Lincoln is a role to die for


Nearly 150 years later, President Abraham Lincoln remains a subject of great interest in literature, films and television. Now Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book, The Killing, which made the New York Times’ best-seller non-fiction list, has been adapted into a docu-drama with Billy Campbell cast as the famous historical figure. Debashine Thangevelo got to chat with Campbell to find out more about this offering, which is narrated by Tom Hanks…

It seemed a natural progression for heavyweight TV actor Billy Campbell to go from playing a politician running for mayor in The Killing to slipping into the skin of President Abraham Lincoln in Killing Lincoln.

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Billy Campbell portrays Abraham Lincoln and Jesse Johnson portrays John Wilkes Booth in the television film Killing Lincoln based on the best-selling book by Bill O'Reilly.¿¿photo credit:  National Geographic ChannelsBilly Campbell portrays Abraham Lincoln in the television film Killing Lincoln based on the best-selling book by Bill O'Reilly.��photo credit:  National Geographic Channels

As the title of the National Geographic Channel offering suggests, it focuses on Lincoln’s assassination by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865, ending the 16th US president’s four years in office. The conspiracies abound and historians are still curious about the event.

Of course, it does seem a fascinating role, especially for an actor of Campbell’s calibre. The 53-year-old shared his reasons for giving the project the nod.

“I grew up in the state of Virginia where more than half of all US Civil War battles (about three out of five) were fought, so I was obsessed with it. I even became a Civil War 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 (100km) from my childhood home of Charlottesville.”

Sharing his view of Lincoln, he said: “He was arguably our greatest president. He was self-taught, well-rounded, a complex and profound human being who did great things for our country. I can’t think of any American historical figure who is as justifiably revered, or who was as tragically fated.”

On the prep work to get into character, Campbell shared: “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. Otherwise, I dived into Erik Jendresen’s beautiful script and had Erik (as obsessed with Lincoln since childhood as I’d been with the Civil War) as a living, breathing Old Abe encyclopaedia. On top of this, there was Adrian Moat, our director, who’s 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 history, utterly and tirelessly dedicated to getting it right, and all of this contributed greatly to my confidence in playing Lincoln.”

Given that Lincoln is an iconic figure in US history, I asked Campbell whether it was intimidating trying to do justice to the character. He responded with a confident “No!”

“The trick to playing any part, real of fictional, is to find the human, to find and convey that to which the audience can relate. In this case, his warmth, compassion, good humour.”

While it is one thing to slip into the skin of the character, it is another to slip into his wardrobe.

Campbell shared: “Working in four layers of black wool and a black top hat in a Virginia summer heatwave (about 37°C), and on the banks of the Appomattox River, it was liquid Lincoln all day, no matter how much ice-water I drank.”

That Campbell is proud of the docu-drama is corroborated in his comment: “Killing Lincoln is not only fascinating and educational, but thrilling! Never fails to put me right on the edge of my seat… and I’ve seen it five times.”

The political undertones pervade his next role as well.

The actor shared: “I just signed to a pilot for 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.”

Campbell may not find the time to read pertinent books, but he is certainly writing his own success. And it looks promising, to say the least!

Killing Lincoln airs on National Geographic Channel (DStv channel 181) on Sunday at 9pm.

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