Billy Campbell on ‘Killing Lincoln’

National Geographic Channel's Abraham Lincoln talks about portraying our most famous President and shares his thoughts on the Rocketeer sequels that could have been.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

You can’t get away from Lincoln this month. You’ve got all the buzz about Lincoln for the Oscars, and you can see a different Lincoln on TV. National Geographic Channel has produced “Killing Lincoln,” a dramatic film about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Billy Campbell plays Lincoln in the film, which airs this Sunday.

On the first night of this year’s Television Critics Association press tour, we met Campbell at a National Geographic and got to talk one on one about his Lincoln, his cult classic film The Rocketeer and TV series “The Killing” and “Once and Again.”

CraveOnline: The thing that fascinated me about people who play Lincoln is everyone seems to have sort of agreed on the voice. How did you come to decide what Lincoln would sound like?

Billy Campbell: I didn’t. Really, I just took my cues from Eric Jendresen, the writer and show runner for this show. He has been a Lincoln scholar most of his life, and in fact, most of the firsthand accounts that we have of descriptions of Lincoln speaking describe his voice as high and tinny. Which would have carried well over large crowds before electronic amplification, but none of this I knew. So I didn’t honestly have any conscious notion of what I should do when Lincoln was speaking. In fact, before the first moment that I opened my mouth to speak as Lincoln on film, I had no idea what I would do.

CraveOnline: Would you get the note: “A little higher, a little higher?”

Billy Campbell: I’d get the note not necessarily about the pitch of the voice, but I would get a note like, “This is a happy moment for Lincoln” or “This is a less happy moment for Lincoln” or what have you. I’d get that kind of note.

CraveOnline: What does tinny mean exactly?

Billy Campbell: Thin, like tin, the metal.

CraveOnline: I’m thinking of speaking into tin and the echo.

Billy Campbell: No, he had apparently a high and sort of thin voice. Probably most people, the voice they associated with Lincoln is something in the neighborhood of Gregory Peck, who played Lincoln, but apparently that wasn’t Lincoln.

CraveOnline: Did you get to deliver any of the famous Lincoln speeches?

Billy Campbell: Some of them, yeah. Second inaugural and one or two of the others, just bits of them, but it was a very cool thing to be part of.

CraveOnline: You must have been aware of the other Lincoln project when you decided to take this. How did you process the opportunity to do another take on Lincoln?

Billy Campbell: I didn’t think about anything else except what I was doing. I don’t know, I processed it the same way I process anything. I got a job to do and all right, now I’m going to go do it. I didn’t think about it in terms of anyone else’s.

CraveOnline: Have you had a chance to see the Spielberg movie at this point?

Billy Campbell: No, I haven’t. I had a chance but I haven’t seen it. I don’t think I will. Not until… I don’t know. I just don’t feel ready to see it.

CraveOnline: How much of Lincoln’s life does “Killing Lincoln” cover?

Billy Campbell: It’s really only his assassination.

CraveOnline: Just the night of the theater?

Billy Campbell: No, not just the portion in the theater, but it covers about a year, maybe a little less than a year.

CraveOnline: That’s still the end of the Civil War and the year of the 13th amendment, right?

Billy Campbell: Yes.

CraveOnline: Is that political process back then good material for drama anyway, the way presidents had to go to each congressman personally and ask for votes? Or does “Killing Lincoln” not get into that part?

Billy Campbell: It doesn’t really get into that.

CraveOnline: Is this more Lincoln at home during that time?

Billy Campbell: Yes, it’s more that. It’s more Lincoln the human.

CraveOnline: But what is a human’s life at home in the White House? That’s an extraordinary thing to fathom anyway.

Billy Campbell: It would seem an extraordinary thing to fathom. In fact, people in the White House eat breakfast and they sh** on toilets and they do everything that other humans do.

CraveOnline: Well, back then it wasn’t indoor plumbing.

Billy Campbell: Whatever. They do everything that other humans do.

CraveOnline: Are you saying we see Lincoln on the outhouse?

Billy Campbell: No.

CraveOnline: But as backstory, you thought about that?

Billy Campbell: Yeah, well, of course. The fact is, they’re human and they’re humans like any other human in any other period in history.

CraveOnline: When do you need to be available for “The Killing” season three?

Billy Campbell: No, I won’t be part of it.

CraveOnline: Will you be excited to see the story continue?

Billy Campbell: Oh yeah. I’ll be first in line to watch it.

CraveOnline: Are you satisfied with your outcome in the two seasons?

Billy Campbell: Yeah, absolutely. The thing is, the show is patterned on the Danish show and the Danish show, after they solve the first mystery, they go on to an entirely different context. So no one from the first season is in the second season of the Danish show except the lead character. So it was always going to be that and I knew that, so I’m not disappointed. I knew that I wouldn’t be in the third season of “The Killing.”

CraveOnline: So you weren’t sweating the pickup either way?

Billy Campbell: No. I mean, I was sweating the pickup because I wanted my friends who were making the show to have a third season. Yes, so I’m sweating it in that respect.

CraveOnline: You get a lot of love for The Rocketeer now. How do you feel about the life that’s had over 20 years later?

Billy Campbell: I love the life that it’s had. As a lot of people were, I’m a little disappointed that the studio didn’t treat it the way it deserved to be treated at the time. Disney dropped the ball on publicizing Rocketeer and there are different conflicting notions as to why that happened, but aside from that, people love The Rocketeer and I love The Rocketeer and Dave Stevens who drew The Rocketeer and created The Rocketeer… [he] loved the movie. He passed away a few years ago of cancer, but he loved it.

CraveOnline: The campaign to get it on Blu-ray was successful so at least we have a high definition version of it.

Billy Campbell: Absolutely, and it looks wonderful, and Disney apparently is brushing off the franchise and they’re going to give it another go with The Rocketeer. I don’t know what they plan to do. I don’t know if they plan to do a sequel. I don’t know if they plan to do an entire remake. I have no idea what they plan to do. I’m hoping that I get a cameo.

CraveOnline: You would hope they’d pay homage. Do you ever think about what Rocketeer II and III might have been?

Billy Campbell: I do, in fact, think about it.

CraveOnline: What were your hopes for the further adventures?

Billy Campbell: I think my initial hope was that they would do a sequel and that it would seem that naturally the sequel should involve two rocket men, right? The Rocketeer and someone else with a rocket pack and ultimately it would be a duel in the sky or what have you, between two guys with rocket packs. I didn’t know what sort of scenario, whether it would be the same timeframe. Obviously if I was going to be in it and I was still going to be The Rocketeer and it was made that many years later, maybe it would have to be the Korean War. I don’t know.

CraveOnline: One you might not hear about a lot is Enough. Was that fun to just play the full on bad guy?

Billy Campbell: It was great. Great, I loved it. I was doing a show at the time, “Once and Again,” in which I played a sickeningly sweet boyfriend and I wasn’t loving it, let’s say. I was just too perfect to be believed. So I was very, very happy to play a bad guy.