Killing Lincoln

Feb 13, 2013

On the heels of Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film about Lincoln comes another movie about the nation’s 16th president - this one airing on the National Geographic Channel February 17th. 

It was shot in Richmond and stars a local man who has built his Hollywood career on Civil War stories - and punk rock.  

Tall and lean, Billy Campbell looks the presidential part -- in a docu-drama based on the book Killing Lincoln.  A native of Albemarle County, he’s built a career - in part - on his personal passion for the Civil War.

“I think it was my 16th birthday.  My mother took me to a Civil War re-enactment, and I was absolutely enthralled. I think that might well have been the seed of my wanting to become an actor.”

He became a re-enactor, starred in productions at Western Albemarle High, studied theater in Chicago, then went to LA, where he  was cast in an AMC drama, the Killing, and got roles in three Civil War pictures - Gettysburg, Gods and Generals and Copperhead.  But Campbell has range, and he played a very different role two summers back in Seattle.  The job offer came from actor Matthew Lillard, who recently appeared in the Descendents.  He said he was ready to direct Fat Kid Rules the World.

“I’d worked with Matthew many years before on a pilot, and I liked him from way back when, and my agent called and said Matthew Lillard’s directing a small film in Seattle.  Do you want to read it, and I said, “Read it?  I’ll do it!”

Campbell’s character is a former Marine - a role well-suited to a guy who spent his formative years in military school. “I went to Fork Union Military Academy for six years, so I had about as much of the military as I would ever have a taste for.  That’s not to say anything bad about Fork Union. I love the place, and I love the people there.  So you weren’t sent there for being a bad kid?  Well kind of.  It was sort of equally for being a bad kid and my parent at the time not being the best parent in the world ,God bless her. I mean I wasn’t a bad, bad kid.  I didn’t have bad intentions.  We know what it’s like when you’re a teenager.  Sometimes you don’t want don’t want to focus on math.  It’s no fun.  I still don’t want to focus on math.”

Campbell’s son in the film is the”fat kid,” a lost soul with few clues - and even fewer friends. He decides to kill himself by stepping in front of a bus, but a charismatic punk rocker pushes him out of the way.

“God, what do you weigh?  400 pounds?  Troy, who is this?  Well, Dad, this is Marcus.  We’re actually in a band - punk rock.  Why did you tell my dad we were in a band?  Because we are.  I’m going to play the guitar.  You’re going to play the drums.  Oh, God. Is that what you’re going to wear?  Dude.  Yes!”

Campbell loved the role of a strict but compassionate father who watches with ambivalence as his son becomes a drummer in a punk rock band.  He did one thing to prepare for the role - an act that reduced director Matthew Lillard to tears.  Billy Campbell got a crew cut.

“He thought that when I showed up, he would have to sit me down and convince me to get a crew cut, and I showed up with a crew cut, because I was afraid he wouldn’t go there.”

As it made the rounds of film festivals, Fat Kid was a hit with audiences - here in Charlottesville and at South by Southwest, where it won the Audience Choice award.  Campbell is excited by the upcoming Lincoln film, narrated by Tom Hanks, but he thinks Fat Kid might just be his favorite role ever.

And what does he plan next? “I’m kind of deliciously unemployed.  Do you want to give out your phone number?  I’d love to come back to Virginia to do something.”