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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Billy Campbell (“Killing Lincoln”)

Billy Campbell got his initial break in Hollywood when he pulled a recurring role on “Dynasty” in 1984, started to escape from the small screen somewhat in 1991 by playing the title in Disney’s highly underrated “The Rocketeer,” and has since bounced back and forth between TV and film, most recently spending two seasons on AMC’s “The Killing.” This Sunday, however, Campbell can be seen in another “Killing,” when he steps back through the mists of time to play American’s 16th President in the National Geographic original movie, “Killing Lincoln,” based on the book by Bill O’Reilly.

During the Winter 2013 TCA Press Tour, Campbell took some time – more than his publicist was expectingly, frankly, not that we were complaining – to chat with Bullz-Eye about his surprise over being pitched the role of Lincoln, his strong views over Disney’s mishandling of “The Rocketeer,” his even stronger statements to the bloggers who bitched about the Season 1 finale of “The Killing,” and how he was only one audition away from getting the role of Commander William T. Riker on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

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Bullz-Eye: To begin at the beginning, how did you find your way into “Killing Lincoln” in the first place? Did you audition for the gig, or did they actually come looking for you?

Billy Campbell: I didn’t audition. They… [Hesitates.] What did they do? [Laughs.] They approached me months before this happened, and I…well, they didn’t approach me. My manager called me and said, “I got this weird sort of feeler: would you be interested in playing Lincoln?” And I burst into laughter, and I thought, “Ridiculous! I’m not Lincoln!” Nevertheless, we sent them a photo which I thought was Lincoln-esque—or a photo that I thought was the least non-Lincoln-esque—that I could find, and I forgot all about it. And then months later I got a call from my agent saying, “You’ve been offered Lincoln.” And I was…amused. But I accepted. And that was it.

BE: Are you a particular aficionado of Civil War history? It seems like a decent possibility that you might be by this point, given that you were also in “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals.”

BC: Yeah, I am, actually. I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia…although I lost most of my accent some time ago, as you can tell by the way I pronounce “Charlottesville, Virginia” now. [Laughs.] Not much of that natural drawl there anymore! But, yeah, I grew up there, and I was obsessed with the Civil War in my youth. When I was 17, I went to my first Civil War reenactment, and I became a reenactor and did that for a few years. In fact, I think that was the beginning of my interest in acting. So, yeah, I was thrilled to be able to go to Richmond, 60 minutes from home, and play Lincoln.

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BE: So what were the challenges for you in playing Lincoln, given that you didn’t see yourself playing Lincoln in the first place?

BC: Well, I think the main challenge was the lack of time. When they finally came back, it was about a week before I was supposed to show up in Richmond…and I was at sea! I was on a sailing ship, so it took me another three days to get back to shore, which meant it was three days before I could even download the script and so forth. So I had no time for preparation, I had no time to read the book…I had no time for nothin’! All I had time to do was read the script as many times as I could before we started shooting, which was about a week and a half after I first got back to shore. So the particular challenge was to understand that what I needed to do was just let go and really trust Erik Jendresen, who was the show runner, the head writer, the main guy. He wrote the script, and he was the main guy on the show. And he’s a Lincoln fanatic. So the thing I did was really just to dive into Erik’s script, into his arms, and to trust that these people—not just Erik, but all of these people involved—were passionately intent on delivering an entirely authentic experience and believe in their input. So that’s basically all the preparation I did. I just put my trust in these people.

BE: Not a bad plan.

BC: Well, you be the judge, but I think it worked out alright. [Laughs.] It’s funny, because, as an actor, you think, “Oh, shit, I’d love six months to prepare,” or whatever. But on the other hand, you can over-think things. And on this, I definitely didn’t have a chance to over-think anything. I just dived into what it was, into all of the insane amounts of research that these people had done, and just trusted in that.

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BE: Was there anything that you hadn’t known about the Lincoln saga that you learned as a result of working on the film?

