As an actor who travels around the world for work, Billy Campbell chooses not to have a car, opting instead to rent vehicles as needed from ZipCar or Car2Go. Although his home is in Vancouver, Canada, over the last year he's been on film sets in Los Angeles, Eastern Canada, Antarctica and Richmond, Va., where "Killing Lincoln," in which he plays the title role, was made. The National Geographic Channel docu-movie, based on Bill O'Reilly's book and narrated by Tom Hanks, premieres Feb. 17.
"It's not focused on his politics as much as it is focused on this moment in time in his life and death," Campbell differentiates the film from Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," which he has intentionally not seen. Because he was cast a week before his start date, he didn't have time to do research and decided to "surrender myself to Erik's [Jendresen] script. It was very freeing," he says, admitting to being only slightly daunted by the prospect of playing the 16th President, "not enough to give me a moment's pause."
He knew his transformation would work when, in makeup and costume for the first time, he took a stroll through Richmond, "and cars slowed down, people were staring. I went into an English pub, had a pint of beer, and walked back to the production office."
Campbell, who starred in AMC's "The Killing" last year, moves easily between TV and film, comedy and drama, and has completed projects in the pipeline that are "all over the map." He has a small role in "The Scribbler," "a weird take on a superhero" based on a British graphic novel; it was filmed in L.A., as was his most recently completed film, the comedy "10 Things I Hate About Life," in which he plays one of the central lovers' fathers. In "Copperhead," a Civil War-era movie shot in New Brunswick that takes its title from a pejorative term for Northerners who were against the war, Campbell — rather ironically — plays "a guy who hates Lincoln. Then I went to Richmond to play Lincoln."
Campbell had the chance to go to Antarctica last year to make "Red Knot," with Vincent Kartheiser and Olivia Thirlby as a couple on a voyage to the remote continent. He plays the captain of the vessel, which is a case of art imitating life. He is an expert sailor who just built a 48-foot wooden schooner from scratch in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, and launched it immediately after wrapping work on "Killing Lincoln," sailing it to a boat show in Newport, R.I. "It was the belle of the ball," he says proudly, equally proud that on the trip there, "we saved three people out of the ocean." Apparently, the inexperienced sailors, attempting to sail from New Bedford to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts in a small boat, capsized in bad weather in Buzzards Bay. "The sun had gone down and they were hypothermic," he relates. "If we had not stumbled upon them they most certainly would have perished."
Another of Campbell's upcoming movies, "The Disappeared," has a similar theme. "It's about six tuna fishermen who are stranded at sea in two small boats after their fishing boat sinks," he says, likening it to Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat," with one claustrophobic set. "You never see land, you never see another boat." It was shot in Lunenberg, where his schooner is in dry dock for the winter, and Campbell looks forward to sailing in the spring. "I don't know where I'll be going this season. I might just sail locally around Nova Scotia. Eventually I'll take it to Vancouver, where I live most of the time. But I want to sail to the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Europe."
The boat, he notes, has compostable toilet. Instead of the usual marine "head," which "break and stink," he uses a bucket and cedar shavings. "You cover your business with cedar shavings and seal it back up. It never smells, and turns into compost."