MTV News’ first couple minutes on the set of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” last spring were freaky. There we were, on a soundstage in New Orleans, and yet standing in front of us was the 16th President of the United States himself. A Fox publicist’s assurance that we were set to talk to Benjamin Walker, star and namesake of “Vampire Hunter,” rather than the man who was gunned down in a theater in 1865, did little to diminish the creepiness, because we were starring at no actor but Honest Abe himself.
Eventually we composed ourselves, and an epic and whirlwind day on the set of director Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling novel proceeded without a hitch. Now, we’re rolling out our exclusive look at the set, including interviews with Walker, Bekmambetov and costar Anthony Mackie. It’s all part of our Ones to Watch series, a weeklong look at actors and actresses set to have amazing years in 2012.
Out of his Abe getup and with “Vampire Hunter” set for release on June 22, Walker called us up to chat in greater depth about his experience in the genre mashup and why the film will show us Lincoln as we’ve truly never seen him before.
MTV News: Is it a daunting proposition knowing what’s to come? This is a summer tent pole and you’re the guy. Do you feel a little bit of that weight?
Benjamin Walker: Having never done it, I really don’t even know what to be afraid of. I’m just taking it in stride.
MTV: Was this role, when you heard about it, something that was like, “Oh my god, that’s something I’m dying to do?” Or was it something that took a little discussing with your team to say, “Hey, this would be cool for you.”
Walker: Well, I had just finished doing a rock musical about Andrew Jackson, so I was already suited for it. What really got me excited was Timur. I liked his work, and as soon as I found out he was directing it, I wanted to be a part of it.
MTV: Can you give me a sense of what the process was like in getting the role? Did you have to go through multiple auditions and screen tests?
Walker: I met him in LA months before I got the job, and then he came and saw the Andrew Jackson show. There was a test that we did together with no prosthetics, and then we had the test Greg Cannom and Will Huff, the makeup artists. After that, the deal was closed, but we’re talking about over the span of six or seven months.
MTV: What’s the preparation for a role like this? What were the things you needed to get done before you stepped onto set for the first time?
Walker: First off, I had to lose about 30 pounds. I put on a lot of weight for Andrew Jackson, and Lincoln, particularly later in his life, was a very slight man. I learned ax fighting, which was a whole new martial art that they created for the film. Then I started brushing up on my Abe Lincoln history.
MTV: Was the weight loss easy for you to do?
Walker: Who can do that? It’s the easiest way to do it, when a studio’s willing to help you do it, and then you’re training at the same time so you’re exercising regularly and heavily. Certainly the easiest way to do it, but certainly not pleasant.
MTV: Tell me about Lincoln’s fighting style.
Walker: The stunt guys and the fight choreographer, Mic Rodgers, who is a stunt legend, and a gentleman named Don Lee — all of these guys are martial artists and stuntmen. They created a form of fighting that would be unique to Lincoln at that time, that’s never been in a movie before. As I’m learning it, they’re creating it. It was really fascinating.
MTV: What is it comparable to?
Walker: It’s comparable to a kind of bow staff fighting. If you imagine a shorter bow staff with a blade on the end of it, a kind of continuously spinning, ruthless and simultaneously graceful martial art.
MTV: When I was on set, I noticed the makeup on you was remarkable up close. I would imagine that you have to do this fighting stuff in that getup, obviously. That seems like a twofold challenge for you. Did that get in the way at all?
Walker: It became uncomfortable over time. You start to sweat under it. You’re wearing a three-piece wool suit and fighting vampires and you’re wearing a mask. It really becomes uncomfortable, but the men who created it, Greg Cannom and Will Huff, are absolute geniuses. If I ever felt frustrated, all I had to do was catch a reflection of this amazing sculpture that they had created on my face. The frustration would just fall away because I knew how great it looked.
MTV: Did your friends or wife visit you on set, and what did they make of your look?
Walker: Mostly everyone was creeped out by it because it’s Abraham Lincoln, and I’m talking about where we’re going to go have dinner.
MTV: So you didn’t ever walk off set in downtown New Orleans as Abraham Lincoln?
Walker: No, because we’re trying to keep it and how magnificent it looks as secret as possible. I was kind of sequestered to a tent anytime I was off shooting.
MTV: I’m anxious to see some finished footage in a trailer. Have they shown you much yet?
Walker: I’ve only seen some ADR material, and it’s very, very exciting.
MTV: Did you guys shoot it in 3-D or are you posting it in 3-D?
Walker: If I’m not mistaken, we’re posting it in 3-D.
