The National Geographic original scripted drama Killing Lincoln, adapted from Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling book and narrated by Academy Award winner Tom Hanks, chronicles the final days of President Lincoln (Billy Campbell) and the plot devised by one of the most notorious and complex villains of all time, John Wilkes Booth (Jesse Johnson). Booth viewed Lincoln as a tyrant eager to eradicate the Southern way of life, and took matters into his own hands, which resulted in a murder that shocked the nation. Executive produced by Tony and Ridley Scott, the film also stars Geraldine Hughes, Graham Beckel and Shawn Pyfrom.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actor Billy Campbell talked about how this role came about for him, whether he had any hesitation about taking on such an iconic historical figure, what it was like to put on the wardrobe and hat for the first time, getting to shoot in some of the actual places that Lincoln was in, how grueling it was to reenact the assassination, working with this great cast, showing Lincoln’s human side, and how creatively fulfilling this project was. He also talked about how thrilled he is that The Killing will be back for Season 3 on AMC and how interested he is to see where the story goes, even though he’s not returning. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
BILLY CAMPBELL: I think it’s really handy. It’s great timing. I’d be surprised if some smart people somewhere hadn’t planned it, all along.
How did this come about for you?
CAMPBELL: I got a call from my manager, many, many months ago and he said, “I got this weird call.” He was bemused, as I was, when he told me that National Geographic was interested in my playing Lincoln. Then, I searched through my photographs and I found one from The 4400 that I thought was the most Lincoln-esque, or at least the least non Lincoln-esque photo that I could find, and we sent it off. I honestly never expected anything to happen, so when they finally called back with an offer, I was shocked.
Did you have any hesitation in taking on such an iconic historical figure?
CAMPBELL: Yes, but not enough hesitation to cause me to wobble in accepting. But inside, yeah, of course, I had a little hesitation. Honestly, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. It happened very, very quickly, so I didn’t have time to mull it over or be nervous about it. After we sent the first photograph, it was months before the offer came, and I had forgotten all about it.
When you have such little time to prepare for a role, does that make you nervous?
CAMPBELL: It’s actually sometimes a really good thing. I don’t have time to second-guess myself, I don’t have time to overthink things, and I don’t have time to get bogged down in stuff. Some of the best auditions I’ve ever had have been when my agent called and said, “They want you 20 minutes ago, in an office in Century City, to see you for something.” I’m not sitting there thinking for a week and a half, before I’m supposed to go in front of a network president to do something. That just gives you time to be nervous. I had zero time to get nervous, especially once we started shooting.
CAMPBELL: I had to just surrender myself to Erik Jendresen’s beautiful script. It was really lovely, in that way. I leapt, wholeheartedly, into the arms of all the people on the production, who were so passionate to do this thing. Really, I just relied on other people. I didn’t have time to read anything except the script, to tell you the truth.
What was it like when you got dressed and put the hat on, for the first time?
CAMPBELL: It was surreal. I was like, “I’m going to try this wardrobe on, and then I’m going to take it off and the next time I’m going to get to wear it is when I’m getting dressed to do our first shot.” So, I got the wardrobe on, for the first time, and I got in make-up, and then I walked into the production office and they all were amazed at the transformation. And then, I said, “Are you guys going to be here awhile? Is it okay if I go for a walk?” And they said, “Yeah, we’re going to be here for another five hours, doing stuff.” So, I went for a walk in Richmond. I walked on down the street. I don’t know how many blocks it was, but quite a few blocks. I went to an English pub and had a pint of beer, and then I walked back, just so that I could become comfortable, in some way, and I could have other people see me, so that I could get over being self-conscious. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wearing socks, and the boots wore very painful blisters into my heels.
When you play a character like this, does it also feel a little bit more than just acting, especially in the costumes and working in the locations and recreating moments from history?
