Actor Benjamin Walker, who played President Andrew Jackson both on- and off-Broadway in the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, is taking on a different President and a new kind of blood in the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, in theaters June 22. Walker stars as—you guessed it—Abraham Lincoln, or at least a version of the 16th President who battles not just for the Union but also against blood-sucking vampires. Which is not to say that the real, historical Abraham Lincoln isn’t in there, too. Walker spoke to TIME about swinging an axe, dealing with vampire fangs and playing one of the most recognizable figures in American history.
TIME: So obviously there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on in the movie, but the character of Lincoln actually comes off seeming pretty real. What was it like to play someone who’s an historical person in such a fantastical context?
Benjamin Walker: Lincoln’s legacy is so big, I think there’s certainly room for all kinds of interpretations, but we did a lot of research and—I mean, the premise of the movie is ridiculous. And we get that. But the goal was to let the joke of it end with the title, and then I set about doing my job, which is to make him as real and relatable as possible. So we did a lot of research and there you go. The proof’s in the pudding, I hope.
But was it difficult to pull that off when there’s all the crazy action and—
[Director Timur Bekmambetov] made it very easy because he was devoted to studying the details. With the vampires for example, he wanted to know, they’ve been alive for 1,000 years, what do their teeth look like? What happens to them physically? What are the real minutiae of their day-to-day lives? So when you’re dealing with it in that kind of detail, it should be easier than it sounds.
And what do you think of vampire movies? Are you a fan?
Yeah, but probably more in a traditional sense. Nosferatu still makes my skin crawl. And The Lost Boys. The vampire craze is kind of fascinating. We’re interested in the idea of immorality and I think we’re drawn to people or creatures who can give in to those base impulses and just be bad and not feel bad about it.
It was surreal. Truly surreal. It takes so long and is very uncomfortable, but Greg Cannom and Will Huff [who did the special-effects makeup] really created a masterpiece that hung on my head. And then the job became about recalibrating, spending time in the mirror and figuring out what I thought my face was doing and what you actually saw, what read on my face through the prostethics. Once I had some good practice with it, it just eventually became an extension of my face.
What kind of changes did you have to make to the way you moved your face?
There’s certainly a muscularity to it, to physically go further than you think you need to or than feels comfortable, so that it shows through the mask. Also, I play him from 19 through his death, so you have to imagine how he ages and how those things manifest in his body or what the Civil War would do to his frame. You look at old photographs of him and he looks so gaunt and lean and sad and we really wanted to incorporate that.
How was the makeup application? How long did it take?
It took about six hours on average. You’d show up at about 12:01 early, early Monday morning, and you’d sit in the chair. I’d watch two, three movies in a sitting just to keep from going crazy. It’s 15 pieces, they apply each piece, blend each seam together, then they color it, then they add the hair, then they do the hands and all told it takes about six hours. And once you’ve done that, you kind of feel like you’re in your 50s when you get out of the chair.
Did you watch any good movies while you were in the chair?
I watched all the movies I was supposed to have seen, had I gone to film school. I watched all of Kurosawa’s movies, which I think drove the makeup artists crazy, because they can’t read the subtitles, they have to work on my face, all they have is what they hear. And some of those movies are just, you know, a Japanese man crying for three hours.
Can you tell me a little bit about the axe that Lincoln uses to kill the vampires? Was it heavy?
There were different versions. There’s the axe that we use to cut down trees, then there’s the one with a shotgun in it, and then there’s the double which is aluminum so that it looks real but it’s not so heavy, and then there are different permutations of the fighting axe, because to do some of those moves the axe has to be balanced on each end. And then we have the super soft one so that when I have to actually hit someone with it, I’m not going to hurt them.
Did you actually learn how to swing it around?
Oh yeah. I broke many a lamp in my hotel room trying to figure that stuff out.
So the team from the movie took a trip to the Middle East to see the USS Abraham Lincoln and screen the movie for troops over there. What was that like?
That was a life-changing experience, to be welcomed among those sailors and soldiers and to learn about what they do and where they’re from and to see them in their element was a real honor. You know, 1% of us is in the armed forces, protecting the other 99, and they’re all volunteers. They’re some of the most remarkable men and women in our country. It was an honor to be there and I think they got a kick out of the movie.
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During your research, did you learn anything about Abraham Lincoln that was particularly surprising?
The thing that helped me the most—and was the most surprising—is that I think as Americans we put him up on a pedestal and we hold him as sacred to the point of worship, and when we do that we do not allow him to be human, and complicated and conflicted. The more I learned about him the more I learned how conflicted he was about his decisions and how ordinary and humble his upbringing was. That’s what makes him extraordinary to me. In spite of those things, in spite of the misery that beset him early in his life, he did remarkable things. He educated himself. He rose out of that to do something great, and something complicated. It’s very daunting to take on Lincoln, so the more accessible he becomes, by understanding him as an everyman—he was not a superhero, he was not something larger than life, he made himself larger than life and that’s certainly a window into understanding who he was.
Did you think of the character in the movie as a superhero-type character?
Yes, but if you wanted to compare him to a superhero, I guess you’d have to compare him to Batman. He’s not born with some mutation or some special skill. He sees a need in society and pushes himself to try and fill that need.
I read in the Times magazine piece that you were making jokes about getting offers for fake President projects—does that mean that you’re not interested in playing another President?
No, at this point, I might try not to turn down any job! And I think as Americans we’re fascinated with our leaders and people that are compelled to lead and what makes a good leader, so I certainly think there are great stories to be told there.
If you got to play any President, who would your number three be, now that you’ve got Jackson and Lincoln?
That’s a toughie. I think Thomas Jefferson would be a lot of fun. You have the issues around the constitution, and his work in France, and that time where America’s being born, where the foundation of what we now enjoy was being laid. I think that’s a very exciting time in America.
So you generally like to play historical figures?
I enjoy them. I just did this Stephen Frears movie about Muhammad Ali [Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight], and though the character I play is kind of an elision of two different people, you get to learn about Muhammad Ali and the Supreme Court and the justice system. That’s what’s great about being an actor. From job to job you get to become a semi-expert on one thing, and then you get to move onto something else.