart quite a bit of knowledge along the way.
GC: Was it difficult, not only preparing to play Booth, but Hamlet and Macbeth as well?
CC: Difficult? No. It was a ball! I got to play a famous actor playing famous roles. Shakespeare in any form at any time is such a treat to get to work on. And the text that Ron put together was like a “Greatest Hits” album of Shakespeare.
GC:You have eight scenes in the film. Which is your favorite and why?
CC: I don’t have a favorite. I enjoyed working on each one. I do remember that I really enjoyed watching some of the other actors in the movie. I remember sitting off to the side and watching (just to name a few) Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, and Kali Rocha work. That was just cool. And my first day was a large scene with a lot of reenactors everywhere—the passion that they had to be part of the process of bringing this story to light was just inspiring; very cool.
GC: Do you have any upcoming film/television projects?
CC: I just got home from shooting an Independent film with Matt Letscher from Gettysburg and G & G. It’s called Teacher of the Year, and Matt was a blast to work with—a really good actor. Hopefully, that will have a life of its own. And I think I’ll do a play soon, either in the Bay Area or down in Los Angeles.
I would like to thank Chris for taking the time to conduct this interview, and [obviously] highly recommend that you all check out the Gods and Generals Extended Director’s Cut. And if you do not have five hours to spare, just skip straight to his scenes—you will not be disappointed! I would also like to wish him luck in all of his future ventures!