Benjamin Walker, star of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and stage musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, claims the rare honour of having portrayed two American presidents, though, sadly, his proposed “James Monroe, Gigolo” will likely never come to fruition. In Timur Bekmambetov‘s adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling book, it is revealed that the 16th POTUS spent his spare time secretly slaying the undead. Meanwhile, Barack Obama uses his few free hours to catch up with Boardwalk Empire. Talk about a tough legacy to live up to.
Prior to the film’s release in the United States, I sat down with Walker and screenwriter Grahame-Smith (he also penned Tim Burton‘s Dark Shadows) and discussed the film’s “ridiculous premise,” Grahame-Smith’s long-in-development Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie, and the chances of a bloodsucker popping up in Steven Spielberg‘s own Lincoln biopic.
SM: Is it getting frustrating convincing people that despite the title, despite the premise, this is a serious film?
SGS: It’s not frustrating. I understand it. We understand it. It’s crazy; it’s a ridiculous premise. But what we want people to know is that we don’t treat it in a ridiculous way. We treat it in a deadly serious way and the film is straight-forward and dark and muscular and badass, and it will never wink at you and never laugh at itself. It is visceral and serious.
BW: The best defence of the film is the film. All I can say is, “Go watch it, and then we’ll talk afterwards.”
SM: That’s how all films should be.
BW: Because if we’re defensive, maybe the film doesn’t payoff. I’m proud…
SGS: [Jokingly] Why?! What are you asking?!
BW: No! Not us! Because it’s so successful on that front, we say, “We’ll see when you’ve seen it.”
SM: Seth, did you write the screenplay for this before or after Dark Shadows?
SM: So I’m curious, did you learn anything? What differences did you note when writing for the screen as opposed to a book?
SGS: Well, adapting a book is a lot harder, actually. Especially when it’s your own book, because you have to battle your own ego and your own tendencies to cling to things that, as much as you might like them in book form, they don’t make any sense in cinema. This is a different piece, and people that love the book should go in expecting something different. This is a big, blockbuster action movie and it works fabulously on those levels, but you just don’t have time to do those little bits of diversionary history that you get to do in a book, you know? We really had to hone in on what it was about the story that was so exciting and so central and so crucial, and that was this guy [gestures to Benjamin]; Lincoln’s superhero journey from his humble, tragic beginnings to his extraordinary life as a vampire hunter and as a president.
SM: Ben, can you tell me a little bit about auditioning for the role? What was expected of you when you first met?
BW: Well, it took about eight months actually, because I was doing a musical about another American president, and Timur came to see that and his interest was piqued by that. But he doesn’t know my work, and I don’t know his. So he set up an afternoon where he brought the Gettysburg address and a top hat and we worked for 10 hours; just got to know each other’s processes and got to know each other as individuals. Then there was a make-up test which was very intense. A mould of my head was compared to Lincoln’s head and the fundamentals of what his skull looked like. It was phenomenal. So they built that and we did a screen test. And that’s about it.
SM: You’ve got a very distinct voice, and so does Abe. How did you nail down that vocal timbre?
BW: It’s interesting, because the voice we use in the movie isn’t Lincoln’s actual voice. We had a very difficult task. I had to play Lincoln from 19 to his death. We had to age him over the course of the film, and have the weight of the civil war affect him physically and vocally. There’s some debate over what Lincoln sounded like. Some say it was high and shrill and annoying, but most of those people didn’t like Lincoln…
SGS: That’s true.
BW: … so I don’t give them much credit. But we’re taking some liberties in those terms.
SM: As you said, you’ve already played Andrew Jackson. Now, Abraham Lincoln. That’s probably two more presidents than people expect to play in their lifetime.
BW: [Laughs] Sure.
SM: If you could play a third – surely the question has run through your head – who of all the presidents would you pick?
BW: Oh, that’s a toughie. There are some really interesting guys.
SGS: Don’t say Barack Obama. That would be in poor taste.
BW: No, I probably couldn’t pull it off. Witty Witty Woodrow Wilson would be a good one.
SGS: Yeah, or Funny Funny Millard Fillmore.
BW: James Monroe, Gigolo.
SM: These things write themselves. Wonderful. Seth, can you tell me, what is the progress with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the film? Obviously you’ve got Mike White and Craig Gillespie and these great directors attached to it…
SGS: Yeah, and then unattached at some point. We have a great script by David O. Russell with a rewrite by Marti Noxon who used to run Buffy. To me, it’s picture ready. We need a director and an Elizabeth. I think there’s still a lot of will to make the movie, and I think it will get made, but we’ve had some false starts. What’s funny is that it’s only been in development for three years, which relative to some books is a very short amount of time, but because we’ve so publicly been through the different iterations of casting and directors and all that, it’s been a more public development process than we would have wanted. But it’ll get made. It’ll get made. Especially if this does well. On the heels of Snow White and the Huntsman and this doing well, hopefully, I know that there’s an audience for it.
BW: And it takes more time than people actually realise. A lot of people ask me, “What was the audition like?” It was really complicated; it was eight months, a long time. Ten years makes an overnight success.
SM: You only need to look to A Confederacy of Dunces for an example.
SGS: Well, we have a new production with Zach Galifianakis now, so we’ll see if they pull it off.
SM: Finally, I have to ask, how will you feel if Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln comes out and that has vampires in it too?
BW: Ours will be better.
SGS: Ours will be better. We clearly have the superior vampire-centric Lincoln film.
SM: Of the year. We can guarantee that at the very least.
SGS: I will say that Ben Walker would…actually, I’m not going to say that.
SGS: They’re obviously very different films. I will be first in line to see Spielberg’s Lincoln film; I can’t wait to see that film. But that’s not what we’re doing; we’re not making a biopic. We’re making an action movie that pays tribute to the spirit of the man but tells his life story through the lens of a superhero story.
BW: And Lincoln’s legacy is big enough. This town is big enough for the both of us. And also, Lincoln, something that a lot of people don’t realise, was a very, very funny man. I think he’d get a real kick out of our movie.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter arrives in Australian cinemas August 2, 2012.