BC: Yeah, a lot of stuff. I mean, as I said, I was very much interested in the period and all of it from my youth, but I wasn’t a Lincoln scholar. Erik is and has been in his life a Lincoln scholar. I mean, he truly has been obsessed with Lincoln. So there was a lot to learn. I think the thing that I came away with more than anything else is…y’know, Lincoln was a little radical for his time. Even in his youth he was a radical. I mean, here’s a kid who, at the age of eight or nine, started chopping wood. About as soon as he could accurately hit a piece of wood with an axe, he was set to chopping wood by his father. He grew up on the frontier, chopping trees down, and making a farm life. But this wasn’t gentleman farming, like it is today. It was farming in the face of Indians and animals and disease and all kinds of things that we don’t experience today. So on the rough frontier, when everybody smoked and drank and cursed and chewed tobacco and didn’t think anything was so very wrong with slavery, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he didn’t cuss, he didn’t chew tobacco, he didn’t believe in slavery and made it known that he didn’t. And he was a book reader! Even as a child, in his home, he insisted on reading books. His father scorned the reading of books, and yet in the face of his father’s scorn, he insisted on reading books. That’s radical. So he was radical for his place and his time, and I didn’t really realize that. I also didn’t realize the depth of his warmth and his magnanimity. You know what I mean? He was magnanimous. He really was. He was a very empathetic human being.

BE: I wanted to dip into your back catalog for a bit, if I may, and I think the best way to start is to dispel a credit on your IMDb listing. Based on what you just said about being a Civil War reenactor in Charlottesville when you were in your teens, it seems mathematically unlikely that you were in an episode of “The Rookies.”

BC: “The Rookies”? [Laughs.] I don’t even know what “The Rookies” is!

BE: It was a ‘70s cop show.

BC: No. [Laughs.] But you know why that’s there? Because when I first came to Hollywood, I went by William Campbell…and there was another William Campbell. And I see you nodding, so you know him, I’m guessing.

BE: Yep. I know him from “Star Trek.”

BC: Exactly! So, anyway, I have some of his credits on my IMDb page, and…my agents have just arranged for me to get a professional-status IMDb thing, so I’m gonna get in there sometime sooner or later and take away the things that aren’t mine, and put in some other things that are mine that aren’t on there. At some point they had me listed in Delta Force or what the hell ever it’s called. I was never in that. And they had me listed as a wardrobe person on several movies! Apparently there’s a Billy Campbell who’s a wardrobe person. So I’ve gotta clear some of that up. But to confirm that here and now, no, I wasn’t in “The Rookies.” [Laughs.]

BE: You were, however, in “The Rocketeer.”

BC: I was!

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BE: Which was and remains an awesome film. Still, it had to be heartbreaking when there were no further “Rocketeer” films forthcoming.

BC: You know, I would have loved for there to have been further “Rocketeer” movies. But it wasn’t heartbreaking, no.

BE: How was the experience of making the film?

BC: Oh, it was phenomenal. Oh, my God. I have to tell you, it’s an actor’s dream to…I mean, I can’t imagine that everyone’s first film that they ever do is the lead role in a movie that’s as cool as “The Rockeeter.” So it was phenomenal for me, in every way. I love period movies, I love adventure movies…I love movies. And I love sexy women…and there was Jennifer Connelly! [Laughs.] In every way, it was a thrilling experience for me. And it turned out to be such a fucking loveable movie! It’s just a loveable movie.

Y’know, I know that Disney are very interested in somehow turning over the property and doing another “Rocketeer” film. And I hope I get a cameo in it, if not something larger. But either way I hope that they pay homage to the original movie, because it’s a movie worth paying homage to. Y’know what I mean? Like, if the movie had been a disaster and they just wanted to turn over something that had been a piece of shit, then… But they’re turning over something that a lot of people feel very passionate about, and I think they ought to pay homage to it.

BE: I think it was that film and “Edward Scissorhands” that first made me really start paying attention to Alan Arkin.

BC: I love Alan Arkin. Shit, you should see some of the rest of his stuff. You’ve seen “Little Miss Sunshine,” but have you seen…

BE: “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming” is a good one.

BC: Oh, that’s good. And the movie he did with Peter Falk, “The In-Laws”? I mean, he’s genius. He’s the only thing that was any good about that Robert Redford movie, “Havana. “The only good thing. I love Sydney Pollack and I love Redford, but, seriously, Arkin was the only decent thing about that whole movie.

BE: To touch on some of your TV work, you’ve turned up in several sci-fi projects over the years, including a series-regular role on “The 4400.”

BC: Yeah, I loved doing that. I love science fiction. I’m a history buff, but I’m a science fiction and fantasy fan, too, and…I loved it. I had mixed emotions about it, though. We were the victim of a regime change at the network (USA). The new regime came in, and…we were not their baby. And they just threw us into the alley. With the bathwater. We had great ratings. In the beginning, I think we were as highly rated as anything on cable TV. Or something like that, anyway. It was a big, big thing. And it stayed that way! But then you could see between the second and third season… For the premiere of the second season, I was in New York, I was in Mumbai…actually, I don’t know where I was. [Laughs.] But I saw ads on the sides of buses, tons of promotion everywhere. But the third season? Nothing. Dead silence. Dead. Silence. And, of course, between the second and third seasons was when the regime change at the network happened, and they just… [Makes a whooshing sound.] Threw us out.

BE: Being a sci-fi aficionado, is there any story or novel that you haven’t seen turned into a film that you’d like to see adapted?

BC: [Instantly.] Yes! The Integral Trees, by Larry Niven. Yeah, I think with our technology now, with CGI and all that…? The Integral Trees is fricking great, and it would be fantastic. And so would Ringworld, for that matter. What else? Um…y’know, I’d still like to see a really good Dune movie made. I mean, I’m very fond of the David Lynch movie, because it’s so kind of cheesy and twisted and terrific in its way, but I still want a really good Dune movie.

BE: There are quite a few sci-fi films that are…well, y’know, they are what they are for the era in which they were made, but it’d still be interesting to see what could be done with them in the right creative hands and with today’s special effects.

BC: Absolutely! I mean, think of the things we can do now! Same thing with “Flash Gordon.” I loved that movie, but…well, you get the idea.

BE: One last sci-fi question: I’ve got to ask you about playing Okona on “Star Trek: The Generation. “

BC: I believe you mean the outrageous Okona. [Laughs.]

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BE: True enough. A one-off character, but one popular enough that they brought him back for a storyline in the ST:TNG comic book.

BC: Did they? [Laughs.] I didn’t know that! I had no idea. That’s funny!

BE: As a sci-fi fan, that must’ve been entering dream-come-true territory to find yourself part of the “Star Trek” universe.

BC: Oh, it was awesome. But, y’know, what happened was, Junie Lowry—an L.A. casting agent who, in fact, cast me in “The Killing”—has, over the years I’ve been out here, been the biggest proponent of my career. When I was first starting out, I did something for her, I can’t remember what it was, but…well, point being, she called me up about “Star Trek.” She said, “I’ve got this thing going on, and you’re perfect—perfect!—for this second-in-command. It’s you. You’re gonna be it.” And I’m, like, “‘Star Trek’! I could be the second-in-command on ‘Star Trek’! On the Enterprise! Fuck, fuck, fuck!” [Laughs.]

So I went in, and I auditioned, and she’s, like, “Great! Perfect!” And we went through the whole process. And we got to the last meeting. And it was me and Jonathan Frakes in a green room, waiting to walk into a room full of executives. And I start thinking…well, I’d actually started thinking long before that, but I really started thinking, “My God, if I do this…I’m not sure if I’m gonna do anything else.” Because that’s kind of the way it goes with something as iconic as “Star Trek.” And I actually pulled the same maneuver on…“Dynasty” was one of the first things I did when I came to Hollywood, and I did 13 episodes, I think, or something like that. And they asked me to re-up, they asked me to sign on for good. And I refused. Because I knew that if you got too hooked into something that was iconic as “Dynasty,” which was the highest-rated show on TV at the time, there’s a danger to that. And I thought about that while I was waiting for “Star Trek.” And I got petrified. And I absolutely clutched the meeting. Junie had been telling me, had been buzzing in my ear, “You’re the guy! You’re the guy, you don’t even have to worry about Jonathan Frakes. You’re the guy. This is happening.” And I clutched. And Jonathan Frakes…as it ended up, he was the guy. [Laughs.]

And Jonathan Frakes should’ve been the guy. He’s brilliant and wonderful in the role, and it should never have been mine, and I agree with all of that. But later on… I think when I went in the room and I really screwed up the audition so badly, Junie was quite angry with me. I mean, really quite angry with me. ‘Cause I kind of embarrassed her. ‘Cause she had put a lot of stock in me and so forth. And ages later, I sent her an email or wrote her a letter, I don’t remember what I did. Maybe I called her, I’m not sure. But I said, “Junie, I’m so sorry I messed up,” or whatever, and she said, “No, honey, it’s fine. It’s fine! Jonathan is wonderful, and it all worked out wonderfully.” And I said, “Does that mean I can do an episode?” [Laughs.] She said, “You want to do an episode?” “Yeah…?” “I’m on it!” And literally in two days’ time, she called and said, “Here’s the job: ‘The Outrageous Okona.’” And I had to come in and read for somebody, of course, but the job was mine. And that’s how it all came about.

