On a stifling July day, a boat pulls up to the shore of the Appomattox River and a familiar figure disembarks — tall, dressed in black, with a distinguishable stovepipe hat. As he makes his way up a rocky trail, followed by a group of men dressed as slaves and soldiers, he does so methodically, taking each step with great care. Finally emerging from tall grass into the sun, he enters full view and reveals himself: It is the nation’s 16th president, the iconic Abraham Lincoln, as portrayed by Billy Campbell.
“It’s kind of a spooky feeling,” Campbell says. “With the suit, the famous hat and some makeup, I look at myself in the mirror and see Lincoln staring back.”
On the set of National Geographic Channel’s Killing Lincoln, the presidential gravitas Campbell exudes as Lincoln is palpable. As he walks around Petersburg, Va.—which doubles for both the Confederate capital of Richmond and Washington, D.C.—Campbell appears to have come straight out of a history book. In fact, the whole production has a feeling of being from another time, as extras playing freed slaves and Union soldiers mill about with historically accurate tools and rifles in their hands, horses trot past and a smoke machine billows white puffs to simulate the smoldering of a recently fallen Richmond.
“All of these buildings are from before 1865. Lincoln himself was here at the fall of Petersburg,” says executive producer Mark Herzog. “While we’re using Petersburg for Richmond, the town was very important to the Civil War. We’re shooting among history here.”
And not just among history, but with history in their hands and on their backs. “Period appropriate” was the mantra for property master Mark Hughes, a motion picture veteran and himself a lifelong Civil War re-enactor. “We found a reproduction of the Derringer pistol Booth used to assassinate Lincoln,” said Hughes, who also acquired a Whitney pistol similar to the one Lewis Powell used in his attack on the home of Secretary of State William Seward. In addition, each and every Union or Confederate soldier is armed with the correct military hardware, and extras appearing as slaves are carrying historically accurate tools.
The authentic wool suits and uniforms were surely torturous for the cast during shooting in midsummer heat and humidity, but it pales in comparison to what Lincoln and the Union forces endured as they walked through Richmond back in April of 1865. It was a city turned to rubble by battle and deliberately-set fires.
“Today we’re shooting the scene of Lincoln, the sitting president, landing on the shore of Richmond, Va., within days of its falling,” says executive producer and screenwriter Erik Jendresen. “You have the president walking the streets of what is essentially an enemy city while it’s still on fire. It was an extraordinary moment in American history.”
Later this evening, production moves to a historic home in Petersburg, where Jesse Johnson as John Wilkes Booth will meet with his co-conspirators about their plot against Lincoln. With his blonde hair dyed black and a dramatically shaped mustache, Johnson looks so eerily like the infamous assassin, locals have been stopping him on the street. “I was walking the other day and a man pulled up and asked, ‘Do you know where you’re buried?’” he recalls. “He wanted to give me directions to Booth’s gravesite. The people here are very aware of the area’s history.”
And, like Campbell, Johnson admits it’s easy to lose yourself in your character. “I was doing this scene where I’m riding a horse up to a bridge and I felt as if I actually was Booth. It was the last shot of the day after filming all night, and reality began to blur. Which is easy when you’re shooting where history happened.”
“Authenticity is paramount to Killing Lincoln,” Herzog sums up as the cast assembles for another scene. “I don’t think there has been a project about Lincoln and Booth that ever took it to this level.”