“The joke ends in the title” has been a popular selling point for the makers of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Now, with the film out in the world, there will inevitably be question over that statement. However, what no one can question is the all-out seriousness the cast and director Timur Bekmambetov took Seth Grahame-Smith‘s material. There is no 21st century irony in sight here.
Namely, there’s the lead of the film - Benjamin Walker, who goes as straight-faced as one can in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. No matter how ridiculous the situation – Lincoln running on top of horses or, you know, killing vampires – Walker never winks or smirks at the silliness.
Here’s what Benjamin Walker had to say about the melancholic superhero nature of Abraham Lincoln, adjusting to makeup, and how the film is a Lincoln biopic which just so happens to have blood-thirsty vampires roaming around:
The book covers just about all of Lincoln’s life. How would you say Seth went about restructuring that story for the screen?
Right. There’s a lot of Lincoln’s life in there. You can play around with the vampire mythology, but you can’t play around with whether or not Lincoln went to Springfield. Everybody knows he went there! It’s structured like a period thriller, which just happens to have vampires.
Is that how you approached it, a bio film which happens to have vampires?
Absolutely. I mean, the joke is in the title, and that’s where it ends. There’s not a point where we are winking or making. We are telling Lincoln’s story in this context.
So there’s no ironic Lincoln going, “This is crazy, guys”?
[Laughs] No, no. If you’re going to do it, do it. If you’re going to make fun of it, don’t do it. It feels selfishly cheeky when they do that, where they’re letting themselves off the hook, in some way. Like, “If we don’t succeed, you know we were kidding!” I just think that’s a cowardly way of doing it.
With the costumes and the make up, was it pretty easy immersing yourself into the tone of the film and Lincoln?
Well, I spent hours adjusting to the mask, the prosthetic. You sit there and look at the mirror, and what you think is a smile doesn’t actually translate as a smile. You have to recalibrate what you’re experiencing. It is a trip to come and go from craft services and have people stare at you.
[Laughs] So, underneath that make up, do you find yourself having to over-act?
Oddly, no. It’s very, very responsive. Sometimes it just doesn’t react in the way that you think it would, where you have to be aware certain pieces of it are more flexible than others.
Is that something you figure out early on or is it an ongoing process?
Yeah, early on. Then when you go back to the young age and you forget, you look like an idiot for about ten minutes [Laughs]. That’s the fun of the job. I went to a conservatory and I remember we had a a mask class, where I had to roll around like a tiger on the floor, and I thought, “When the hell am I going to use this crap?” Boy, the joke is on me.
[Laughs] Do you get to have that same level of play with a director like Timur on set?
Yeah, he’s like a professional six year old. You show up in the morning and the thing you thought you were going to be shooting is not what you’re going to be shooting, but I like that. He’s very guerrilla style, collaborative, and willing to try anything. While, at the same time, maintaining his own vision. I learned a lot from him.
Are there days on set where you can’t imagine why you’re doing so many takes or thinking it may look ridiculous, but then once you go do ADR, you think, “That’s why I was doing that”?
Oh, yeah. When it’s four in the morning, you’ve spent six hours in the makeup chair, it’s a 20 hour day, you’re exhausted, your face is burning, your body is tired, you’re on an 1,100 calorie diet, and we’re doing this one tiny shot fifty times, I’d be going, “Timur, why don’t you have it?” Then he’ll bring me back to the monitor, show me playback, and I’ll say, “Oh my God, let’s do another 50 until you get it right. That’s outstanding. I will quit whining.”
[Laughs] Dramatically, Seth didn’t shy away from showing the harsher parts of Lincoln’s life. How important was it for you, and for Timur and Seth, to maintain that?
I would say a lot. We did a lot of research. There were a lot of good books we read, but one, in particular, called Lincoln’s Melancholy. It’s about how he dealt with death and misery. The poor man had so much misery inflected on him and his upbringing was so hard, and how he dealt with it made him extraordinary. What he did in the face of adversity is really, truly remarkable.
Timur calls him a superhero in the movie. For you, where’s the vulnerability?
Well, as a common man who did extraordinary things, he started with nothing and built himself up to the leader of the free world, and during a very tumultuous time, and that was the way I felt the audience could relate to him. It’s also what fascinates me about him: he’s someone that made himself. He wasn’t born with superpowers, but he was a common man who did extraordinary things
Doing all that research, and being in an hour and fifty minute action movie, there’s probably some details or parts of his life we won’t see. For you, was there anything not in the film you read about that still informed your performance?
Well, a few things. For example, we take some liberties for what we know about how he sounded. Because I am playing him from 19 to his death it’s important to show his age and how the war weathered him, and we take some liberties there. Other than that, we’re telling Abe Lincoln who just happens to have vampires in it.
And having Anthony Mackie as his sidekick. Having Mackie as your sidekick must be flattering…
Yeah, not bad! Anthony’s got your back, whether in a movie or at a bar in New Orleans. Either way, you’re going to be fine. You know, he and I went to school together.
The Julliard School.
[Laughs] I’ve heard that’s a good school.
Yeah, I’ve heard the same thing, but it remains to be seen.
[Laughs] Did you enjoy your experience there?
Very much so. I started right after high school, when I didn’t really know anything, so it was easy to just sponge up and enjoy what they have to offer.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is now in theaters.