Yahoo! TV Q&A: The stars of NatGeo's "Killing Lincoln" find the real people in Lincoln and Booth

Sarah D. Bunting
Yahoo! TV
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"Killing Lincoln" -- Billy Campbell

The scene where Abraham Lincoln is shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in the television film "Killing Lincoln" based on the best-selling book by Bill O'Reilly.??

"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.

[Related: Get a sneak peek at "Killing Lincoln"]

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?

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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.

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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.

Y!TV: We were wondering about your research for this role. Did you learn a lot about John Wilkes Booth that you didn't know before?

Jesse Johnson: I learned a ton. In the short amount of time I had to prepare, I sort of consumed as much information as I possibly could. There are two books that I really focused on; one was "American Brutus," by Michael Kauffman, and the other was "Lust for Fame" by Gordon Samples.

I really found that as far as understanding the chronology of events, in regard to his life but more importantly with regard to the crime, "American Brutus" was really a terrific book. For me, as an actor playing an actor, the book "Lust for Fame," which was just about his stage career, was the most insightful window into John Wilkes Booth as the man.

Our impression is that Booth was a mostly functional person for most of his life, and then slowly developed this grandiose compulsion about "the tyrant Lincoln" – what was it like to play that? How did you balance this obvious mental disorder with the fact that this was also an accomplished member of theater royalty in America at the time?

I just didn't acknowledge the mental disorder because crazy people don't think they're crazy. And also I don't think – I actually don't really believe that he was crazy. Obsessive, sure. I actually think that actors tend to be obsessive people, and so that's a given. A lot of the things I could draw from personal experience – not "experience," but personal relation, I guess I could say, of putting myself in the situation as an actor and what my interpretation of reality would be, were I in the situation.

The other side of it comes from his entire life, being raised in a dramatic context; taught English with Shakespeare and classic texts; and knowing fourteen different plays at a time, multiple roles, by heart, throughout his entire life – I think that John Wilkes Booth saw his life as "the world is a stage," in a way, and I think increasingly so as this obsession with Abraham Lincoln as a tyrant and the South being so oppressed, and subversively manipulated into submission by the North just because of their greater resources.

[Related: You'd never know Jesse Johnson is Don Johnson's son based on this Booth pic]

That the president was up there, and what he was doing to win the war, I think that's that fuel that John Wilkes Booth's desire to create this theatrical event that wasn't even about taking action, and taking matters into his own hands.

Making not only this actual event happen but making the narrative around it happen, to an extent?

I think when you can leverage your fame and your power and your wealth to secretly bolster the efforts of the South, that's fun. I can see how that would be exciting, and how you'd sort of be concocting your own little play, your own little story.

And I think it's important to note that he really believed what he was doing; he really thought that states' rights were first and foremost, the most important part of the United States of America, or the Confederate States of America, as he wanted it to be – and that also, as an actor, in nineteenth-century theater, before film and television, in general, when the curtain goes down and the lights go out, that's it. There's nothing to remember you by – just the image of you and your performance, and the impact you had on that audience member that night, and maybe some reviews in the newspapers.

And I think that, concomitantly with his passion for the South and his allegiance, he had this insatiable lust for fame, to quote the book, and wanted to be etched in the pages of history forever, so I think it was a convenient action for him to take.

We'd like to ask you about a particular scene – the scene in which Booth finally gets his hands on a newspaper.


And he's reading about the attack on the Secretary of State, and you have Booth look almost annoyed or disappointed, that this is how that narrative played out. Can you talk about what you were thinking in that scene?

Well, honestly, everything he's reading in the newspapers is the exact opposite of what he expected the [result] to be. He thought he was going to be hailed as a hero, if he escaped to the South, and that there wouldn't be such derision. He was shocked to find that he was, overnight, turned into this two-bit hack actor, madman, he was always crazy, this drunk lush…

Now, what the narration is saying over that is only one component of what I was playing in that, which is disappointment and annoyance at the fact that these m-----f------ can't do even one thing – again, I'm trying not just to kill the president, but decapitate the entire executive branch of the government. George Atzerodt just gets wasted and doesn't even show up to kill Andrew Johnson, and Lewis Powell, you know, flying off the handle like the halfwit that he is, can't actually manage to kill Secretary of State Seward.

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I'm alone on a bed of dirt, running and hiding from everybody, having been the only person that actually did what they were supposed to do. And it was heartbreaking, because it was meshed with the fact that no one was respecting what I did.

"You had one job to do!"

Yeah – you had one thing to do, and I've got Davey Herold meeting me here, who was supposed to accompany you out, and he blew it, and you blew it, and this guy blew it, and my whole conspiracy, my whole show – everything is going off the rails, nobody's remembering their lines, nobody is hitting their marks, nobody's remembering their entrances and exits, everybody's f---ing up my show, and I think that's the point where things start  to go really downhill, when he realizes that he's actually painted himself into a tragedy.

And of all the people not to really understand that this is what happens with live theater. It's really a bit sad.


That leads us to his death scene. When you're playing his "Useless, useless" line, for instance – what did you take that to mean?

I think that embedded in the history is John Wilkes Booth's tattoo of his initials on his hands, and the notion of grand gestures, and the fact that the hands are such a unique instrument for the actors. It's probably the second most important tool besides our eyes, and our mouth, for expressing ourselves.

And I think he wanted to do a lot more with these hands, too. I think a lot of the reason that he took such a great interest in assisting the Confederacy, when he saw how bloody this war was, there was a bit of guilt that he was traveling around in first-class stagecoaches around the country, performing plays, and there was a real sense of wanting involvement, and not wanting to be seen as a coward for not being involved. I think he wanted to get his hands dirty – and then when he finally does, he fails. He succeeds, and then he fails. And he realizes that these things, these tools of mine that have served me for so long, have served me with grace – they are useless.

When you took the role, were you trepidatious at all about playing such a notorious villain? Or were you looking for opportunities to flesh him out a little – remind people that he was a real person?

Exactly, the latter. I think that was the real excitement about the role, for me. I would never shy away from playing a villain, especially this far removed from the incident. Playing the villain is so much fun as an actor, because there are so many options available to you, and you can go to places that you wouldn't otherwise go to.

It was a great opportunity to show a human side of this man, even if it is larger than life – that's how he was, and so it's grounded, everything is justified. It's a different type of human being, and that's a cool thing to show everybody. It's like, "Whoa, what a curious character this guy was," you know?

Bill Reilly talks to "The View" about the book version of "Killing Lincoln":

"Killing Lincoln" airs Sunday February 17 at 8 PM on NatGeo.