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Benjamin Walker on His Stand-Up Comedy Act and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Benjamin Walker has enough thespian bona fides — he’s a Juilliard grad; a Broadway vet best known for playing our seventh president as an emo rock god in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; and, oh, he happens to be Meryl Streep’s son-in-law — that should convince you of his possible-next-big-thing status. If you're still a skeptic, then perhaps his next project will do the trick: Walker is about to play another badass former leader of our nation in this summer’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In the meantime, he is returning to a smaller stage as host of the comedy show he founded while in college, “Find the Funny,” which plays at Joe’s Pub tomorrow night. Walker spoke to Vulture about his grittier stand-up days, learning Lincoln-specific martial arts, and how Lincoln could, like Jackson, be considered “sexypants.”

How did “Find the Funny” start?
I was doing open mikes, and I started getting booked and noticing there were opportunities for new comics to do new material. The first place I worked was called Hamburger Harry’s, in midtown, and another called Gladys’ Comedy Hole — just a mecca of comedy talent [laughs]. But that’s where the exciting stuff is happening: weird bars, backs of elementary schools. I got some friends together, and it’s kinda grown and gotten out of hand now.

What kind of comedy writer are you? Do you take most material from your own life?
I’d consider myself a flailing comedy writer. I do a lot of family stories from growing up in the South, but I’m also very interested in politics and topical humor. You can always write material, but it almost seems easier to just read the newspaper; it leaps off the page for you.

You’re so imposing onstage. Do you ever get weird looks when you say you’re a comedian?
Well, I’ve never claimed to be funny.

Are there humorous elements to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?
I think people will be surprised at how funny Lincoln was. Particularly in his younger years when he was doing the lawyer circuit, staying up late in bars and entertaining the townsfolk. I think he had a sense of humor and certainly would get a kick out of our movie.

What does the audition for something like Vampire Hunter entail?
The audition process took almost eight months of work. The producers and Timur [Bekmambetov, the director] came and saw Andrew Jackson, and then we had a screen test where we worked on the Gettysburg Address all day, and then we went back and forth on the script for a while, and then I had a prosthetics test. It went round and round for quite a while. And somehow we made it!

An entire day of the Gettysburg Address sounds intense.
It was intense, mostly because it’s some of the best political rhetoric ever written in America. Yes, there are vampires in the movie, but it’s also a real honor to be part of the Lincoln story. He’s a fascinating man and a lot of fun to learn about.

Did you do a lot of research on him, or did you want to go in with a blank slate?
We did a ton of research on him. I mean, the trailer premiered at the Lincoln Museum for crying out loud. It’s important to choose what research you do: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book [Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln] is great, but it’s more about Lincoln’s politics once he’s in the White House, so it doesn’t necessarily help you. When you stumble onto a book like Lincoln's Melancholy [by Joshua Wolf Shenk], which is more about his depressive nature and his misery and how he dealt with death in his life, that lends itself well to the story we’re trying to tell.

How did Timur and Tim Burton [who produced] conceive of Lincoln?
Their biggest concern was that it was real, that there’s never a moment when we’re winking and making light of him. That we’re literally committing to the drama of Abraham Lincoln. A serious movie that also has vampires in it.

There was a lot of crazy ax-wielding going on in the trailer …
Well, Lincoln was quite the rail splitter in his time!

Were there other ridiculous skills you had to learn?
Oh yeah, they created a martial art unique to Lincoln, and as they were creating it, I was learning it. I spent months training, I lost 30 pounds, and ended up hitting a bunch of stunt guys in the head with rubber axes.

What made the technique specific to Lincoln?
The juxtaposition of grace and violence. In the same way that he functioned as a politician and man, with these two wildly different sides — Timur wanted that to be illustrated in this simultaneously balletic and violent fighting style.

You turned down another big blockbuster, X-Men: First Class. What made this one the right one to break out in?
Well, what complicated [X-Men] was that I had to choose between it and Andrew Jackson, and that was a no-brainer; I didn’t want to miss out on that show and that group of people. In terms of [Lincoln], the team assembled, it almost didn’t matter what the movie was, I knew I wanted to work with these people. The script could’ve been toilet paper and I would’ve given it a shot.

Does the motto for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson — “History just got all sexypants” — apply to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, too?
It is funny, I’ve turned out to be the go-to guy for weird interpretations of American presidents. Next we’ll be doing Woodrow Wilson in Space.

What kind of audience might you get at tomorrow night's show? Is there some intersection of stand-up comedy fans and theater geeks?
It’s a nice little hybrid. The Pub has a younger crowd in there, and then the Public Theater brings an older, more sophisticated crowd.

I’d be remiss in not asking about how Oscar night was for your family. I’d imagine it was nerve-racking to watch?
I’d just say that the only thing more intimidating than a huge international film star is your mother-in-law.

Photo: Bryan Steffy/Getty Images