Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Coming to a theater near you June 22, our 16th president as you've never seen him - or imagined him in your darkest, wildest dreams.
Photography: Stephen Vaughan/© 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
The first thing you need to know about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is, no, it’s not a comedy. The second thing is, yes, the movie is about that Abraham Lincoln.
“The only joke is in the title,” says Benjamin Walker, the 29-year-old actor cast as the Great Emancipator. “After that, we completely commit to it. And it becomes a drama-thriller about our greatest American hero.”
It’s a dark and stormy story, one that comes to us courtesy of author Seth Grahame-Smith, the same cheeky wordsmith who gave a spooky twist to Jane Austen in his 2009 parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. One year after invading the bestseller charts with that monster mash-up, Grahame-Smith
struck again with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a fanciful mix of historical fact and horrific fiction that imagines the 16th president of the United States had a lifelong secret sideline as a beheader of bloodsuckers.
In Grahame-Smith’s novel —and in the screenplay adaptation that the author wrote for the film’s Russian-Kazakh director, Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) — young Abe Lincoln devotes himself to ridding the world of vampires after learning that his beloved mother was the victim of a toothy villain. Such is his dedication to this task that almost everything else he does throughout his adult life — from debating Stephen A. Douglas to campaigning for the presidency to waging the Civil War — is linked to his ongoing battle against the forces of darkness.
In the world according to Grahame-Smith, even Lincoln’s embrace of the abolitionist cause is motivated in part by his avocation: He discovers that some Southern slave owners are vampires who use their human chattel not for labor, but for sustenance.
In bringing Grahame-Smith’s novel to the screen, director Bekmambetov says, “It was important for the tone of the movie to find the balance between fantasy and reality, so we could use fantasy as a manifestation of the real drama, the real nightmare the country went through, which was slavery. You cannot imagine something worse than slavery, because it’s about people buying and selling each other. That’s horrible.
“The Civil War itself was a nightmare,” Bekmambetov adds, “with fathers killing sons and brothers killing brothers. You know, real history is sometimes more dramatic than any vampire movie. Much bloodier. And much more surprising.”
Speaking of surprises: Even though several better-known actors reportedly pursued the title role in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Bekmambetov opted to go with the relatively unknown Walker after seeing the actor’s acclaimed turn as another American president in the Broadway rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. He was especially impressed by Walker’s lithe physicality — an asset worth careful consideration when you’re casting a part that involves elaborate 3-D ax fights with bloodthirsty fiends.
“Yeah,” Walker says, “that was one of the real challenges of the role — keeping my rubber nose on and not hitting a stunt guy with an ax while Lincoln is fighting vampires.”
Riding horses and splitting rails came easier. “I was lucky in that I rode as a kid, and I put in some time chopping down trees,” the actor says. “I grew up in Georgia and had a very outdoorsy upbringing. So I could always relate to, and have actually fantasized about, that frontier time in America.”
But the riding wasn’t without its challenges. Lincoln’s major mode of transportation during his prepresidential days was his father’s plow horse. “We had this sweet little horse named Blanche that we used, because it’s supposed to look comical, the fact that you have Lincoln riding on the tiny old plow horse. I think Blanche was used to giving children rides around the corral.” As a result, Walker confides, Blanche wasn’t ready for his 200 pounds on her back and wasn’t very eager to hit her marks. “I just had to talk to her sweetly and keep whispering in her ear, ‘Just one more take, Blanche. C’mon, girl. Just one more take.’ ”
Walker had his own patience tested by the daily grind of six- and seven-hour makeup applications. Verisimilitude had to be a priority, Bekmambetov says, because Abraham Lincoln was one of the first U.S. presidents to be photographed and people have a definite idea of what he should look like from the pictures Americans have grown up with.
“It’s not like it would be years later, when you have so many pictures of presidents like [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt or Kennedy, and they look different in different photos [and] you see them in everyday life. Then it’s not iconic anymore.” With Lincoln, though, every photo is well-known. “Each one is like an icon,” Bekmambetov says. “So you have to create a Lincoln who looks like the Lincoln that everybody already has in his mind.”
Even so, Walker tried not to think of himself as impersonating an icon. As he sees it, he was portraying an ordinary guy. An ordinary guy who kills vampires, to be sure, but an ordinary guy nonetheless.
“I think what was so great about Abraham Lincoln,” Walker says, “was that he was a common man. He was self-educated; he brought himself up from nothing. When we put him up on a pedestal, as we often do, we do him a disservice, and we kind of remove our responsibility to try to be like him. Really, I think everybody should try to find that piece of Abraham Lincoln in himself.”
So what was more difficult: being a believable Abraham Lincoln or a credible vampire hunter?
“That’s a very interesting question,” Walker replies with a chuckle. “But look, once you get used to being Abraham Lincoln, killing vampires is easy. Because, hey, you’re Abraham Lincoln. So you just look at vampires and say, ‘OK, they’ve got to go.’ ”