BE: An obligatory question I try to ask everyone: do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved? I’m figuring “The Rocketeer” is in there, but if there’s anything else…

BC: “The Rocketeer” would be number one, yeah. Just because we all know how much that movie deserves to be loved…and wasn’t. And, in fact, “The Rocketeer” wasn’t the failure that Disney claimed it to be. You know, there’s that whole thing of how, if the movie doesn’t do the box office you want it to, they call it a loss and they get to write it off. There’s all kinds of funny paperwork that goes on in the studios. And I think they had a very acrimonious relationship with the director, Joe Johnston. And I think what they did was make it a loss. I don’t think the movie was a loss for them. I think they made it a loss.

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If you’ll recall…well, you may not recall, but their relationship with Joe Johnston was so acrimonious…oh, he hated them so very much. He’d done “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” with them, “The Rocketeer” was the second of a three-picture deal with Disney for him, and they were so meddlesome at the time—I don’t know if they still are, they may be or they may not be—that they had hired some of the best people in the business to work for them, including Joe and Jim Bissel, the production designer. They hired these top-notch Hollywood people to make their movie, to write the script, to design the look of the characters, of the sets, of this, that, and the other thing. And then they assigned three, or maybe it was four, creative executives to oversee the movie. [Witheringly.] “Creative executives.” These are not people who’ve been through film school. These are people who’ve been through business school, at Cornell or wherever, some of whom could’ve conceivably never taken an art class before in their life. And yet these people were giving costume design notes, set design notes, script notes to people who had been designing sets, designing costumes, writing scripts their entire creative lives. And these notes were supposed to be implemented and taken care of.

So Joe was furious. Absolutely furious. He hated the studio. And I don’t know if you remember Premiere Magazine, but there was a 10-page spread on “The Rocketeer” before it came out. 10 fricking pages! That’s an enormous spread. And the very last line of the article quoted Joe Johnston. Because it was so apparent throughout the whole interview how much he scorned Disney, they asked him, “Well, Joe, if you dislike Disney so much…you have another movie to do for them. What’s gonna happen with that?” And he said, and this is the last line of the article, “I will fake my own death before I work for Disney again.” Seriously! That’s the ultimate line of the biggest piece of publicity for their movie, for Disney, of the whole campaign! So you can imagine what Jeffrey Katzenberg is sitting in his office thinking.

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As a sidebar to that, years after doing “The Rockeeter,” I was in a restaurant somewhere in Hollywood—Cha Cha Cha, a Jamaican place—and I was on my way to the restroom when a guy stopped me, an Asian guy. He said, “Billy Campbell!” “Yes?” My name is blah blah blah, and I was in the publicity department at Disney, and I directly worked on ‘The Rocketeer.’” I said, “Hey, nice to meet you!” He said, “I gotta tell you—I have to tell you—how we dropped the ball.” And I said, “How did you drop the ball?” And he said, “Number one: Katzenberg had this notion of the movie as being an adult film. A film for adults.” The primary poster for the movie was an art-deco thing that nobody under the age of 35 would’ve ever given a shit about. And originally we were going to have a Roger Rabbit cartoon before the movie, “Roger Goes to World War I” or something like that, but that was nixed, too. So he said, “We absolutely dropped the ball. All of us in the department, we knew what we should be doing, but the studio dropped the ball. All of the directives that we had to publicize the movie, none of them were to get the people in to see the movie that should’ve seen the movie, which were kids. None of them.” We opened within two weeks of “Terminator 2” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” we had no box office stars, we were a period movie, and the movie was not sold to the right people. So…there you go.

BE: It’s still very fondly remembered, though, despite all of it.

BC: Yeah, it is. And like I said, I still love the movie.

BE: Lastly, let’s talk about “The Killing.” What was it like for you, a cast member of the show, to deal with the whole of the internet screaming their disappointment about the direction of the show and the lack of closure at the end of the first season?

BC: It didn’t bother me at all.

BE: Really?

