Recently, Billy Campbell had the opportunity to play the lead in a film that was based on the most resonant crime in the American history. In fact, it was one that changed American history forever. As Abraham Lincoln, it was a role that would also change Billy Campbell’s (acting) life forever. Let’s now find out what playing the 16th President of the United States in “Killing Lincoln” experience was like for Billy Campbell:
As an actor who has explored the full gamut of role-playing, what piqued your interest for “Killing Lincoln’?
“I grew up in the state of Virginia where more than half of all U.S. Civil War battles (about 3 out of 5) were fought, and so I was obsessed with it. I even became a CW re-enactor after my mother took me to a re-enactment on my 16th birthday. Any interest in the war is nearly synonymous with an interest in Abe Lincoln, so of course I leapt at the opportunity to play him. Also, it didn’t hurt that we were to shoot in Richmond, Virginia, 60 miles from my childhood home of Charlottesville.”
Could you please talk a little bit about the process of getting ready for the character? How did you get in that soul? And when the camera stops, can you go back to Billy right away?
“I’m not such a complicated actor that I can’t let go of a character at the end of the shooting day. I might be a better actor if I were! The process for me was necessarily simple, as I had very little time to prepare: I sat in the chair and let Ashley Fetterman, a brilliant make-up artist from Richmond, do her thing, then let looking like Lincoln inform how I felt. Otherwise, I dived into Erik Jendresen’s beautiful script, and had Erik himself (as obsessed with Lincoln since childhood as I’d been with the CW) as a living, breathing Old Abe Encyclopedia. On top of this, there was Adrian Moat, our director, whose energy was boundless and inspirational. Indeed, I’ve never been on a movie with more people (on both sides of the camera and right up to the top of the network) as passionate about the subject. It seemed everyone on Killing Lincoln was obsessed with the history, utterly and tirelessly dedicated to getting it right, and all of this contributed greatly to my confidence in playing Lincoln.”
In playing such an iconic historical figure, do you find there was more pressure?
“No. The trick to playing any part –real or fictional– is to find the human, to find and convey that to which the audience can relate. In this case, his warmth, compassion, good humor.”
What challenges and joys did you encounter while filming Killing Lincoln?
“Aside from the above-mentioned? Working in 4 layers of black wool, and a black top hat, in a Virginia summer heat wave (100+ Fahrenheit that day, about 37 Celsius), and on the banks of the Appomattox river, so about as humid as is possible. It was Liquid Lincoln all day, no matter how much ice-water I drank. Ashley and her gang were practicing triage that day, and I was the main casualty.”
How was it working with Ridley and the late Tony Scott?
“I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting them, but I’ve only heard great things about them, and I know they were extremely pleased with the project.”
How do you think Killing Lincoln will translate to countries outside the US who are not familiar with Abraham Lincoln?
“The U.S. Civil War has a weirdly international appeal. Many Europeans come over to participate in our re-enactments and, as I understand it, there have been more books published about Abraham Lincoln than almost anyone in world history (Shakespeare of course tops the list. Dante, Goethe, Cervantes then Lincoln, according to T. Besterman’s ‘…Bibliography of Bibliographies’), so I imagine there aren’t too many countries (with any interest in western culture) with no interest in Lincoln.”
How will you apply what you have learned from “Killing Lincoln” to other projects in the future?
“I think the thing I learned on KL, above all else, was trust. To trust in others, artistically speaking, but also just to trust myself and that things will turn out alright, maybe even better than if I’d had all the time in the world to over-think it.”
Speaking of the future, what other projects are you working on right now, what’s next for you?
“Just signed onto a pilot called Delirium, in which I play a pernicious political figure from — where else — the grand old state of Virginia! I haven’t yet read the book which was adapted for this series, but I hear it’s quite popular, and I’m excited about the job.”
Despite all of the characters you’ve played, is there any role that you still dream of playing?
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
“I read, write, sail, and play Rugby (not as enthusiastically or as well as I used to). I draw and paint. Before I get too old, I’d like to illustrate a graphic novel, direct a film, sail my boat around the world, and play one more half-decent match of Rugby.”
For more information on “Killing Lincoln”, visit their website.