While 20th Century Fox could have easily gone after a “name” actor, I think they made a smart decision casting Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln in director Timur Bekmambetov‘s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Walker’s an excellent choice because when you see the movie, you are hopefully going to think you’re watching President Lincoln on screen rather than an actor playing a part. If the studio had cast a huge movie star, it’s sometimes hard to get past all the previous roles you’ve seen that actor play.
Last summer when the movie was filming outside New Orleans I got to participate in a group interview with Walker during a break in shooting. He talked about how he got cast, his research, the physical and vocal aspects of the role, working with Bekmambetov, the violence in the film, and a lot more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
Before going any further, if you haven’t seen the red band trailer, I’d watch that first.
Question: We heard a great story that you were doing a play and the producers came to watch the play to see if you were right for the role. They mentioned that you knew the producers were in the audience at your play. Were you a little extra nervous getting on stage?
Benjamin Walker: I guess that I hadn’t ever fully imagined that they’d give me a shot, so no. I just kind of thought, ‘Well, I hope they enjoy the show.’ So, no, actually. No, sorry.
Can you talk about your initial meetings?
Walker: That was another aspect of it that didn’t really worry me. They’d already kind of offered it to somebody else – a big-name movie star. And the fact that they were courting me just seemed like a long shot in my mind. So there wasn’t much pressure. I was mostly fascinated to meet Timur. I had loved his movies. Nightwatch and Daywatch had kind of blown my mind. So I was excited to meet him and hoped he’d liked my work. But, eh, fear is for pansies. [laughs]
What kind of research did you do in advance of playing Lincoln? Did you look at things like John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln?
Walker: Sure, oh yeah. That was one of first things he had me watch. It’s kind of fascinating.
You look a little like Henry Fonda in that movie…
Walker: I take that as a high compliment. Yeah, we watched that. I read a number of books. I read Team of Rivals. There’s a great book about the melancholy of Abraham Lincoln that lends itself nicely to the story we’re telling about his love affairs before Mary Todd, his suicidal tendencies, his journaling, and his depression. He took mercury pills for years. I mean, imagine what that does to your psyche. I mean, it’s truly astounding. That’s been a lot of fun in doing this movie, in that it’s a thriller, but it’s a period thriller. We’re really taking it seriously and are really committing to the time period and the events that took place in Lincoln’s life.
Is it a big departure from playing Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln?
Walker: Kind of. I do seem to only play American presidents. [laughs] But at the same time, certainly, Andrew Jackson can be played a little bit more fast and loose with history. It was certainly a greatest hits of Jackson’s life. But we’re sticking much more closely to Lincoln’s life in this project.
How tricky is it to juggle that and to capture the essence of the Lincoln everyone knows with this supernatural world of vampires and action and things that probably didn’t really happen?
Walker: Probably. You assume. But wait until you see the movie, because you haven’t read the research that we’ve been reading. Well, I think I can rationalize it because the more I learn about Lincoln, the more I learn about how multi-faceted he was. There seemed to be different versions of Lincoln, the political Lincoln, the Lincoln that he shared with his wife, the Lincoln that he kind of left when his mother died. So I think that it’s not as farfetched as you’d like to imagine that at night he could be an entirely different person than he was during the day as a politician and what would go on in his life. That leap becomes smaller the more you learn about the real Lincoln. And, as Americans, he’s on the $5 bill. We’ve idealized him. We’ve made him a marble statue, and part of the fun of the movie is that, in the fantastical context, we look at a real human being in a way that we aren’t necessarily as comfortable doing today.
Can you talk about the physical and vocal aspects of the role? Was there a lot of talk about burying underneath makeup? And everyone has a view of how he sounded…
Walker: Well, what’s great about this project is we’re working with Greg Cannom and Will Huff. For example, this isn’t my nose. I’m wearing a rubber nose already. And we’ve built a progression of Lincoln from boyhood through his later life based off his death masks and actual masks and casts of the actual man. So that’s worth the price of admission right there – to watch Lincoln grow old in front of your eyes in a film context. In terms of vocally, you’re right, there is a lot of research in that there wasn’t anything flattering about his voice in particular. It was kind of a shrill, raspy, unpalatable, annoying voice. But in our movie he’s a superhero, so we’re trying to marry the two. And, also, we get to enjoy seeing him…we already know, in our context, he’s a hero. So we get to enjoy seeing him come to be that. As a young man he goes through all the things that a young man goes through, which is fear and his voice cracking and growing into his own lanky form, and how that becomes the hero that we know today.
Walker: It’s like working with a really professional six-year-old child, only in terms of imagination and fantasy, in that you can walk onto set thinking it’s going to go one way, and his imagination is so vast and complex that he completely throws you for a loop. It’s spontaneous and ultra-human, what we eventually get to. And that’s been really exciting, that level of collaboration – or at least the sensation of collaboration. He probably knows exactly what he wants you to do when you walk on; you just get the experience of finding it together. Either way, it’s very, very pleasant to come to work every day.
Can you talk about the action set pieces? I’m assuming that you’ve never been in the front and center of these huge action films. Is this a challenge for you as an actor?
Walker: Sure. I was joking about the fear before, of course, I am petrified out of my mind. It’s thrilling and horrifying at the same time. I also have no context for it so I don’t even know what to be afraid of. We really just focus every day on trying to tell this story as clearly as possible. When you focus on something as specific as the story we are telling and it’s as specific as we know about Abraham Lincoln – the pressure seems to kind of fall away because you are focused on something so complex that it consumes your thoughts and your fears.
