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How ‘Manhunt’ Showrunner Revisited Lincoln’s Assassination Through 2 Battling Perspectives

“Manhunt” chronicles Abraham Lincoln’s infamous assassination and the subsequent manhunt to capture assailant John Wilkes Booth through the eyes of an unlikely protagonist: the late president’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

“From the moment Booth shot Lincoln in the theater, and he was unconscious, to the next day when [Andrew] Johnson was sworn in, no one was really president, so it fell on the shoulders of Stanton,” showrunner Monica Beletsky told TheWrap in a recent interview. “The more I learned about him, the more I could really see painting him as a lead role.”

The historical drama, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, sees Stanton (Tobias Menzies) jump into action just days after the Civil War ended to pioneer a calculated manhunt to resolve the injustices. As Stanton kicks off his efforts, “Manhunt” also displays Booth’s attempts to thwart capture as he clings to the lost cause of the Confederacy.

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Anthony Boyle as John Wilkes Booth in “Manhunt” (Apple TV+)

“I didn’t want to tell the story just from his point of view — he did such a heinous act, and in a lot of ways, he’s a villain. I didn’t want to center it on him, but of course, he’s important to the story,” Beletsky said, adding that her goal was to portray “two men who both had incredible amount of opportunity to change the country, but they took it into their hands in such different ways.”

While Booth established himself as a well-known stage actor, the assassination shed light on his deep-rooted political motivations, with the historic gunshot coming just five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

“You can assume that Booth couldn’t accept the outcome of the war, and he was trying to have a Hail Mary, and attempt to change the outcome,” Beletsky said. “He did change the outcome in a lot of ways because there was a mandate to put forth civil rights policies that Lincoln wanted because he won the war, then all that became up in the air.”

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Monica Beletsky attends a press junket for “Manhunt” during day two of the 12th SCAD TVfest on February 08, 2024, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SCAD)

As Beletsky married the detective narrative with details of Booth’s escape from James L. Swanson’s 2006 book “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” she aimed to highlight the “Sliding Doors” moment, which ended Lincoln’s second presidential term just 42 days after it began.

“We lost almost four years of of him,” Beletsky said, prompting viewers to ask themselves, “How would the country and the culture be different [had the assassination not been successful]?”

“Manhunt” found its Booth in “Masters of the Air” star Anthony Boyle, who tracked down Booth’s diaries and collaborated with Beletsky to integrate them into the show.

“He read them cover to cover … and he would point out certain anecdotes that really rang true to him,” Beletsky said, pointing to a diary entry detailing Booth’s made-up plays with his sister, which Beletsky added into the script to give more depth to Booth’s relationship with his brother.

As Beletsky and the “Manhunt” team filmed the assassination for the series’ opening episode, she noted the crew felt a “personal responsibility” in re-creating the “haunting” incident.

“We wanted to get across how tragic it was, and how cowardly it was to shoot someone from behind without them being able to defend themselves,” Beletsky said. “It was a time when if gentlemen had a conflict, they’d say, ‘Let’s meet on a hill and let’s battle,’ and the fact that Booth came into the theater during a comedy when everyone’s relaxed and trying to finally have some peace in a place where you’re supposed to feel safe — there’s something very horrific about that.”

As parts of the country continue to battle with the legacy of the Confederacy, modern parallels aren’t lost on Beletsky, who noted that the assassination certainly helped shaped American culture.

“There are many unsung heroes in this story who we were rarely told about, and I’m very excited for people to know about Stanton and other [heroes] in the story, because they’re true American heroes,” she said.

“Manhunt” premieres its first two episodes on Friday, March 15, with new episodes dropping Fridays on Apple TV+.

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