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Benjamin Walker on Cannibalism, His Right Hook, and Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight

When Muhammad Ali refused the draft, claiming status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. What happened when it landed there, and how the decision was made to allow the professional boxer the religious freedom not to fight — a decision that went through a dramatic reversal just as the majority opinion was being written — is the subject of the HBO film Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, starring Christopher Plummer as the justice who changed the tide, and Benjamin Walker as the law clerk who convinced him to do so. Walker called from London, where he's currently shooting Ron Howard's latest film, In the Heart of the Sea, to chat with Vulture about porn screenings, punching Pablo Schreiber, and eating Chris Hemsworth.

You've played a couple of presidents (granted, one was also a vampire hunter), and now you're playing a Supreme Court justice clerk. What makes you gravitate toward playing historical characters?
I usually gravitate toward people who want to give me a job! It's as simple as that. Also, the stories that people have lived are just as fascinating as the stories that have been manufactured. I like to look back on history. I like to read history. And this period in history, I was familiar with, but the specifics of Muhammad Ali's trial, I didn't know. No one taught me in school. That was partly why I was so excited to do it, because it's an important story and one that people need to be refreshed on.

It's interesting to see how the Supremes act behind closed doors, particularly how on Fridays, they would go and watch porn together, in their search for a good obscenity case.
[Laughs.] Yeah, isn't that funny? Well, they got to keep it exciting somehow. It's a rough job, but somebody's got to do it.

And your justice, Justice Harlan, the one your character clerked for, went above and beyond. He would read things like Lady Chatterley's Lover. He did his homework.
Well, he was a very thorough man. To be thorough like that is so important. And that's probably more rare than we like to think. But that's what we appoint those men and women to do. And so little is written about what goes on behind those closed doors, it's about time a movie was made about it.

You also have a fun scene where you get to punch Pornstache — Pablo Schreiber, who plays another law clerk.
[Laughs.] Pablo! It's interesting because my character, Kevin Connolly, is an illustration of a change. A change in the courts, and a larger change in American society. So I think that scene is pretty important. The kind of young, scruffy, long-haired underdog trying to stand up against white, Ivy League elite. In a court drama where there's a lot of talking, every once in a while, somebody needs to get punched in the face!

Are you a boxing fan? Do you box? What's your style?
I am! And I have done some myself. I work with a trainer named Rich Barretta, who helps me sometimes. I enjoy it. You certainly learn a lot about yourself when you do that. My style is mostly trying not to get punched in the head. [Laughs.]

You're shooting Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea with Chris Hemsworth, where again you're playing another real-life, historical figure: George Pollard, the basis for Moby-Dick's Captain Ahab.
That's right. The same. Like in Moby-Dick, his ship was struck by an enormous white whale, and it's just fascinating to imagine that it actually happened. Melville certainly created a brilliant piece of writing, but he kind of ripped off their lives. [Laughs.] Ron is so good at what he does and so inclusive and collaborative, you never feel anything other than, "Damn, I'm lucky to be working on a Ron Howard movie."

Have you seen Rush yet? It feels nothing like a typical Ron Howard film.
That's what I hear. I'm probably going to wait until we're done filming, because I feel like Chris and I are doing nice work together, and I don't want to have that outside view of his work. I just want to deal with what he brings on a daily basis. But that's what's exciting about Ron, that he's been doing it this long, he's exceptionally successful at it, and he's still working on his own process. For example, we shoot with multiple cameras, a lot of small cameras, which is what I hear Rush is like. It almost feels like an indie movie. That's new for Ron, and I think it's really ballsy to continue to push yourself as a artist, and he certainly does that.

It's also in terms of subject matter, because while you might have this family, wholesome association with his past work, he's pushing the limits. In Rush, it's the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll vibe with the race-car drivers, and In the Heart of the Sea, it's with the cannibalism. He's got a dark side!
[Laughs.] He's a grown man. He gets it. He's gone places and done things. Regardless of the other films he's made, he certainly has that side to himself.  I think his next one is probably going to be a porn. I'd watch that movie! Ron Howard porn? Come on! [Laughs.] But the cannibalism, without giving too much away, it's certainly part of the experience of being shipwrecked on the Atlantic for a few months. You very quickly run out of options. The movie is about the will to live, really, and what the human experience is, how dark it can go. If you've read the book, it's certainly part of it.

If you had to eat one of your co-stars, who would you want to try?
Hemsworth's got a lot of bulky muscle on him. I bet he'd be delicious.  

He might think you're pretty tasty.
Not unless he wants to get hit in the head with an oar! And my right hook is pretty wicked.

Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty