There’s clearly something presidential about Benjamin Walker. The American actor steps into the unmistakable beard and top hat of American’s most renowned leader in new movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. From the lens of Night Watch director Timur Bekmambetov, the fanatical revisionist fable is based on a hit novel by Seth Grahame-Smith that re-imagines America’s 16th president in, well, a world with vampires.
But it’s not the first time Walker has played a commander in chief. The 29-year-old actor is best known in his homeland for a Broadway performance in critically-acclaimed musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in which he played the title role of the seventh US president. Like Vampire Hunter, it teased the history upon which it was based, recasting Andrew Jackson as an emo rock star, and set itself against the formation of the Democratic Party.
Walker jokes that he’ll be able to make a career out of playing presidents. ‘[William Howard] Taft will be next, then [James A] Garfield,’ he laughs. ‘I’ll just hit all the obscure ones.’
A graduate of drama academy Julliard School in New York City, Walker starred in the Doug Hughes’ Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind alongside Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy. The show played to capacity crowds for ten weeks and was nominated for four Tony awards.
In film, Walker is best known for his role in Clint Eastwood’s World War II epic Flag of our Fathers. A newcomer to the big screen, he can also be seen in independent drama The War Boys, and Kinsey, as the young version of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, played by Liam Neeson in his adult life.
Alongside these accolades, Walker is also a stand-up comedian, and has performed at some of New York’s top venues. His own stand-up comedy show, Find the Funny, is an irreverent mix of live comics and pre-recorded skits that is performed monthly in New York City.
We cornered the rising star on the set of Vampire Hunter to find out just how he goes about portraying one of the 19th century’s most important figures… fighting vampires.
How did you approach the challenge of playing such an important historical figure?
When you really look at Abraham Lincoln and his legacy and his life, you realise how truly complicated he was as a man. You realise the complexity of the issues he lived for, and that lends itself to playing him. It gives you some wiggle room too, when you get to the point where you’re reinventing American history. We’ve created a new take on American history, without actually changing any of the real elements of the history. You’ll see in the movie that we follow his life.
How surprised were you by the person you found when you delved into Lincoln’s life?
What surprised me about Lincoln was how melancholic he seemed to be, how often he had thoughts of suicide, and how prevalent death was in his life. He struggled with it, struggled with his own mortality and struggled just to keep his head above water emotionally and psychologically. He was a conflicted and complicated man. Then, on top of that, the country was burning. What do you do with that person who you realise you are?
Does it make it easier for you to realise that he did have those frailties?
It does, very much. With someone we revere, like Lincoln, we experience a strange phenomenon in that we distance ourselves from him by saying he was better, he was super-human. What makes him heroic is that he was not. He had all the elements at his disposal and did great things with them. In the context of this movie, for example, the axe is an iconic image that we associate with Lincoln and with honesty. We’re re-envisioning something so simple and plain, and what its potential can be. It’s very exciting to see things thrown on their head like that, but it still makes sense.
How does the story maintain the historical accuracy while remaining engaging?
What’s fascinating about this story is that it wasn’t that long ago. I mean, we’re talking a couple of hundred years. It’s still so present in America, so while we’re playing fast and loose with history, we’re respecting it. Because Lincoln is a young man when we find him, we get to then go through that journey with him. To do that, we try to find ways not to distance the audience from that. We make it palatable and easy. That way you don’t question that you’re on this ride and that it could exist. The only liberty we take is in the title. After that, it’s Lincoln’s story. There just happens to be a vampire in it.
How important is it to keep Abraham’s wife, Mary Todd, in the forefront of the film?
His relationship with Mary Todd was horribly exciting and dramatic. They were on again, off again, and engaged three times. You can’t tell me there’s not healthy drama in that – when you read some of their writings to each other, their love was largely what plagued and simultaneously sustained Lincoln through some of the hardest times in his life and American history.
How do you prepare for the changes in the character’s demeanour?
The more I learn about Lincoln, the easier that becomes – you learn about these different sides of him. He was a multifaceted individual with several sides of himself that he’d show to different people, whether it be politically, within his marriage, or between the North and the South. He was multi-dimensional, and it’s not that far of a leap to imagine that he would have these many different lives coexisting at the same time.
How original is this film?
It’s a thriller that marries a portrait of American history and encompasses fantastical elements that we all recognise. In the same way that Abe Lincoln has become iconic and idolised, so have vampires. Clearly, people are fascinated by vampires and want to hear about them. What we do is we marry the two and what’s surprising is how well they fit together.
How does the fear of the slaves motivate them to vengeance?
Well, such a fear is a large theme in American history and in this film. Ultimately, Lincoln’s story and how we interpret it is about overcoming his fears. In the same way that Lincoln comes of age – he starts as a young man, learns about what he values and the change that he wishes to make – it’s that same coming-of-age story for the country: the country becomes its better self.
Is this film ultimately a history lesson? Do we learn more about Abraham Lincoln’s role in abolishing slavery through this modern parable?
The story takes something abstract, something that our generation didn’t experience in the same way that our parents did, and our parents before them, and we get to re-envision something horrifying in a vocabulary that our generation already sees as horrifying, like vampirism. And we get to see Lincoln as a multifaceted hero and not just this marble monument.
Is it a way to help us understand the past?
It certainly gives it a fresh look, but it’s not ‘Lincoln wants to end slavery because it’s wrong’. There just also happened to be vampires.
Do you feel the iconography when you’re in the full make-up and costume?
Well, it’s interesting. What you feel is complicated. For example, we shot with large crowds for his inaugural address yesterday and you feel excited and present and articulate and that you look like this image, but on the inside you also feel frightened and conflicted about what you’re talking about in very much the same way that Lincoln might have done. He’s standing there with his wife, who he’s been fighting with, and the country’s burning, and there are these vampires. It’s so complicated, and what makes it exhilarating is that it’s complicated. It’s not just a lot of stuffed-shirt tomfoolery. We take this icon and then flip him upside down. What’s underneath it? That’s what’s exciting. We know about [his image on] the five-dollar bill. Now what?
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is released in the UAE on Thursday June 21.