“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.
Q&A WITH ACTOR JESSE JOHNSON “JOHN WILKES BOOTH”
Q: What was it about John Wilkes Booth that drew you to the role?
This character is its own history lesson. While I was in Europe working on another project, I picked up some books on John Wilkes Booth and started doing my research. I was immediately fascinated by the richness and complexity of the character as a man. The prevailing image that has been propagated about Booth is one of a demonic, moustache-twirling villain, and understandably so. But upon further investigation you find that he’s a rich and complex human being.
Q: Any hesitations on playing such a reviled, historic villain?
Quite the contrary, I leapt at the opportunity. Playing villains can often be the most rewarding experience as an actor because you get to examine deep dark places of yourself that might otherwise remain unexplored.
Booth is a particularly rewarding villain to play because there is so little of his personal life and stage career that is known by the general public. Being able to lace all of the action that takes place in the film with his potent history and to ignite the context of the story with his theatrical upbringing and magnanimous demeanour could very well shine a brighter light on a mysterious and misunderstood pivotal figure of history.
Q: What did you learn about Booth’s craft as an actor?
Booth came from a family of actors. In 1800s theatre, everything was huge and elevated. It was all about grand gestures, and his entire world is based around drama. His father was also an actor, and he brought his children up reciting Shakespeare.
Coincidentally, Booth’s father’s notable roles were some of the same ones that would make Booth himself famous: Richard III, Hamlet and King Lear. What defined Booth; however, was that he was spontaneous, unpredictable and oftentimes dangerous on stage. He was all about being in the moment.
In most of the material about him, Booth is written off as a two-bit hack actor. But in a lot of the research I did, he was a matinee idol. He was incredibly charming, magnanimous and had the ability to hold a room in the palm of his hand. The public was in love with him. He had starring engagements all over the country, even up to the few months before the assassination of Lincoln.
Q: Describe what it was like to be an actor playing an actor. Did you feel any similarities?
It comes down to being able to relate to Booth and make everything more personal. Every career is fraught with frustrations; I just happen to know the particulars of acting extremely well, so I approached Booth’s career in the same way I do mine.
Most actors really thrive on recognition and notoriety, and Booth was so fixated on leaving his mark in this world (something far more achievable with film and television these days as opposed to the theatre in those days) that once the curtain drops and the lights go out, all you are is a performer in the audience’s memory and maybe a visage in a newspaper article.
I truly believe he wanted to do something that would ink him in the pages of history forever. And I certainly don’t mean to belittle his political cause, because I maintain that he TRULY BELIEVED in his actions and what he was doing, it just happened to coincide with this insatiable lust for fame.
Q: You come from a well-known cadre of actors in the family. How has that helped or curtailed your career at this point?
It’s only helped, although I don’t really think it helps as much as some people might think it does. Like all businesses and careers, a lot of things boil down to relationships. However, well-established people tend to have relationship levels that are not necessarily beneficial to your cause starting out.
Everyone works their way up from ground zero in this business. Some faster than others, and some reach higher heights than others, but at the end of the day, a relationship might get you in the room, but unless you have the chops to knock their socks off, I don’t think anyone gives a s*** who you’re related to. And I like that.
Q: How was it to film in the Richmond, Virginia, area, where many of these events actually happened?
Being there fuelled my imagination so much. It would have been an incredibly different project if we were shooting it in Vancouver, Toronto or even Los Angeles. You just wouldn’t have the same feeling. As soon as I got to Richmond, I dyed my hair dark and had grown a moustache and stepped out into the streets. It felt as if I actually became Booth.
Q: What do you hope people take away from your portrayal of Booth?
I want people to learn and to be informed about this man that committed this crime. I remember personally being fascinated by this event in history class and specifically remember asking, “So… why’d he do it?” and not being given a satisfactory answer.
People will just have a much more well-rounded understanding about why Booth did such a thing and what his life circumstance provided that motivated this heinous act of murder.
Q&A WITH ERIK JENDRESEN - SCREENWRITER & EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
Q: How does Killing Lincoln add to the story of Lincoln’s assassination?
It’s worth noting that not one of the cinematic portrayals of this event – from D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (nearly 100 years ago) to Redford’s recent “The Conspirator” – has shown Booth entering the presidential box through the correct door! This project was created specifically to portray the assassination with historical accuracy – and by that I mean to dramatize everything that is known to be “fact-positive” about the event and also to embrace the way history “happens” – how the subjective experiences of the players were recorded and passed down through generations. The first step was to research everything that is known to be factual, including details that are rarely given attention in our medium (i.e., who were the specific soldiers who accompanied Lincoln to Richmond; what books were on Secretary of State William Seward’s nightstand; what specific weapons were used by the co-conspirators) and to make certain that these details are present within our camera’s frame without necessarily remarking upon them. One example of embracing how history “happens” is that we see the assassination of Lincoln from four different points of view: an “objective” one; two different versions based on the testimonies of theatregoers Lt. A.M.S. Crawford and William Ferguson; and a fourth based on the testimony of actor Harry Hawk. These testimonies were taken within hours of the assassination, yet the details fail to correspond. I feel quite confident that we have captured the “truth” about the events of April 14, 1865, in as precise a fashion as possible.
Q: What are some of the historical discrepancies you found and how do you deal with it in the film?
