A Conversation with Actor Bo Brinkman

As we near closer and closer to the May 24th release of the Director’s Cuts for both Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, I have been trying to track down as many people involved with the films as I could, and while most of you know of my upcoming interview with Patrick Gorman, who played Confederate General John Bell Hood, I was able to get another one with Bo Brinkman, who played Robert E. Lee’s aid Major Walter H. Taylor in both films. The reason why I did not get a chance to promote this one is because it happened so quickly. I contacted Bo a few days ago, and he responded to me today with his number, and we agreed to do the interview this afternoon. Very rarely does that happen, and I thank Bo for doing so because my five-days-a-week class schedule really limits the time I have to interview people.

This is really special to me, getting a chance to talk to so many people who I grew up watching. Brinkman’s portrayal of Taylor was something I always noticed, at least in Gettysburg, because I am so fond of Lee, and to see the way these two characters interacted really opened my eyes to what the relationship is between a general and his close staff members. Taylor got plenty of screen time in the first film, and reprised his role in Gods and Generals, though his role was slimmed down. We can only hope that he will be given more screen time in the extended cut, because his acting ability deserves it. He has appeared in ten films since 1988, including  An Occasional Hell with Tom Berenger, and Laws of Deception with C. Thomas Howell. I asked him about his filming experiences and much more, in our interview below:

GC: First of all, I want to thank you for the interview and just to say that I grew up watching “Gettysburg”—I think I watched it until the tape wore out, and then “Gods and Generals” of course, and its a great honor to get a chance to talk to some of the actors that I grew up with.

BB: Well, yeah I’ll tell you they’re a great bunch of guys and I stay in touch with some of them, and as a matter of fact, I’m directing a film right now with Morgan Sheppard (Isaac Trimble) who did both films and then Jeremy London (Sandie Pendleton) who was in Gods and Generals.

GC: What’s that film going to be about?

BB: It’s called The Mark, and it’s a movie I wrote about a gambler who disappeared and left his son who was a child, who is played by London, and the old man, Sheppard, is the side-kick to the legendary gambler, and he is trying to help this kid change his life by revealing some secrets he has never told before about his dad. We’ve been shooting it for the last six weeks, we’ve got three more days left on it and it has turned out very well.

GC: That sounds very interesting. I hope it’s on DVD and Netflix will have it because I would like to check it out.

BB: It will be, next year I’m sure.

GC: When were you first offered the role of Major Taylor for “Gettysburg”?

BB: Oddly enough, I was at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988 because I had two movies there, and Ron Maxwell was at the Carlton Hotel having dinner, and I was with some actor friends and he was watching us, laughing, and he finally waved me over to his table and said, “I directed a movie called The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, with Dennis Quaid, and you remind me of him.” So I said, “Oh, well he’s my cousin, my first cousin.” He started laughing and says, “You know, I’m making a little Civil War movie and I would love to find a place in it for you.” And I said, “Wow, great!” As it turned out, we both lived in New York City, and so we both hung out in Cannes for a couple of days, and we got together in New York and started hanging out in the city, and then a couple of years later when the movie got ready to roll, he offered me the part of Walter Taylor.

GC: Now, you said that Maxwell said “a little Civil War movie”. Did you have any idea that it would turn out to be as epic a film as it ended up being?

BB: I had no idea. He gave me a script, and I thought it was a pretty big script, but yeah, that’s what he said at first: “I’m making a little Civil War movie”. He had been working on it for years and years and years, and he had gotten very close many times to getting it made, and then really what happened was that he met Ted Turner, and he made it happen for him.

GC: Did you know anything about Taylor or the Civil War before Gettysburg?

BB: Not a lot. I had not done a lot of research, other than what I studied in college, and I really did not know until I started to delve into research for the film. It captivated me for years because I love the history, and I thought that Walter Taylor was a fascinating historical character.

GC: How much research and preparation did you do to get ready for this role?

BB: Wow, we’re talking 17 years ago, but I read My Four Years with Lee, that Taylor had written. I read everything I could on Walter Taylor, who was an amazing man. I did a lot of research because I did not want to go in unprepared, and I knew I was going to be up against a lot of actors that were going to be very prepared, like Tom Berenger and those guys, and I really wanted to be on top of it when I started working with them.

GC: In each film, your character works very closely with Robert E. Lee. In “Gettysburg” you worked with Martin Sheen, in “Gods and Generals” you worked with Robert Duvall. What was it like working with those two great actors?

BB: Actually, I had known [Martin Sheen] before, I had met him several times, and my ex-wife [Melissa Gilbert] had actually worked on a movie with him, so I had the chance to know him pretty well before we started. He’s just an amazing man, he’s a sweetheart and a true humanitarian, he’s a religious man, and just a good guy. I loved working with him, and I was pretty young at the time, and very subtly he would help me—he would say, “Oh, you’re working too hard, don’t work too hard”, because I was so eager to please (laughs). He would give me little tidbits like, “You don’t have to work too hard on this line here. Just take it easy.” And of course there’s Robert Duvall, and there is not an actor in the world who doesn’t want to work with him because he’s such a genius. I learned a lot by watching these guys. They’re both fantastic actors, and just to be in their presence, to work with them, and to watch how they approach the material. And I think both Lee’s approached the material very differently, which was interesting to see as well. You had two different actors with two different performances playing the same role—it was pretty fascinating to watch.

