Most interviews are planned long in advance of when they are published, few are not. Normally, it’s the spontaneous ones that make for a more interesting back story, and this one here with Emmy-nominated actor Bill Oberst Jr. certainly fits the bill. A few days ago, I wrote an article giving my thoughts on when history gets turned into horror movies, given the highly anticipated Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and a newly released mock-up of that, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. It just so happens that Bill, who played Lincoln in the latter, read my article and told me that he enjoyed it. He also agreed with my statement of, “If you are going to mess with history, do it in a light that cannot be taken seriously; do not mask it in the form of a documentary or feature film and insult our intelligence.” He also added that it is not often he gets to step out of character, because he is so associated with horror movies, given the amount of them he has appeared in. As for all his work, he has eclipsed 70 films in total, all in the last five years, including nearly 20 that are in pre- or post-production even as we speak. I figured that if Bill could come out of character for a comment, maybe he would be willing to do an interview, so I asked him and he agreed, all this happening in the space of about an hour, due to a break in his busy shooting schedule.
Oberst Jr. got his start in the industry back in 2007, when he starred in the History Channel documentary Sherman’s March, as the hero-or-maybe-terrorist Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. From there, he appeared in the critically acclaimed The Secret Life of Bees, before moving on into the genre for which he is most famous for. He has most recently been nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for his starring role in an interactive Facebook short film titled Take This Lollipop, which exposes the dangers of posting too much information on the internet, and has been very well received by critics and news outlets alike.
In getting back to the ever-changing portrayal of history in cinema, I just wanted to include something Bill said in his initial comment to me, because I think it shows his true self when it comes to the subject, and may make people who look down on horror mock-ups change their opinion, “I took the role of Abraham Lincoln in the silly zombie movie you mention above precisely because I love him and I love history. Even though we have endless fun in American pop culture playing with Lincoln’s image and persona, he was a great man, he saved our country and he deserves our respect. I figured if I could play him as the Lincoln of history, even given the preposterous premise, and impart a bit of his character and inner life onto the screen, it would be my small way of honoring him. ” I hope you enjoy the interview below. It was a real pleasure and an honor to get a chance to conduct it!
GC: How did you first get involved with Sherman’s March? What was your filming experience like?
BO: The History Channel’s Sherman’s March was an accident which launched my accidental film career. I was an east coast stage actor and had been for 12 years when a friend suggested I submit for the role of Sherman, since he knew I was from South Carolina and had grown up hearing tales of Sherman’s rape of the South. He thought it would be funny if they chose a Southerner to play Sherman. I had never done any film acting but did an audition tape using the beard I had from touring with the Jesus Of Nazareth presentation. To my shock, I booked the role. To my further shock, it did well enough to receive a write-up in The Wall Street Journal, which I learned about when my dad called and said “Your name is in the Wall Street Journal.” The family marketing genes kicked in and I thought “Well if I am ever going to try film & TV, this is the time.” So I left the good money that theater had been giving me and moved to Los Angeles to starve with the rest of the poor bastards out here. Filming Sherman’s March was fun but hard. I had done a ton of research but was quite nervous. Sherman’s horse did not like me. I think he knew that I had lied when I told the producers I could ride. Actors!
GC: Tell us a little bit about what it was like filming Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies?
BO: I sort of took Lincoln under my own wing for that one, because I really don’t like to see historical figures played for laughs and stripped of their dignity. As I saw it, I had been given a chance to play one of America’s great heroes and I was going to do that, regardless of the bizarre context. So I guarded the character against anything that would make him look ridiculous, because he wasn’t. Abraham Lincoln was many things; he was sad and melancholy and resolute and stubborn and crafty and secretive and unyielding; but he was never ridiculous. He was a great man and I was determined that he would be respected, yes, even in a film titled Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies. We filmed at historic Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia. After my make-up was done I left everyone and wandered among the cannons and the dark brick passageways until I was needed. I thought. I prayed. The morning we shot the Gettysburg Address I prayed a whole lot, because I knew that for many kids, this might be the only time they ever heard it. Could I give those 275 words anything near the simplicity and honesty they deserved? Watch it and see what you think. It’s near the end, in case you skip through the zombie parts.
GC: What do you normally do to prepare for playing a historical character, even if you’re playing it in a horror movie?
BO: Redaction is the only way for me. I gather together all of the words that the person wrote – about events of the day, about others or about themselves. Reading those words is the key. After awhile, the cadence of the person’s written speech becomes the cadence of their physical speech, which becomes the tone of their character. It is interesting to know what others thought of them but it is invaluable to know what they thought of themselves.
GC: You have appeared in nearly 70 films/shows in only five years. What would you consider to be your big break? How do you stay so busy?
BO: For a working-Joe actor like me it’s more of a slow climb than a jump, but there are milestones. Sherman’s March got me my first agent. The Hallmark Channel TV movie The Shunning was my first top-billed lead on prime-time television. Take This Lollipop got me an Emmy nomination. And only one of those was a horror genre piece, so the diversity is nice. My mom likes that. She is not a horror fan and prefers to think of her son as a nice guy. The camera tends to disagree, though, so I have to go with the camera. Acne scars. What are you gonna do?
GC: Is filming a certain scene in a horror movie ever as scary as watching it once the film is complete?
BO: Rarely, but sometimes. For me the scarier scenes to film are the ones in which you are alone in the dark. No screaming. No dramatics. Just quiet and wait! was that a noise? and a quickening of the heart. That is true terror. I wish that the genre would return to that universal experience and draw from that psychological well more often. I think it would broaden the audience considerably.
GC: Lastly, what is one thing about you that people might be surprised to learn?
BO: I do own shirts and I do wear them. I say that because I get a lot of ribbing about being known for my unusually shaped torso. It is just a harmless birth condition but I have shown my allegedly “creepy ribcage” in so many horror movies, as psychos or redneck cannibals or demons or what have you, that if one runs a Google Image Search for “creepy torso” three pictures in the top page of results are of me. For “creepy torso actor” I pretty much own the whole top row. This odd fact is an asset for my brand within the horror genre, which I admittedly play up on my website, since I know which side my bread is buttered on, but it compels me to say that I don’t run around like that when not working. Oh, and I never wear that damned wife-beater in real life. That’s my perpetual work uniform. Costumers always hem and haw and then arrive at the same conclusion, “Put him in a dirty wife-beater.
I would like to thank Bill for taking the time to conduct this insightful interview! I think we can say that we all learned a lot (I even want to go out there and pick up a copy of his Lincoln flick)! I wish him luck in all of his future ventures, and hope he will get more history-related roles. We need more actors with mindsets like him when it comes to portraying these figures, no matter what the film may be like!