CAMPBELL: Absolutely! In some instances, I was walking and standing and sitting in the exact spots that Lincoln did. When we shot Lincoln going into Jefferson Davis’ office, in the capital of the Confederacy, we shot it in the capital of the Confederacy. It’s a museum now, but we shot it in the very room, sitting in the very chair. I was dressed as Lincoln, sitting in the very chair that Lincoln sat, in that very office. It was absolutely amazing! Quite often, I was on the verge of tears. I grew up 60 minutes way from Richmond, in Charlottesville, Virginia and, as a child, I was obsessed with the Civil War. I used to do re-enactments, and all that stuff. So, it resonated very, very intensely, for me.
CAMPBELL: It was absolutely grueling! It was a confined space. This was not a big budget film and we did not have a lot of time. We worked very late into the night. There were a lot of people there, working both behind and in front of the camera. It was absolutely grueling! It was very difficult to get into the emotion of it, just because of how technically difficult it was.
How was it to work with this great cast?
CAMPBELL: I’m telling you, I think Jesse Johnson’s performance is so ballsy and so fantastic. The guy was a big actor of his day, and he was bombastic and really obsessed with his fame, and Jesse just captured the whole thing. Besides that, the similarity between the two of them is spooky. It raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Geraldine Hughes, in such a small part, did such a phenomenal job. All of them were great. They found scores of really, really talented local actors, in Richmond and throughout Virginia, to do this. It’s one of the best things that I think I’ve ever had anything to do with.
Lincoln is such a beloved figure that people forget how controversial he was and how hated he was by other people, when he was alive. Don’t you think it’s important to remind people that he was also human?
CAMPBELL: I think that’s one of the best things about this. I’ve done my share of reading about Lincoln, throughout my life, and he wasn’t always carved in stone. He was a human being. He was a very thoughtful, self-educated, complex, magnanimous human being, who was very, very strong, very smart and very canny, with a very strong sense of what was right and what was wrong. Through all that, he’s become an icon, over the years, and some of his warmth and humanity has been lost. You don’t tend to think of Lincoln as this warm, funny person, but he was. That’s one of the things that I found out, that I really like about him.
When you have an experience like this, is it difficult to follow it up with another role?
CAMPBELL: Yeah. I don’t know what’s coming next, but anything is liable to feel like a let down after this, to tell you the truth. This was so enjoyable and so fulfilling, in so many ways.
Even though you’re not returning to The Killing, what was your reaction to it being canceled, and then hearing that they changed their minds and would be doing a Season 3? Do you have any interest in watching it?
CAMPBELL: Absolutely! My friends are all making the show, so I have a great deal of interest in watching what happens. I’m not disappointed not to be back. I always knew that once they solved the initial murder that they would very, very likely move on to a completely new scenario. They did that with the Danish show. I watched the entire Danish show. So, it was no surprise to me. I’m thrilled that they get to go again, and that I’ll get to hang out with them when I’m up in Vancouver.
What do you look for, when you’re looking at possible projects to get involved with?
CAMPBELL: It’s instinctual. I almost always do things that I like, in some form or fashion. Every once in awhile that means that I don’t think the script is any good and I don’t have any trust in the people, but the film is shooting in Sri Lanka, or somewhere like that, so I’m going. I have been known to be a bit of a location slut, in my past. But generally speaking, if something is written well and I can see myself in the part, then I’ll do it. There have been times when I’ve been asked to do things and I’ve thought, “This is great! This is a great script. But, I do not believe myself in this role.” I pretend I’m the producer and I think, “If I was making this movie, would I cast myself in this part?,” and if that doesn’t feel right to me, then I don’t even go audition for it. I can’t walk into a room with any kind of authority or give a good reading, if I can’t see myself in the role. So generally, I do things that I could see myself doing, that I like, in some form or fashion, even if it is just the location, and that I think I’ll have fun doing. This is my favorite job that I’ve ever had, and I don’t see that I would ever give it up. It’s flexible, it pays well, when it pays well, and I get to go all kinds of different places and meet different people.
Killing Lincoln premieres on National Geographic on February 17th.