One is whether or not Booth broke his leg when he jumped from Lincoln’s box onto the stage of Ford’s Theatre. None of the first-person eyewitness accounts describe Booth running off the stage in an awkward manner or hobbling; Booth did tell John Lloyd that he had broken it when his horse fell, and Booth’s journal entry can be interpreted in two ways. All of this is shown. Elsewhere, there are extraordinarily reliable witnesses and very respected historical figures who testify beyond a shadow of a doubt that during Booth’s autopsy, he did not have a moustache, and then there are witnesses at the time who state unequivocally that he did have his moustache. We show Booth considering shaving but deciding against it. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s precise words following Lincoln’s death are addressed in two different ways, and the reason why no one knows whether he uttered the words “Now he belongs to the ages” or “Now he belongs to the angels” is due to the fact that Cpl. James Tanner’s pencil broke.
Q: How does Killing Lincoln incorporate new research?
The source material spans literally hundreds of documents – from Booth’s own journal entries, to the notes in the margins of his personal copies of the plays that he performed, to Fannie Seward’s diary, to the obscure memoirs of Union soldiers, to the discovery of a song that Booth wrote (in the international cut of the film). The work of a gentleman named Arthur Loux, who has dedicated the past 27 years of his life to researching Booth, played an enormous part in the script. Perhaps the best example is also in the international cut of the film. I asked a question that nobody had ever asked: What were the last words spoken by John Wilkes Booth as an actor, onstage at Ford’s Theatre on March 28, 1865? As it turns out, Booth was starring in a play called “The Apostate.” He was standing directly under the presidential box, holding up a dagger and saying these extraordinary words: This is left me still! Within my grasp I clutch it like a fierce and desp’rate joy! Look here! Look here! Despite of fate … I still shall triumph over thee! And it’s a stunning revelation. Booth’s last words as an actor carried so much weight and foreshadowed so much.
Q: Does Killing Lincoln portray Booth differently than he is traditionally depicted?
For the first time, Booth is portrayed as the passionate and possibly brilliant man he was. He has been reduced by history to a two-dimensional, demonic, psychotic figure. The truth is quite the contrary. He was a highly respected actor doing things onstage that nobody had done before. He was pushing the edge of the envelope artistically and was on his way to becoming the greatest actor of his age. But then he became side-tracked by his misguided belief that everything that the Constitution stood for and everything that he believed in was being threatened by what he saw as an inferior president and a malevolent tyrant.
He misread the situation extraordinarily but he believed in it fervently. The fact is that Lincoln stood almost alone in his own Republican Party in his determination to “let the South up easy” – to create a just and lasting and compassionate peace and to restore the Union by gentle means rather than by further punishing the South. Jefferson Davis himself would say the greatest tragedy to befall the South, next to the fall of the Confederacy, was the death of Abraham Lincoln. Booth, in seeking to avenge the South, actually killed the South’s best friend. It’s Shakespearean in its tragedy.
Q: How does National Geographic Channel help you tell this story?
With the National Geographic brand, the audience trusts that they are in the hands of a reliable storyteller. If the content is enclosed by that golden border, viewers know it must be authentic. So the opportunity to do something with National Geographic Channel was extraordinary – it was a tremendous responsibility and we all took it quite seriously.
Q: Finally, how does Killing Lincoln combine drama and documentary?
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was part of a conspiracy to decapitate the government of the United States in one fell swoop – by killing the president, the vice president and the secretary of state. While the characters of Booth’s co-conspirators play a major role in our film, we don’t fully see their faces until the end – when Alexander Gardner takes their photographs. We see the real faces of these men, rather than those of the fine actors we cast to portray their emotions and physicality.
And we have a storyteller, Tom Hanks, and his job is very specific to facts and figures and dates and times. He’s giving the viewer all the background information needed to appreciate and understand the context of the next moment of the story.
And every time we drop into the action, we’re dropping into a feature film. In some ways it’s a hybrid of docudrama and feature film that hasn’t been done quite like this before. It’s absolutely a new style – a new way of approaching historical content – with 100 percent authenticity, full cinematic feature-film quality and a remarkable cast.
Q&A WITH RIDLEY SCOTT - EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
“This is a fascinating and timeless tale at its core. Men destroy one another for power.
… Booth’s plot to kill Lincoln and plan to destroy the entire federal government
is a fascinating tale of the conspiracy and scheming that exists beside great leaders.”
Q: What about this version (O’Reilly’s book) of the story made you think it would be a good fit for Scott Free? What attracted you to the project?
What’s tremendously compelling about “Killing Lincoln” is that even though it is about a terrible tragedy in this country’s history—losing one of its greatest leaders—it is also a suspenseful thriller that takes audiences on a true ride. What people never knew, and what both the book and the film capture, is the great tale of action and conspiracy surrounding the manhunt for Booth. It is ultimately a fascinating story, and that’s what makes it the perfect fit for us at Scott Free.
Q: How does “Killing Lincoln” advance or expand the story we all think we know?
“Killing Lincoln” is a true historical story that explores John Wilkes Booth’s actions before and after the assassination. We go into a life that has never been seen before from this perspective. And that life provides great insight into one of the biggest conspiracies in this country’s history.
Q: From a producer’s standpoint, what was most fascinating about the assassination of Lincoln? What part of the tale were you eager to see adapted on screen?
This is a fascinating and timeless tale at its core. Men destroy one another for power. Specifically here, Booth’s plot to kill Lincoln and plan to destroy the entire federal government is a fascinating tale of the conspiracy and scheming that exists beside great leaders.
Q: Tell us about the actors.
Billy Campbell delivers an amazing performance as Lincoln, and Tom Hanks is a captivating storyteller that really helps to guide the audience through the entire film. Additionally, Jessie Johnson as John Wilkes Booth captures the man’s theatrical passion and complicated loyalty to the South. They all truly bring this story to life.