‘There’s Always a Story Behind the Story’

The cast members get playful
Janet Donovan

Actor/director Robert Redford -- who was in town Sunday night for the world premiere of “The Conspirator” at Ford’s Theatre -- is everything you would expect him to be: charming, ruggedly handsome, easy-going, smart, and extremely proud of his latest accomplishment.

Ford’s Theatre, the site of the April 14, 1865 fatal shooting of President Lincoln, was an eerily perfect setting for the movie... as was the location of the onlookers across the street, milling around what was then the Peterson Boarding House, where Lincoln died the morning after he was shot. It was easy to envision the pandemonium that took place on that fateful evening as cabinet members, doctors and generals scrambled to attend their president, and gathered in horror and disbelief.

“The Conspirator” invites you to "examine the truth" about Lincoln’s death, with a tagline of “One bullet killed the President, but not one man.”

Niteside caught up with the man who started it all: screenwriter James Solomon. “I began writing in 1993, about 18 years ago,” he told us. “I came across a transcript of the assassins’ trial with a fellow writer, Greg Bernstein. It was in a book, a published transcript and I realized there were multiple attacks on the night Lincoln was assassinated."

Like most Americans, Soloman had had no idea Secretary of State William Seward was also attacked that night, nor that was an attempt on Vice President Andrew Johnson's life.

"I also didn’t know that hundreds were rounded up and there was a trial of eight civilians, one of whom was a woman who ran a boarding house, Mary Surratt," Soloman said:

"She was likely being charged for crimes committed by her own son. The center of this story is an extraordinarily human story of a mother, played by Robin Wright, whose own son has abandoned her and a surrogate son, an attorney [Frederick Aiken] played by James McAvoy who essentially comes to her aid. He’s a Northern officer defending a Southern woman and that’s the center of this story. Every screenwriter always looks for a great story.”

Robin Wright called to mind her own experiences as a mother while portraying Mary Surratt. “...I have to be aligned in that feeling that you have this undying will to protect your kids," she said. "It's a movie about two human beings coming to an understanding of each other's side. It’s about a mother and her love for her child. She was just being a mother.”

Kevin Kline plays Lincoln's Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Although you probably think of Klein in relation to comedic roles romping across some vineyard in France, when recounting his performance in "The Conspirator," Klein seemed much more serious than you might expect. 

“...I didn’t know this chapter in history," Klein said. "We know about Lincoln’s assassination, [but] I didn’t know there were so many people involved.... nor did I know there was a woman who ran a boarding house where presumably the conspiracy was hatched, and that she stood trial and a lot of people weren’t quite sure about her involvement.”

Klein recalled the adage that history is written by the victors and that the history most people learn in high school isn't the complete story. "Read Howard Zinn’s book 'A People's History of the United States.' There’s always a story behind the story, and that what this film is about.”

That's also the height of interest for Redford, he told Niteside: “The fact that nobody knows about this and it's tied to an event that everybody knows about is a movie worth telling. Stories that people don’t know about always appeal to me -- the story that everybody thinks they know about but [they] don’t; that was the real reason for doing the film.”

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