MTV: Was the book itself useful? Had you read the book prior to this opportunity coming up?
Walker: I read the book as soon as I knew I was going to meet on it. It’s helpful in terms of understanding the style and the seriousness with which we embrace this mashup, but there are going to be things in the movie that are surprises to people who know the book. But, also, we pay homage to what’s great about the book.
MTV: My sense is — correct me if I’m wrong — that it feels like I was on the set of a Lincoln biopic because I didn’t see any of the action stuff. It feels like it was all shooting extremely seriously and then you add that layer of crazy action and irreverence in that form. Does it feel like we’re in a drama that’s infected with action and violence?
Walker: It’s more like we looked at Lincoln through the lens of that. What we do is embrace a dramatic story. It’s in the title. You get it. Vampires. Now we commit to it, and you get to go on that ride.
MTV: Do you feel a little bit of resentment toward Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis? This guy can’t let you be the one Lincoln of the year. You have some competition from the greatest living actor on the planet.
Walker: Luckily, they’re very different movies.
MTV: What can you guarantee to me is better about your Lincoln movie than his Lincoln movie?
Walker: Our vampires will be much better than their vampires.
MTV: Although, I would like to see Daniel Day-Lewis fight vampires. You could do a mashup there one day. Are your presidential days behind you?
Walker: I would love to continue through the cannon of American presidents. They’re fascinating people. America’s story is a story that fascinates me. I’ll never turn down a president.
MTV: Let it be known to casting directors everywhere.
Walker: It has to be a weird interpretation of the president, apparently.
MTV: A very specialized career you have going. ’Paradise Lost,’ what’s going on with that? Is that a stop? Is that a go?
Walker: It sounds like what they’re trying to do is so ambitious they need a little bit more time to prep. They’re looking for the summer, which is fine by me. It’s also the kind of movie that if we’re not ready, we don’t need to start. They’re doing something in a technological aspect that nobody’s ever done in a movie. If they want a little extra time, they can have it.
MTV: I assume you’re jazzed about that one. You like the script and you like the interpretation? We haven’t seen many blockbusters made of poems in the history of cinema, but this will be something unique, I think.
Walker: That story is the story that began all stories. It’s one of the greatest stories of all time. It’s something I studied in school and I’m excited to be a part of.
MTV: Are you still doing some comedy in New York or elsewhere?
Walker: Oh yeah, Find the Funny is at Joe’s Pub usually the first of every month. We’re working out some kinks for the New Year, but we’re certainly going to be starting out here shortly. It’s something I love to do and something I love to be a part of.
MTV: That side of you is something we haven’t seen on the big screen yet. Is that opportunity is exciting for you? To bring a little bit of that stage persona to the big screen work?
Walker: I think it would be a lot of fun. There’s little greater in life than making someone laugh. If you can do it in the medium of film, it’s even more rewards, I imagine.
MTV: Do you know what the next gig is, whether it’s on stage or in front of the camera?
Walker: Well, the industry is coming back together after the holidays. There are a lot of possibilities. “Paradise” moving has changed some things. So far, I’m gearing up for the press tour for “Lincoln,” which is going to be a huge undertaking.
MTV: Have you talked to friends and family that have gone through this sort of thing yet to know what you’re getting into? It’s a lot of sitting in hotel rooms and answering the same questions for hours on end, carpets.
Walker: I could probably ask you what it’s like. You know better than anybody. You probably have to be much more miserable than I have to be.
MTV: I’m looking forward to seeing how glazed over your eyes are when I see you at your first junket. Will it be your first junket you’ve done?
Walker: You can reserve the right, because we know each other, to reach across the table and swat me, to bring me back to life if you need to.
MTV: There was talk that you did a workshop for this “American Psycho” musical. Was that something that was fun? Is that something you’re hoping might come together in another form?
Walker: I’d love to do it. The music was great. Duncan Sheik did the music. It’s a very timely story right now. It’s a musical about the deregulation of American finance through the lens of a crazy person. It’s a lot of fun. The thing that’s great about “American Psycho” as a play or musical is that it’s funnier.
MTV: Were you a fan of Mary Harron’s film? Obviously, Christian Bale was amazing in that as well.
Walker: That was an amazing movie.
MTV: A little bit of a different take, it sounds like. I guess accentuate the humor a little bit more.
Walker: A lot of the things that happened in the film were inferred through voice-over, with a stage play, it’s direct address. You’re literally having a conversation with the audience.
MTV: Is there Phil Collins? Is there Genesis in the stage play?
Walker: Oh, yeah. “Feel It Coming In the Air Tonight.”