Actors who break out on Broadway usually take their time to get to the big screen. Maybe a few indie movies here or there, an HBO series — the kind of roles that maintain the integrity they’ve established as thespians of the stage. Then there’s Ben Walker, who exploded on to the scene in the unusually macabre Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and is ready to unleash further Presidential fury in his big screen debut Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Who needs a Sundance darling when you’re taking an axe to the heads of bloodsucking baddies? That’s a whole other kind of impressive.
While on the set of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, myself and a group of journalists sat down with Walker to discuss his debut role, the ins and outs of bringing Lincoln to life all while kicking ass in giant set pieces, courtesy of Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov.
Tackling his first, big Hollywood role:
Benjamin Walker: 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]
Bringing the real life Lincoln into the superheroic Lincoln:
Benjamin Walker: 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.
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.
Transforming himself into Lincoln:
Benjamin Walker: What’s great about this project is we’re working with [special effect makeup artists] 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, 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.
What makes Timur Bekmambetov an interesting as a director:
Benjamin 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.
Tackling big action scenes for the first time:
Benjamin Walker: 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.
As an actor it’s challenging because 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.
Specific fighting styles on display in the movie:
Benjamin 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.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter hits theaters June 22.