GC: This may be a tough question, but in your opinion, which one was more accurate?

BB: They were both very accurate because at the time Lee was at Gettysburg, he was ill, so Sheen was kind of playing reluctant to go into war, and he was also playing his illness a little bit, because historically, all during the battle, Lee was not at a hundred percent. Some people feel that he gave this vague performance of Lee, but he did not have a vague performance at all. He was playing Lee’s illness, and Lee was a humanitarian, he truly was—he was way above his time, and at the time of Gettysburg there was a certain reluctance, and Sheen was playing that. With the performance that Duvall turned in, he was more of a war-horse, and he, not to critique Duvall, seemed to have less humanitarianism. He approached it as a warrior, and not a reluctant warrior, as did Sheen. Does that make sense?

GC: Yes, it does, because I always thought that Sheen was very passionate and Duvall was more calm and reserve. Both performances are fantastic, but personally, I think that Duvall’s performance may have been more accurate because of that.

BB: Yeah, it’s really hard to compare the two because for one thing, it was Lee at two different times, and the war changed Lee, as it does everybody, and so I think they both turned in amazing performances, and if anything hurt Sheen it’s that he was playing the illness and the humanitarian Lee maybe too much. Nevertheless, they are both amazing actors.

GC: I would also like to ask your experience in working with the reenactors. Both of these films had casts of hundreds or thousands, whereas a normal film does not. So what was it like in dealing with all of those people?

BB: Oh, man, they are just the salt of the earth. These movies could have never been done if it wasn’t for the reenactors, and they were kind and a lot of fun. I really enjoyed working with them—they’re just great.

GC: The one thing I have to ask, and people always make fun of “Gettysburg” because of this, and that is all the beards that the actors are wearing. A lot of people call the movie “Gettysbeard” because of some of the obviously fake beards. You had a mustache in both films. Was yours real?

BB: No, it wasn’t real, but Taylor had that little goatee thing going on and when I showed up to do the film, I was really young-looking (laughs). They put the goatee on me and I went straight to Ron Maxwell, and I said, “Ron, I look like a kid in a high school play. This doesn’t fit me. Can’t we just go with the mustache? I know it’s not a hundred percent historically correct, but this thing looks terrible.” He agreed, and thank goodness that I got away with the mustache, which actually looked pretty good. You couldn’t tell.

GC: That’s why I asked because yours and some of the others looked real. Was Martin Sheen’s real, because his looked really good?

BB: Yeah, he had the real thing. Oh, wait, let’s see…I’m trying to recall 17 years ago…I don’t remember now, to tell you the truth. It seemed to me that his was real, but I’m not quite sure. I know Stephen Lang’s was real, certainly not Berenger’s—he had the worst beard in the movie.

GC: It’s a shame because he was the central character and they couldn’t do any better with his beard.

BB: A lot of that is TNT’s fault, I’d say all of it is, because Ron had the best beard guy in the business…the BEST beard guy in the business, and they didn’t want to pay for it, which happens in film. Budget is everything and they just did not want to pay for it. Unfortunately, they were what I call tripping over dollars picking up nickels and dimes, because I feel the beards pretty much hurt the film, horribly. You have “The Movie about Beards” and “Gettysbeard”, and it’s tough because the performances were so solid, the script was so good, the direction was excellent, and yet all those things together and the critics knock the beards. It was really sad that happened, it truly was, because it didn’t have to happen. TNT and the production company that did it were not saving that much money, and we hired a guy that didn’t do beards, but was a great make-up artist and did special effects, but he just did not do beards. The result is now forever on celluloid (laughs).

GC: Now to the “Gods and Generals” director’s cut. Everyone has been waiting eight years for this to come out, there is going to be an extra hour added. Do you know anything about this final cut?

BB: No, I haven’t talked to Ron in about six months. I go see him in Virginia, once a year at least, but I’ve been living in Kenya for the last couple of years, so I haven’t been around much. I knew that he was talking about doing a director’s cut, and actually this week is the first week I have ever heard about it coming out now. I’m very excited for Ron. [Antietam] was not included in the studio cut, and I can guarantee that is going in there. I would also love to see Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. The actor that played Booth was brilliant at it.

GC: Did you have any scenes that were cut?

BB: I don’t recall. I had a lot of scenes that were cut in Gettysburg. My role was a lot bigger in the script and when we started, and when we ended, the director’s cut was around five hours. The same thing with Gods and Generals—it was really two movies. I think the first edit was over seven hours, it was pretty wild. There might be some stuff in there that was cut, but my role had been diminished because the movie really wasn’t about Lee. The movie was about “Stonewall” and his guys, and so the focus centered around him. I think I only had 12 scenes in the whole movie and I think Duvall only had about 14 or 15 scenes. I was really hoping they would do the next film and novel, [The Last Full Measure], and I guess because Gods and Generals really did not do too well at the box office, it was shelved.