Walker: As an actor it’s challenging because a lot of it is that you really do it in pieces. You really are chasing horses and running through fields but you are also imagining a vampire coming out of the sky because they are going to marry it with a great CGI team. So part of the challenge and fun for me has been looking at a green wall and imagining that it is a factory, a stampede, or a wall of vampires. You can really draw on your theater roots of “I’m in a box and there is nothing here. I have to do all of the work myself.” So that has been gratifying. But you are going to see things action wise in this movie that we hope have never been done before. For example, we have the image of the axe. As Americans, it is this image of honesty and it was a depiction of how Lincoln was like us. He was a common man who chopped wood. He was the rail splitting candidate. And then in the movie it takes on a very different life. It’s very exciting, I think.
Did you have to learn a specific fighting style for the film?
Walker: Well, there are certain points where he gets better at it. The thing is that he learns from Henry Sturgess, who has been a vampire for hundreds of years and he has really honed the craft of what it is to be an assassin. Through the years he has picked different aspects from martial arts, capoeira, or weaponry. They all kind of come together in Abraham as this kind of uber fighter. He can express himself in some way almost like a painter through his axe wielding. So there will be levels of heinous gruesome violence and some moments of sheer beauty in the same that we saw in movies like Kill Bill where it’s an absolute slaughter but there is a certain ballet to it.
How gruesome is the slaughter? In the book, the vampire killings are not just a little bite on the neck.
Walker: Now where is the fun in that?
Are they really, really violent?
Walker: I think we are actually trying to figure that out. I will say that it will be very grounded in reality. It’s not going to be…no punches will be pulled in terms of worrying about getting blood on us.
Did playing Andrew Jackson on stage lessen any fear or trepidation you had over playing Lincoln?
Walker: What really helped was the rigor in research that was necessary. We did so much work in terms of studying who we thought Jackson was, reading different books about Jackson, and reading different interpretations of Jackson’s legacy. That muscle was strong in me and moved quickly into this project. That has been very helpful. But, no, there is a level of respect and integrity that you have to maintain when you are playing someone who was so influential in American history and who we are today as Americans. There is certainly not a fear but a concern for the accuracy and tone of the story.
Besides the nose are there any other…
Walker: Yeah. My ears are fake. I would have contacts in, but I wanted to see all of you. As Lincoln progresses, it becomes 15 smaller pieces that can ultimately become my face.
Is that your hair?
Walker: That is my hair, believe it or not.
The title kind of says it all about this movie. How hard or easy of a sell do you think this will be to the general public, because I think people are going to get an exact idea in their own imagination about what this movie is simple based on the title.
Walker: Sure, but I hope they will also have a context for it in terms of what the trailer will be. For example, The New York Times article came out and it had this beautiful picture of the Gettysburg Address. That is the freedom that the title gives us in that “We get it. There are vampires and it’s Abraham Lincoln. It’s a thriller. Now what?” What is going to be surprising is how devoted it is to the history, period accuracy, and the commitment to believing in this world. The structure that the title gives us is the freedom to tell this story. It’s a joke that everyone gets and then it downplays the joke. The surprise is that it is not a joke.
How quickly do you start getting meetings for other movies after you sign on for a film like this?
Walker: Good lord. I would love to have another job before this is over. [laughs] I think as actors we learn pretty early on that it comes and goes. I’m trying to learn as much from Timur, [producer] Jim [Lemley], and this group of people as I can so that if I have to go back to waiting tables when this is over I can feel satisfied, fulfilled, and proud of the work we have done. It certainly comes and goes. I don’t think there is ever a moment where you say, “I’ve done a big movie and now I can continue to do big movies! Health insurance is an assured thing!” No, it will be Tylenol and bourbon before long.
You are filming in New Orleans. Can you talk about what you have enjoyed off set?
Walker: New Orleans in an amazing town. It’s kind of perfect for our story in that it is so period specific, it has such a rich sense of history, and it has such a ghostly past associated with it. It has been really gratifying to walk the streets at night and feel the presence of real American history existing around you. It’s a great town for food. I don’t get to eat anything – I was pretty bulked for Jackson and I’ve had to lose a lot weight. To be in one of the greatest culinary cities in the nation and not be able to enjoy any of it has been unpleasant. New Orleans is a great town and they are certainly a very film friendly town. A lot of people get very excited when they learn that you are making a movie. They are very respectful and very hospitable.
What age of Lincoln’s are you playing right now?
Walker: Right now I am early 20s. We are actually doing two ages today. So we are going to fluctuate between early and late 20s.
Can you talk about the scene that you are going to film right now?
Walker: Today we are doing…the movie opens with him trying to vindicate his mother’s death by killing a man names Jack Barts, who killed his mother. The first attempt at assassination before he has had any training whatsoever goes horribly awry largely in part due to the fact that the man he is trying to kill is already dead – he is a vampire. So I think what you are going to see today is his second attempt at killing this man now that he is prepared to do so as he is now educated in the ways of vampirism and in the ways of an assassin. But he is still a young lad fumbling to be who we know him to be.
Are you going to be recording a voice over narration since the film is based around Lincoln’s journal?
Walker: As of right now, that is what the script says now. The story we are telling is very tied to his journal and the importance of the journal in his life. It’s the importance of the journal as a tool for our storytelling.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will be released June 22. For more from my set visit:
- 30 Things to Know About Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter From Our Set Visit; Plus Video Blog Recap and New Images
- Dominic Cooper Talks the Scope of the Film, Finding the Tone, Returning for Captain America 2, and More on the Set of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
- Director Timur Bekmambetov and Producer Jim Lemley Talk Casting Lincoln, 3D, Balancing Reality with Fantasy, and More on the Set of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter