Benjamin Walker doesn’t fit easily into any one category.
The classically trained actor, while studying at Juilliard, would steal away to perform stand-up comedy at clubs on open-mic nights. He’s at home on film (“Shimmer Lake,” “The Choice” and, of course, in the inimitable title role of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer”) as he is on stage, in Broadway dramas (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) or musicals (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”).
Now he’s back to drama with a Tony-nominated performance opposite Annette Bening and Tracy Letts in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” The Roundabout Theatre Company production, which opened at the American Airlines Theatre April 22, tells a post-World War II tale of Chris Keller (Walker), a straight-arrow Midwestern fella who’s on the brink of proposing. The hitch? His girl used to date his brother, a soldier who’s MIA and presumed dead by everyone — but Chris’ mom (Bening). And his dad (Letts) has his own business-related scandal that may upend them all.
Walker, 36, a Georgia native, is married to British actress Kaya Scodelario. The couple has a two-year-old son.
Let’s talk about your amazing set. We’re in the backyard of an old Midwestern home. The slam of the screen door is perfect. And all the other sounds — birds chirping, crickets, the squeal of kids playing in a nearby yard. It felt so real.
It’s one of the many things (our director) Jack O’Brien does brilliantly. You start to hear darker sounds as the play goes on. There’s a dogfight, sirens, the eerie whistle of a forlorn, nighttime train. It’s breathtaking. You feel like you’re a part of this neighborhood.
For a “classic” American play, it feels very 2019.
It boggles the mind. Miller wrote it in 1947 and we’re still having the same conversations.
Like the men at the start of the play complaining how the paper only seems to have bad news.
There’s the line, “I don’t read the news [section] anymore.” I mean, right there, right out of the gate.
And the father’s business scandal, having to do with defective plane parts …
You hear Boeing resounding in the background.
It’s almost eerie.
Annette Bening is phenomenal with research. She came in with all these great books of [Miller’s] letters and essays about the play.
Had you met her before?
No. And my first impression has been my constant experience of her, which is that if you look into her eyes you’re going to be sucked into 1947 whether you like it or not. She’s this vortex. She’s the foundation of this family onstage — and offstage. She really takes care of everyone, and sets the standard of professionalism. It’s a privilege to work with her.
You’re a small-town boy, just like the character you play. Do you relate to him?
I do … and it’s no offense to small towns because I loved growing up there. But there’s certainly that element of … I want more. And that I’m going to have to get out to find these things. I knew the first time I visited New York as a boy that I’d have to at least try it. It was so foreign and exciting. I was lucky I got to have both worlds. It’s interesting, because all my friends are returning to small towns. My wife and I live in a suburb in London, so it kind of comes full circle.
There’s a line in the play that describes your character as the kind of guy who “makes people want to be better than it’s possible to be.” That stayed with me. Do you have people like that in your life, people who push you?
I have some. But this is where I disagree with [the character who says that line], because it is possible.
Possible to …?
To be better than you think you can be. You can serve yourself, and your family, and the community at large. There is something impractical about trying to help … take care of our neighbors. But isn’t that the goal?
I know this is out of the blue, but I suddenly find myself wanting to ask you about “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer.”
Sure. (He laughs.)
He's an example of someone who tried to push people to be better. Granted, yours was a rather unconventional take on ol' Honest Abe, but it’s still Lincoln — he’s such a massive cultural figure. Does he somehow stay with you?
I did a lot of research, reading about his life, his working through depression, and building a life for himself from nothing. He’s certainly one of those people that we’re referring to, and that we need in America today. Somebody who pushes us to be better, and appeals to our better angels.