Interview with Justin Salinger, star of 'Grant'

Justin Salinger plays Ulysses S. Grant in Grant

At the time of his death, Ulysses S. Grant was the most famous man in the world and stood alongside men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the pantheon of American heroes. However, today Ulysses S. Grant is largely forgotten, his rightful legacy tarnished by a fog of myth, rumour and falsehood.

Sky HISTORY's Grant tells the remarkable and quintessentially American story of a humble man who overcomes incredible obstacles, rises to the highest ranks of power. With a blend of dramatic scenes, expert commentary and beautifully enhanced archival imagery, this three-part miniseries uncovers the true legacy of the unlikely hero who led the nation during its greatest tests: The Civil War and Reconstruction.

Grant has been called so many things over the years, according to the series trailer, The first modern American warrior, a bloody butcher, a corrupt President, a belligerent drunk and the greatest general of his time'. But was the real Ulysses S. Grant? Sky HISTORY spoke to Justin Salinger who plays the eponymous hero to find out.

Sky HISTORY: How did you go about researching this role?

Justin Salinger: I certainly didn't know much about the Civil War when I started this project. My knowledge was literally non-existent, but I read a wonderful book by Sebastian Barry, Days Without End and I watched the Ken Burns documentary on Grant, and I read as much as I could, in a very short time, sifting through this tidal wave of information.

What was it like to play Grant?

I did strangely, feel a very strong instinct and affinity with the character. I got this image from the script of this man who is just unshakable and unmovable and so reliable, solid and direct. He's a good man, virtuous and true. I felt his goodness in it and I focussed on that and his determination. That's what I got from the script.

Grant is a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional character which you don't often get in film because often they write a kind of stereotype but here you have a man who has all these aspects to his character.

With Grant, there was always a struggle, always a dilemma, always a life or death to decision to make. Playing those scenes in battle was fantastic because you’ve got the biggest dilemmas and sometimes only a handful of words to express how he’s feeling which is lovely to get to grips with as an actor.

Grant is a true American icon and a hero of the Civil War; did you feel a lot of responsibility in playing him?

There was a huge weight on my shoulders and luckily, I wasn't quite aware of how huge it was at the time. I realised that after it aired and experienced the love that the general public have for General Grant. I got hundreds of Twitter messages on each of the nights it went out, just saying how much he meant to people and how important he was for them as a figure in history. If I had known that when I was filming, it would have made it incredibly difficult.

There are some amazing battle scenes in the series, it must have been a lot of fun to film?

I can’t deny I loved every moment of it. When I was there, sitting on a horse in the dust with all crew around me making me look fantastic, in the costume with this awesome cigar and all the men listening to my every word, it was wonderful.

How would you sell the show to a British audience who may not be so knowledgeable about the American Civil War?

It’s a fantastic show because the production is so high, and the experts are so fascinating. There are these beautiful filmic reconstructions of such high production value. If you don't know anything about the American Civil War this is a brilliant place to start.

The UK premiere of Grant coincides with the US election. What do you think he would make of America in the year 2020?

Considering the hard work that he put into reconstruction after the Civil War and the fight for African American civil rights it strikes me that he might possibly be disappointed by what was going on in America at the moment. I imagine that there's another point of view and somebody could argue but I think he’d be pretty horrified by the events taking place in America last year.

Executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, the three-part series, Grant premieres over three days on Sky HISTORY from Saturday 31st October at 9pm.