GC: When I spoke to Jeff Shaara, he said as of right now there is absolutely nothing-doing with that.

BB: It’s a shame. It would have been nice to see the trilogy, but it’s tough these days. The general public is more interested in watching Transformers than a historically correct, well-made, Civil War film.

GC: Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes. I hardly go to the movies anymore because I don’t like what’s out there. I would much rather watch older movies.

BB: Same here. I don’t know the last time I went to a movie. Actually, I will tell you, I do remember the last time. It was when my 21-year-old son dragged me out to see Avatar (laughs).

GC: I still haven’t seen that.

BB: Well, you know, it’s okay. It’s another thrill-ride. Basically, if you go to Universal Studios and get on one of those rides, that’s kind of what it’s like. It’s like cowboys and Indians in the future. The cinematography is amazing, and all that, but it’s just not my kind of movie.

GC: You mentioned earlier that you were living in Kenya, and I’ve seen some of your pictures on Facebook, so can you tell us what that is all about?

BB: Oddly enough, I met this guy Brad Phillips on the set of Gods and Generals, and he invited me out to Sudan and it was kind of strange because I literally went from a movie set about the Civil War to a foreign country in the middle of a civil war, a real one. That was about eight years ago, and I fell in love with east Africa, and I developed a water-based Pyrethrum Mist system that runs on solar power, and I manufactured 40 systems, and I went over there and tested it, and went back many times. Every year I spend the summer or a half of summer there. After my son graduated from high school, he and I both went over there, and I stayed for two years and he stayed for three or four months, and I was doing mist systems over there, installing them in Sudan and all over Kenya. It was just a nice getaway and I got out of the film business for a while and thought I would experience a different life. I’ve been back since last April and am slipping back into the film business with this film, The Mark, and it’s been a lot of fun getting some of the veterans from Gettysburg and Gods and Generals to be in the film.

GC: It’s like a little bit of a reunion.

BB: Yeah, and there is going to be a reunion in Los Angeles, but I am not quite sure when.

GC: One last question that I ask everybody, what is your favorite film and why?

BB: Being There. Have you ever seen it?

GC: No, but I’ve heard of it.

BB: It’s got Shirley MacLain and Peter Sellers and it was done in 1979. Love the film. I love it—it’s well done and it has a great message. That one, and another, and this is kind of hokey, It’s a Wonderful Life. That would be my second favorite.

GC: A lot of people like that movie, and I’m going to have to see “Being There” because I am a fan of Peter Sellers and a big fan of “Doctor Strangelove”.

BB: This movie was something that he tried to get done his whole life, it was based on a novel, and he died not too long after the filming was completed. It was his swan-song. It’s just a very interesting film. You should go out and find it, get it on Netflix, because it’s such a good film.

I would like to that Bo for taking the time to conduct this interview. This is why I love talking to people who have been in both films, because they always have so many great stories to share, and some that you do not hear anywhere else. Best of luck to him in his future ventures, and his film coming out next year, called “The Mark”!

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Andy V. says:

    This was such an awesome interview. I really did enjoy his performance in Gettysburg. I met Mr. Brinkman briefly in 2004 when he and Brad Phillips were giving a presentation on their work over in Africa. He was such a likable person and I am glad to see how much he cares for the war-torn people in Sudan.

  2. Chuck says:

    Melissa Gilbert must have a thing for actors who play Confederate officers on the big screen. Now that she and Boxleitner (Longstreet) have separated, who’s next?

  3. Wes M. says:

    That was another fascinating interview Greg! Mr. Brinkman, thank you for taking the time to talk to us and share these fascinating anecdotes about the films and about your work in Africa! I enjoyed reading how Bo met Ron Maxwell at Cannes and about working with Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall. If it were not for this interview, we may never have known these behind the scenes stories. I wonder if that Pyrethrum mist system is like the ones that you see in hot climates like Palm Springs and Phoenix? I have read an occasional negative comment about the beards in Gettysburg over the last few years but for some reason I never thought they looked fake. Maybe it is because I don’t have a beard and have never had one? I love Gettysburg and can’t wait to see the director’s cut in a couple of months. I will watch Bo Brinkman’s The Mark as soon as it is available.

  4. Jim MacKrell says:

    I just finished the first four days of shooting on Bo’s new film, ” The Last Man Club”. I’ve been in this business for a long, long time and worked with many directors and actors both really good and really bad, but I’ve never before worked with a director with the depth of Bo Brinkman. He’s one of a kind and may that kind be with us for a long long time.

  5. Kelly Taylor says:

    I enjoyed reading this, I’m a Civil War buff, as well as a film buff, so I’ve seen these movies “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals” more than once. I pay little attention to critics because what I am looking for in films is probably not the same thing a general audience would be paying attention to. And I’ve always thought Bo Brinkman was severely underrated, and it is nice to see some appreciation thrown his way, as well as the wonderful work he is doing outside of film/writing work.

    Thanks for posting this!

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