Benjamin Walker Talks Abraham Lincoln And Hitting Himself In The Face With An Axe
If you were living in New York City in 2010, it was pretty much impossible to miss Benjamin Walker. The former unknown actor was suddenly rocketed to local stardom thanks to his lead turn in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a rock-tinged musical take on the life and legacy of the seventh President that premiered at the Public Theater before moving to Broadway. Walker's electrifying performance and good looks were the production's biggest asset, and they knew it-- the poster featured Walker's butt with an American flag bandana in the back pocket, and the tagline "History just got all sexypants."
And yet, few people outside of the relatively insular world of New York theater knew Walker's name, which made him pretty much an unknown until Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter opened last weekend. Yes, Walker was once again playing an American President with a twist, this time portraying the Great Emancipator as a man who fought off Confederate vampire hordes. The role also required him to shoot an entire fight scene on CGI horseback, learn to swing an axe at people without killing them, and at one point visit the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, as part of a good old fashioned publicity stunt.
I spoke to Walker last week about his transition from theater to film, and how the experience of seeing his ass on a poster all over Manhattan may have actually prepared him for movie stardom. Take a look at our conversation below.
So, in this movie you use horses as weapons.
That's pretty rough, I know. No horses were harmed in the making of this movie!
What are you actually doing in that scene, physically?
Well, it depends. We shot it in about 4 or 5 different setups. There's one version where it's literally Marton and I chasing each other in a field, and they had this camera truck-- it felt so stupid. But they can also add horses to that. And then there was a section where you ran along a group of horses. The closer we got we put my stunt guy in, because if I get trampled, that's bad. And then we moved to the soundstage, where we have literal green CGI horses, that move just like horses, but they're stationary. You work on those, you jump off those with wires if you need to, the fight is on one of those horses, moving like a real horse. Then you combine all those things. you have these brilliant people who are artists, and they render you and create this whole world.
How do you get in the frame of mind for Abraham Lincoln for that scene?
That's what's great about Timur, is Timur doesn't like to make a movie that's story, stop. Action, stop. Even the fighting is indicative of who these people are, and it's moving the story forward. You're illuminating something new about all of these different people and creatures as the fighting continues. You really can't divorce them.
Did your experience in stage combat, like learning it at Jullliard, help you for this?
Yeah, particularly because this is shot for 3D. You cannot fudge the distance. Timur was constantly shouting "Go closer, go closer!" and I'm like, "I'm going to hit him!" and he's like "Hit him!"
Did you hit anybody?
Oh, I hit a lot of guys.
Well that axe, you're swinging it a lot.
I clobbered a few guys.
Did you get clobbered yourself?
I hit myself in the face a few times.
Were you always set on acting in theater, or were you more open to theater and film.
Because I'd never known anyone who had actually done it, and I had no idea if I was going to be able to make a life out of it, I kind of thought it was a fad, to be honest with you.
Did you start acting high school?
Interlochen [an arts program for high schoolers in Michigan] was the first time that I got a taste of what it could really be like. With Juilliard, I thought "If I can hack it here, I must really like it." Luckily I got to go to school there, I got some financial aid, and I didn't get kicked out.
At what point did your family become convinced you weren't going to starve to death?
Well, I'm always looking for a fallback. Even before this I was doing construction to get by. You never can take for granted that you have a job. You have to also be humble and willing enough to know that, when you don't, you still have to eat, so you have to do something else.
In theater, one job leads to another and the community builds on each other. But Hollywood is so very different. When you auditioned for this role, is it like a wake-up call that you're in a new world?
You have to realize that ultimately it's not personal. If you're doing the best that you can do, you have to be able to let go of it. Sometimes they just want somebody who's shorter, or somebody who's on TV, or has blue eyes, or speaks with a lisp. It's not them attacking you by saying that. You have to live without regret, and do your best very single time. And you have to figure out what you're going to do when you're not working. I do standup and that's something that keeps my creative juices flowing, so I'm not just waiting for the phone all the time.
Did the hype that surrounded Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson prepare you for the hype surrounding this? Do they feel similar at all?
I don't know, that stuff's so surreal, I really don't even bother. It's part of the job-- you'll start getting self-conscious and crazy if you give it too much attention.
Could you block that out even from the very beginning of Bloody Bloody?
Ultimately, the fact that your ass is on a poster-- that doesn't help me pay my rent, so I don't bother with it. If it helps the play, great. Ultimately, it doesn't help me with my health insurance.
And when you do something like this movie and it's not just a poster, but there's junkets and traveling and you go to an aircraft carrier in Bahrain-- do you just go with it?
Well, you pick and choose, and you have to enjoy it. But yeah, we went to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. But that's where I get selfish about it. I'm going to meet as many sailors as I can, and hear about their life stories and what they do and what their jobs are and learn about the countries we're in. That's just another great thing about being an actor. On this job I got to learn how to fight with an ax and brush up on my Abraham Lincoln history. Every job is an opportunity to be a better person. If you focus on that, you don't have time to worry about the stupid poster.
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