"Killing Lincoln," based on Bill O'Reilly's book of the same name, is set to air this Sunday, February 17, at 8 PM on NatGeo. With Billy Campbell of, among myriad other projects, "The Killing," and Jesse Johnson of Spanish-language sitcom "Con El Culo Al Aire" in the roles of Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth respectively, "Killing Lincoln" traces the events of the first presidential assassination in U.S. history. The two-hour film is narrated by Tom Hanks.
Y!TV spoke to Campbell and Johnson earlier this week about the challenges of stepping into iconic roles; how they approached famous scenes; and what they learned about these adversaries while shooting the film.
Y!TV: Running down your IMDb page, we saw that you've played Ted Bundy and Moses as well.
Yes, yes, that's right.
What is the next iconic role, would you say – Picasso? Elvis?
(laughs) I have no idea. No idea, what's next. …Actually I do have an idea what's next! I just signed onto this pilot for a TV series, from a book called "Delirium."
And is that role fictional?
Yeah, it's fictional; I'm not playing another real person.
Portraying a well-known figure: as an actor, is that more or less difficult than a new, fictional role?
I don't know! I guess there are things about both that are difficult, and things that are easier. I couldn't say which is more difficult.
Especially a role like Abraham Lincoln, there are any number of clichés that you could fall back on. How do you come to a role of a real person fresh?
I would say that the real trick of playing any character – someone who existed in real life, or not – is to find the human being, find the real person in there. And that's sort of what we concentrated on for "Killing Lincoln" – finding the real person in there, in the Lincoln character, and conveying the warmth. He was a warm-blooded human being; he wasn't always the icon that we seem to think of.
This is probably one of the five most covered and explored events in American history. What did this project let you do differently from, say, a History Channel documentary about the assassination, or differently from the book?
It's kind of a different animal in terms of documentaries. They're calling it a docudrama, I have jokingly referred to it as a docu-thriller, because it is thrilling.
But it is also as historically accurate as is possible to be. Not a line of dialogue in the whole thing is not accounted for historically; they used memoirs, and eyewitness accounts, testimony taken in the aftermath of the assassination – every line of dialogue is historically accounted for, and every character on-screen. Even the extras, even if they don't have speaking parts, they're all playing characters. It's kind of unprecedented.
Now, I think it's a great argument for the notion that you don't have to veer away from the truth to make good drama. You can make utterly compelling drama from exactly what happened.
We were thinking about Lincoln's death scene, how tiny the room was, and how many people were crammed in there, presiding over this terrible tragedy.
Can you talk a little about filming that scene? Did it take a lot of takes? Was it uncomfortably crowded on the set?
You know, when you stuff that many people into a room, in Virginia, in the middle of the summer, it's not entirely comfortable, but my bottom half was under the covers, so, you know, I was wearing next to nothing; I was in my underwear.
Blasphemy! …We're kidding.
(laughs) So, technically speaking it was challenging, to get all the actors and the camera in the room there together, but they were dead set on doing everything exactly as it happened – so they weren't going to cut corners, or do anything differently just for comfort.
How familiar were you with the assassination story, before you started shooting this?
I had a passing sort of knowledge of Lincoln, and of the assassination – I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, about 60 minutes away from Richmond where we shot the thing, and so I grew up, you know, a Civil War buff, and you can't be a Civil War buff without knowing about Lincoln. He's pretty much synonymous with the Civil War, I would think.
So I did have a passing knowledge; I learned a great deal about the assassination, just from doing this project. ["Killing Lincoln" screenwriter] Erik Jendreson is a Lincoln fanatic, and he has been his whole life, and he was meticulous in his research, to the point of making a couple of brand-new connections that have never been made in all the time between then and now.
What else did you learn from doing this project? Was there one thing that you thought to yourself, "Huh, that's really interesting, I didn't know that before, I hope the viewers get as much out of it as I do"?
I think the thing I walk with is what feels to me a deeper sense of…Lincoln as, as I said before, a warm-blooded human being, as an everyday man. We do kind of iconize him, and he was flesh and blood, and he was a deeply…compassionate human being.
He was kinda way ahead of his time. He was raised, he was a child on the frontier, at a time when everybody drank, and everybody smoked, and didn't think much about it. People owned other people, they didn't think much about it. He didn't drink, smoke, or agree with owning other people; he grew up in a house in which his father actively scorned the reading of books, discouraged the reading of books, and he insisted, you know, as a child on being a reader, despite that.
So he was kind of a – he was not only a good politician; he was a really good man, and as I say, very self-aware, very accessible, and good-humored, despite the tragedy of his life. And there was plenty of tragedy in his life, before the tragedy of his assassination – and he was good-humored, until the end of his days.
I'm very happy if we accomplish just that, you know, that people will take away this sense of Lincoln as a warm human being.