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Q&A With Actor Billy Campbell

Playing "Abraham Lincoln"

Billy Campbell and Crew Between Takes

Billy Campbell discusses the scene with B Camera Operator Jim Contner (View larger version)

Photograph by National Geographic Channels

Published

“I’ve never been part of a production with as strong a commitment to authenticity as this one. It was extraordinary, and highly comforting, and I was drawn to the part for all those very same reasons”.

— Billy Campbell

Q:  Describe Lincoln in your own words.

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. 

Q:  How did you prepare for or research the role? What were the challenges?

I had virtually no time to prepare, having to be in Richmond five days after hearing about the job. Fortunately I had Erik Jendresen’s [the writer’s] brilliant script to dive into, and an amazing team of people around me, not least of which was Ashley Fetterman, a local makeup artist.

The real challenge was to let go, to put myself entirely in the hands of people who had done amazing amounts of research. Erik actually accomplished a few pieces of brand-new research, which is amazing, considering all the years of Lincoln scholarship between then and now.  

Q:  From The Killing to Killing Lincoln…. How was playing Lincoln similar to or different from other characters you have portrayed on TV and film? What was the draw?

Well, Lincoln is an historical figure, obviously, someone who actually existed, so there’s an obligation to portray things as they were. I’ve never been part of a production with as strong a commitment to authenticity as this one. It was extraordinary, and highly comforting, and I was drawn to the part for all those very same reasons.

Q:  How do you hope your portrayal of Lincoln is distinguished from other films out there?

I can’t speak for anyone else’s portrayal. I haven’t seen any of them, and likely won’t until ours has been released. I do hope we’ve successfully found the human side of Lincoln. He wasn’t always carved in stone. 

Q:  You grew up in Virginia. Describe shooting in the Richmond area, where so much history occurred.

It was thrilling. We filmed in buildings that Lincoln visited, on streets he walked. I stood, dressed as Lincoln, on some of the very same spots Lincoln stood! It was genuinely inspiring. And I got to visit with family and friends. The whole thing was magical. 

Q:  What do you make of the historical tie between Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth?

There’s no way to separate them. They are forever entwined in a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion. You can’t talk about the latter part of Lincoln’s life without talking about Booth, or Booth’s life at all without Lincoln. Who knows what might have come to pass if one hadn’t been so obsessed with the other? How much either might have accomplished? How different our nation might be? But it’s as much Booth’s story as it is Lincoln’s, certainly. 

Q:  What’s next for you?

I’m not sure. I have a few irons in the fire. I’ll take some time off though, after a busy year, go sailing. Do some writing, a lot of reading. I can say this, whatever comes after Killing Lincoln is liable to feel like a letdown, no matter how good it is. 


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