Benjamin Walker was halfway through the production of his first feature as a leading man, but standing on the Louisiana set of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” last year, the star of the monster mash-up movie wasn’t ready to make any assumptions about his career’s future prospects.
“Who knows?” the Georgia native said between takes of the Timur Bekmambetov-directed action thriller. “I’ll probably go back to waiting tables and begging the government for health insurance here shortly, but for now I’m in high cotton.”
Walker’s pragmatism surely will serve him well, though it’s unlikely he’ll be waiting tables anytime soon. Critics haven’t been especially kind to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” — reviews for the unusual slice of R-rated revisionist history have been largely tepid at best — and the film grossed only an estimated $16.5 million in its opening weekend. Yet the 30-year-old still appears poised for Hollywood success. His next two projects, “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” and “The Great Wall,” will team him with directors Stephen Frears and Ed Zwick, respectively, and he can always turn to mother-in-law Meryl Streep (he married her daughter Mamie Gummer last year) for advice about navigating the business.
For now, moviegoers can catch Walker doing battle with the undead in writer Seth Grahame-Smith’s adaptation of his own bestselling novel, a film that posits that Lincoln desired above all else to avenge the death of his beloved mother and to rid the United States of a secret vampire menace. It’s a premise that certainly stretches credulity, but it’s never played for laughs. Audiences expecting to see a campy Abe will be disappointed — this Lincoln is a lean, mean, ax-wielding machine (who also happens to be a gifted orator and a morally upright statesman).
“The joking gets done in the title. Then we commit to telling the story,” said Walker, whose acting resume also includes the offbeat Broadway rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
A Julliard graduate, Walker plays Lincoln as a young man who must acquire his slaying skills with the help of an unlikely partner — Dominic Cooper is Henry Sturges, who trains Abe to become a lethal weapon — up through the end of his life. It’s a rare film that gives an actor the chance to spill copious amounts of vampire blood and deliver the Gettysburg address.
“I like to imagine I [was] just as nervous as Lincoln would have been at the moment,” Walker said when asked how it felt to shoot the scene in which he gives the famous speech — on a 90-degree day while wearing a period-authentic wool suit and hat and layers of prosthetic makeup. “It was such a tumultuous time in America…. I am completely in over my head in the context of this movie and working with people I respect and depicting a man I hugely respect. I’m perplexed, frightened and honored all at the same time, and invigorated.”
“It is funny,” he continued. “The Andrew Jackson project was so much about walking that tonal line between skewering a time in America and current America and depicting a controversial American figure. This is also walking a line of tone: How do you tell an exciting story and also honor the people who came before you and built the country that we can enjoy today? It’s been helpful because those same muscles are alive in both those projects.”
Despite having played two strange interpretations of American presidents, Walker won’t go so far as to call himself a history buff. He did say that he had a great U.S. history teacher in high school and that he is fairly well-studied on the seventh and 16th presidents. For this film, he read various biographies about Lincoln, but preparing for the role wasn’t a solely cerebral exercise: he lost 30 pounds while training for the part.
“They won’t let me eat,” Walker said one humid May evening on the set, which by car was about an hour away from New Orleans. “It’s not pleasant to be in one of the greatest culinary cities in America and not be able to eat anything because Lincoln was such a gaunt man.”
Using the ax as a weapon came fairly naturally, Walker said. “The stunt guys are really good teachers,” he said. “The question of ‘How would I do this?’ is quickly eliminated when you have someone dressed as a realistic vampire running at you. You quickly figure out what to do with it. That’s what’s great about the fighting in the movie. It’s less about the choreography of seeing something amazing happening with an ax — rather, how am I going to live through this? Then it becomes this violent ballet.”
Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) is famous for creating action that resembles nothing if not violent ballet, and Walker had only kind words for the Moscow-based filmmaker: “He’s fantastic. He’s a professional with the imagination of a 6-year-old boy. His ability to envision what the story could be is so specific and so open to his own imagination. He has no censor between what he imagines happening and what we should shoot. That kind of spontaneity is truly exciting for an actor. It’s a dream come true. I’m learning a lot from him.”
The director also knows vampires, having made two Russian-language films featuring the creatures: “Night Watch” and its follow-up “Day Watch.”
Unlike recent iterations of the fanged undead in popular culture, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” takes the uncommon approach of casting the fiends as reprehensible villains rather than sculpted heartthrobs.
Walker said that vampires’ pervasive presence on movies and TV actually helped his production — audiences don’t require an explanation of what the monsters are and how they can operate within the confines of a story.
“What’s great about the fact that vampires have become a part of what people are interested in is that we have a vocabulary for it,” Walker said. “We all know what they are and who they are and how they function; we can truly then believe in a world where they do exist. It’s less fantastical and more about how they function in society and how they would have functioned in the society that we’re representing at that time.”
(Interestingly, it’s the straight-faced approach to the adaptation that seemed to deflate many reviewers. Manohla Dargis from the New York Times said that the concept “sounds funny, and for a while it plays like head-exploding gangbusters on screen,” but that eventually “the story’s fealty to its pulpy version of history (Mary Todd, etc.) drags it down.”)
It’s one of those vampires, the evil Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), that Walker’s Abe was called away to fight as Walker stalked off toward the setting sun, silver-tipped prop ax in hand. Wearing just a hint of a smirk, he seemed pleased to inhabit a bad-ass incarnation of one of history’s most venerated figures.
“It’s easy to depict him as being cool when you know what you know about him,” Walker said of his screen alter-ego. “Then you give him an ax to throw? He’s cool.”
— Gina McIntyre
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