On a sultry summer day in Richmond, Va. — the Confederate capital during the Civil War — a film crew has gathered at an historic building refitted to look like a telegraph office. The scene being shot features Abraham Lincoln (Billy Campbell) receiving a message and then discussing it with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Graham Beckel).
Despite the sweltering heat, the bearded men wear waistcoats and jackets, and the women are decked out in period dresses, with corsets. The only person who seems comfortable is local actor Benjamin Perkinson, with his little suit and slicked-back hair, as Lincoln’s young son, Tad.
In production is “Killing Lincoln,” set to air Sunday, Feb. 17, on National Geographic Channel, a two-hour mix of drama and documentary based on the best-selling “historical thriller” of the same name by Fox News Channel anchor Bill O’Reilly (“The O’Reilly Factor”) and historian/researcher Martin Dugard. Tom Hanks narrates.
Executive producers for the project are brothers Ridley and Tony Scott (the latter who tragically committed suicide in August 2012) for Scott Free Productions, in partnership with National Geographic Channel.
The other scene being shot in the small building — crammed with cameras, crew and cast — is between Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth (Jesse Johnson, son of actor Don Johnson) and his sister, Asia (Sara Eshleman). It features Booth singing a song whose lyrics were uncovered during research for the movie.
It’s a sad scene, in which Asia realizes that her brother’s fanaticism will ultimately be his undoing.
A bit later on, when the crew breaks for lunch, Beckel — who has just arrived that day and isn’t entirely sure what channel this movie will air on — gets to meet Johnson for the first time. He’s flabbergasted by his resemblance to the real Booth.
Blue-eyed Johnson — who grew a mustache and has his blond hair dyed dark for the role — pulls up a photograph on his phone to show Beckel the inspiration for his look.
“Man, you’re perfect,” Beckel says to Johnson. “Which one’s you? You’re perfect. You’ve got the swagger.”
“Yeah, man,” says Johnson. “I’m really excited that you’re on this project. You don’t know me, but I know you.”
Beckel is the brother of one of O’Reilly’s fellow Fox News Channel commentators, liberal Bob Beckel (“The Five”). But both Beckel brothers also have a personal connection to the Lincoln assassination story.
Beckel explains, “My great-grandfather was in Ford’s Theatre the night that Lincoln got killed. I’m very close to this story.”
He’s also done some reading about the theory that Stanton was, if not complicit in the assassination, not exactly ignorant of it.
“Booth put a bullet in Lincoln’s head,” Beckel tells Zap2it. “But it was something that Stanton damn well knew about. But he didn’t want him to go to the theater. He was ambivalent about it.
“His fingerprints are all over it, only because he knew … but he didn’t know Booth. Stanton had spies all over the country. He was aware of it, and he knew what the motives were.”
As an actor playing an assassin who was an actor, Johnson did his research and says, “What I discovered was a man who was completely contradictory to my high-school history books, in terms of character. He’s this very complex, passionate and magnanimous, magnetic character that was so often depicted as this demonic, mustache-twirling villain — and understandably so.
“President Lincoln was martyred, and Booth was vilified. That was the black-and-white story that could be told, that could sell newspapers and then make its way into the ink of our history books forever.”
As rain begins to fall outside, the movie caravan moves to a series of what may have been cotton or grain storehouses next to some railroad tracks, where Campbell is shooting a scene in which Lincoln poses for photographs with Tad.
Already tall, Campbell (“The 4400”) has had gray added to his hair, grown a beard and had makeup to create the dark, war-weary shadowing around Lincoln’s eyes. While he didn’t have time to lose weight for the role as the rail-thin Lincoln, the resemblance, even up close between takes, is remarkable.
Says Campbell, “We felt it was important to convey this hidden side of Lincoln, this sense of his almost wasting away with premonitions of death, even as he was outwardly so poised and steadfast through the closing of the war.”
Campbell didn’t have much time to do research, and since hitting Richmond, he’s been doing a bit of catch-up.
“What I’ve learned so far,” he says, “just being here and talking to the people that are knowledgeable about Lincoln, the little bit of reading I’ve been able to do since I’ve been here, his humanity, how much he had to overcome personally to do what he did, how much what he did took out of him.”