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BC: Well, here’s the thing, and it kind of speaks to maybe a somewhat larger issue. There’s journalism, in which people do research, and then there’s blogging, in which people spout off what they’re feeling at the moment. And anyone who’d done their research knew that we were derived from a Danish television series. And anyone who had bothered to research the Danish television series would’ve known that we would not resolve the murder of Rosie Larson before the end of the second season. Anyone would’ve known that. So the people who were most sort of vociferously disappointed in the cliffhanger for the so-called first season should’ve known that there would’ve been a cliffhanger. And that’s really the gist of the whole thing: the people that flew off the map about the cliffhanger were really just expressing their ignorance. Anyone else knew that it wouldn’t be resolved at the end of the first season.

See, the Danish series did their first season and…they didn’t have two seasons like we had two seasons. They didn’t have two seasons of 13 each. They had one season of 20. So there’s some confusion, because they had 20 episodes and a resolution, whereas we had 26 episodes, which we had to split. We certainly couldn’t do it in 13—that’s seven few episodes than they did their resolution in—so we had to go the extra distance and make it 26, ‘cause 13 episodes is the standard cable season. The only conceivable thing than anyone did wrong was for the network to use the tagline, “Who killed Rosie Larson?” That’s the only conceivable thing that anyone did wrong. But, honestly, most of what was done wrong was done by the fricking bloggers, who acted like children who didn’t get their candy when they wanted it. Because…okay, I’m sorry, did you not enjoy the show up until this point? Were you not enjoying it? Because if you weren’t, then why the fuck do you care about the cliffhanger? And if you were enjoying it, then why the fuck do you care about the cliffhanger? What is your point?

So as far as I’m concerned, there was no controversy, and all they were doing was showing what a big bunch of fucking babies they were. And that’s it. I thought the show was brilliant, and I thought our people did such a fantastic job. They had to come up with extra material to make it 26 episodes instead of the 20 that the Danish did, and they came up with some phenomenal extra material. And it was genius. I thought the show was fucking genius. Patty Jenkins, who directed the pilot and who directed the Season 2 finale…between the pilot and the Season 2 finale, you find me two better episodes of TV, in the history of TV, and I’ll be surprised. I really will be surprised. When that car goes into the water, did it not raise the hair on the back of your neck? I mean, oh, my God.

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BE: When people started getting up in arms about the series not resolving the mystery of who killed Rosie Larson by the end of the first season, all I could think was, “It’s not like they resolved who killed Laura Palmer by the end of the first season of ‘Twin Peaks.’”

BC: Yeah! I mean, all they did was…I mean, they didn’t do anything crazy like they did on “Dallas,” where Bobby’s in the shower and the whole previous season was a dream. It was a legitimate twist. Why was there outrage? To me…well, like I said, it seemed like a bunch of fucking babies crying because they didn’t get their candy exactly when they wanted it. It honestly did! And, y’know, I have no problem saying this now. I’ve been more diplomatic in past interviews, because the show was still going on and I was still on the show, but…fuck them! [Laughs.] You know what I mean? Seriously! And you can print that! You can write it if you want. Honestly, I was kind of angry about it. Much angrier than they were.

But I loved the show. It was one of the very best experiences I’ve ever had in this business. It was an incredibly well-written show, it was impeccably directed, I had the privilege of working with an amazing cast. Tell me who’s better on television than Mireille (Enos) and Joel (Kinnaman). Tell me who’s better than those two guys. Or Brent Sexton as the dad. Or Michelle Forbes as the mom. Or anybody on the show. Tell me there’s a better cast on television during those two seasons. I don’t think there was. So to my way of thinking, I was on a show that was incredibly well-written, amazingly well-directed, with a brilliant cast…and I was on an ensemble cast, so I went to work sometimes only two days a week. [Laughs.] How can you beat that? And I’m living and working in Vancouver, BC, which is one of my favorite cities on God’s green earth. So it was heaven for me. It was a perfect storm of enjoyment for me. It really was.

BE: And yet it made entertainment-news headlines a few months back when it was announced that, even if there was going to be a third season of “The Killing,” you wouldn’t be coming back for it.

BC: Yeah, which made for great headlines, except it wasn’t that I didn’t want to do Season 3. Here’s the thing: anyone who’s been following the Danish series knows that the Danish series, after they solve the initial murder, they go on to an entirely different scenario. It was always going to be that way for me, for my character. I always knew it. Two seasons and out. I knew it from the beginning.

  

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