Ben Walker Wields a Big Axe in ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,’ but Who is He?

At a lanky 6’3″, Benjamin Walker was a perfect fit in his 2004 big-screen debut as the 19-year-old version of Kinsey, played in his adult years by Liam Neeson. Coincidentally (or maybe not so much), Walker is about to be seen in his first major starring role portraying a legendary historical figure Neeson was long attached to play for Steven Spielberg. Only this version of Abraham Lincoln’s story is quite different from the one Spielberg will finally bring to theaters this December.

For the uninitiated, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter re-imagines the 16th President of the United States as an axe-wielding slayer of the undead as screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith adapts his own bestselling mashup novel for the big screen. While the film is very much an action-packed and re-imagined origin story of a man Grahame-Smith calls the “first and only true American superhero,” both the novel and film were meticulously researched and remain very true to history.

So, as I learned while visiting with the cast and crew on the film’s New Orleans set back in May and at a recent press event, the trick for the casting of Lincoln was to find someone who could disappear into the role. As explained by the film’s director, Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), “It’s not about a famous person playing Lincoln. It’s just Lincoln.”

Grahame-Smith echoes the director’s sentiments saying, “I think there’s a version of this movie where you could go out and get, like, Tom Cruise to play Abraham Lincoln. Bad example, but you know, you could get a major movie star and put him in big platform shoes and everything, but that person would bring the baggage of who they are to this role.”

Producer Jim Lemley took it a step further adding, “With the studio, when we began this journey, part of our pitch was that we were going to cast whoever was right for the role. We’re not going to hang it on some name because the idea for us was that it was very important for you to believe this happened,” he said. “So then you’re casting about what you’re trying to find. Obviously it’s an ambitious role, it’s a difficult role. It’s somebody who has to play [Lincoln from ages] 20-55, and they have to play it convincingly. They have to span all these times, not just the physical appearance, but how you manifest the body and move.”

When the producers of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter started meeting with actors for the lead role, Walker was portraying another American President in the Broadway rock opera Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The film’s producers (Lemley, Bekmambetov and Tim Burton) caught wind of the play and flew to New York to watch him perform.

No pressure, right?

“They’d already kind of offered it to somebody else – a big-name movie star,” Walker said without naming anyone specific, but Josh Lucas, Timothy Olyphant, Eric Bana and Adrien Brody were among the other actors testing for the role.

As for pressure, Walker didn’t really feel any, never assuming he had much of a chance in the first place. “I guess I hadn’t ever fully imagined they’d give me a shot,” he said. “So no, I just kind of thought, ‘Well, I hope they enjoy the show.’”

“He just owned it,” Lemley explained, and then it became all about the transition from Broadway actor to a soon-to-be-President-and-dispatcher-of-the-undead. The process began, at first, without make-up, leading up to the introduction of make-up artist Greg Cannom, Oscar-winner for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, who turned Walker into Abraham Lincoln. “And then he delivered the Gettysburg Address to us,” Lemley said, “and it just gave us chills.”

Aside from his physical characteristics, Walker’s commanding presence is clear from the moment he enters the room. His articulation, natural storytelling ability and quick wit are an obvious product of his background on the stage and in stand-up comedy. For someone doing his first major round of press, he’s incredibly comfortable sitting in a room filled with reporters and about a dozen recorders pointing at his face.

Walker sat in for his on-set interview already dressed in full Lincoln garb, apart from the iconic top hat. The day’s shooting calls for him to represent an Abe in his early 20s. He’s already wearing a prosthetic nose and earlobes, though even from just a few feet away you’d never notice the make-up unless you were already familiar with Walker’s usual appearance. He’ll have to wear as many as 15 pieces of prosthetics when it comes time to portray the older version of Lincoln.

“We’ve built a progression of Lincoln from boyhood through his later life based off his death masks and actual masks and casts of the actual man. So that’s worth the price of admission right there – to watch Lincoln grow old in front of your eyes in a film context,” Walker explained.

For all of the great things I heard about Walker, perhaps this quote from Lemley is the most telling: “It’s a little bit like when I remember hearing Quentin Tarantino talk about casting Inglourious Basterds and if he hadn’t found Christoph Waltz it would have been hard to make. Same for us. If we couldn’t have found Ben Walker, it would have been very hard to make the movie.”

Walker was next set to star in Alex Proyas’ big-budget rendition of Paradise Lost alongside Bradley Cooper, a project that has since been abandoned by Legendary Pictures. But if that Christoph Waltz comparison holds true, I’m sure we’ll see much more of Walker in the future. Through it all, the actor remains humble. “This is something very new for me. So I had no idea what was going to be. I still don’t. But I knew, working with this team, that I could get better at what I do.”

His Vampire Hunter co-stars, especially Dominic Cooper and Anthony Mackie, also helped ease the transition. “[Dominic Cooper’s character is] my mentor in the movie and I don’t have as much experience as he does in film, and he was very much my mentor through the process,” Walker said. As for Mackie, he added, “Anthony and I actually went to college together so we had a rapport and a vocabulary that worked nicely.”

And though he recently married actress Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s oldest daughter), Walker didn’t shy away when talking about his on-screen love interest. “Mary Winstead truly is an attractive girl. She does her (Mary Todd Lincoln) some justice.”

But it’s clear, even though he’s now a family member alongside Hollywood royalty and the star of a major summer tentpole movie from 20th Century Fox, he’s taking nothing for granted. “I’m trying to learn as much from Timur, Jim and this group of people as I can so that if I have to go back to waiting tables when this is over I can feel satisfied, fulfilled and proud of the work we have done.”

Keep an eye out for more Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter coverage as we approach its June 22 release date.


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