Continuing our set-visit coverage of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (read Part 1 here), today we’re going to focus on two of the film’s stars- Benjamin Walker, a virtual unknown who plays Abraham Lincoln, and Dominic Cooper (THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE) who plays Lincoln’s vampire mentor, Henry Sturgess.
Casting an unknown in a leading role is always a tricky proposition. Sometimes it pays off handsomely- with a recent example being Chris Hemsworth in THOR, but other times, it backfires- with Taylor Kitsch of JOHN CARTER & BATTLESHIP, getting an indifferent reception from global audiences.
However, as director Timur Beckmambetov explained yesterday, a star as Lincoln could have been distracting, and by casting Walker, we have an actor that doesn’t bring any baggage with him and can totally disappear into the part.
Those of us who attended the set visit were lucky enough to meet Walker- who audiences may know from his role as the young Alfred Kinsey in KINSEY (coincidently- he plays a younger version of Liam Neeson, who for years was attached to Spielberg’s LINCOLN biopic). He was also slated to play Beast in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, but instead took the lead in the Broadway show BLOODY, BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON- which turned out to be a smart move, as it was his acclaimed performance here than won him the part over other rumored contenders like Josh Lucas or Oliver Jackson-Cohen.
Seeing Walker walk into the LINCOLN offices, it was hard not to be struck by his resemblance to Henry Fonda, who memorably played the part in John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN. I mentioned this to Walker…
Walker: I take that as a high complement. Yeah, we watched that. I also read a number of books. I read “Team of Rivals” (note-the basis of Spielberg’s LINCOLN). There’s a great book about the melancholy of Lincoln that lends itself nicely to the story we’re telling about his love affairs before Mary Todd (played here by Mary-Elizabeth Winstead)- his suicidal tendencies, his journaling, and his depression. He took mercury pills for years. I mean, imagine what that does to your psyche. It’s truly astounding. That’s been a lot of fun in doing this movie, in that it’s a thriller, but it’s a period thriller. We’re really taking it seriously, and are really committing to the time period and the events that took place in Lincoln’s life.
Perhaps Walker noticed me staring as his nose, and he chuckled, giving it a light tug- in order to show us that it was rubber, along with the earlobes. Looking at photos of Walker outside his role as Lincoln, it’s amazing to see what a difference a nose can make.
An extremely likable, friendly guy- Walker seemed excited, but also realistic about the pitfalls of having his first major role by the lead in a big-budget film.
Walker: Good lord. I would love to have another job before this is over! (laughs) I think as actors we learn pretty early on that it comes and goes. I’m trying to learn as much from Timur (producer) Jim (Lemley), 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 that we’ve done. It certainly comes and goes. I don’t think there is ever a moment where you can say, “I’ve done a big movie and now I can continue to do big movies! Health insurance is an assured thing!” No (laughs), it’ll be Tylenol and bourbon before long!
Watching Walker in action on the set, doing his own hand-to-hand fighting opposite a vampiric Marton Csokas, it’s pretty obvious that Walker is the real deal and WON’T be going back to waiting tables anytime soon. In fact, as I write this, I see that Walker has just signed on to one of the leads in Ed Zwick’s epic THE GREAT WALL, not to mention what’s sure to be a juicy role in the HBO telefilm MUHAMMAD ALI’S GREATEST FIGHT opposite Christopher Plummer and Frank Langella.
Regarding his numerous action scenes, Walker excitedly described Lincoln’s approach to dispatching his enemies.
Walker: Well- there are certain points where he gets better at it. The things that he learns from Henry Sturgess (Cooper), who has been a vampire for hundreds of years and he has really honed the craft of what it means to be an assassin. Throughout the years he has picked different aspects from martial arts, capoeira, or weaponry. They all kind of come together in Abraham as this kind of uber fighter. He can express himself in some way almost like a painter through his axe wielding. So there will be levels of heinous gruesome violence and some moments of sheer beauty in the same way that we saw in movies like KILL BILL where it’s an absolute slaughter but there is a certain ballet in it.
As for this vampire mentor, we were able to meet him in the guise of Dominic Cooper- who was nice enough to come in on his day off to shoot the breeze with us visiting journos. Riding his on his acclaimed performance in THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE, Cooper welcomed the change of pace, and recalled how he felt upon reading the book after being offered the part.
Cooper: I didn’t read it immediately because it sounded like a bit of a joke. I mentioned to someone else that had read the book and they said it was brilliant…then I started reading it. We never knew about him as a man. In my studies in England, I loved finding out about him, what an incredible man he was and what he achieved in his life. Then I read the book and script at the same time. The book is so rich with ideas and concepts and I was wondering which one they were going to pick for the movie, how they were going to condense it into a film. I thought the original screenplay picked all the really interesting dynamics of the characters and I immediately wanted to be a part of it. Because it didn’t take itself too seriously, it wasn’t a serious biographical piece, but at the same time you learned a lot from it. And I also thought that Timur has an incredible vision and I love the way he shoots action sequences. He shoots action like no one else. So I get that plus Tim Burton’s crazy imagination.
Copper admitted to having watched a lot of vampire movies preparing for the part- dating from the 1931 DRACULA to THE LOST BOYS, which he loves- and adopts what he calls an “eighties pop star hairstyle” for the part. On vampires:
Cooper: There’s something extremely sexy about vampires. The idea that you can live forever…we all secretly have that desire. We are completely compelled and fascinated by vampires. They are all tragic figures and they don’t necessarily want to be in the position they’re in. And there’s a million ways to play them.
Outside Walker and Cooper, the cast is full of other rising stars, including Winstead, who’s coming off SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, plus an incredible recent turn in the Sundance hit SMASHED. Anthony Mackie, of THE HURT LOCKER and the upcoming GANGSTER SQUAD also has a major part as Lincoln’s valet/ fellow vampire killer- Will.
All in all- ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER may be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s no joke and promises to be a major action/horror thrill-ride that should please audiences hungry for some summer fun. And it’s R. Can’t go wrong with that…