THEATERMANIA: What was your introduction to the show?
BENJAMIN WALKER: The original show started at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I saw it when I was up there doing Romeo and Juliet, and I was enthralled. I ran into Alex (Timbers, the director) right after and wanted to know if and how I could be part of it. It's definitely my kind of dark and intellectual but infantile humor. I really appreciate that ability to be silly and unapologetic. What astounded me when I began to work on it and research more and more about Andrew Jackson is how close the show is to his real life. For instance there's a scene where he and his soon-to-be wife bleed each other. They actually did that; it's not just an emo-rock device.
TM: So you consider the show to be generally true to history?
BW: While we're not walking around in powdered wigs and period costumes, we are striving for the attitudes and the emotions of the time. Andrew Jackson was the first President elected by the people and for the people, the first born in a log cabin. He's a populist and a quintessential American figure. We may not be presenting him literally, but we are interpreting his spirit with the spirit of rock.
TM: Did you pattern your rock performance style on a specific rock star?
BW: No. I do it as if I were a rock star. Maybe I'm thinking of rock stars who have influenced me in my life, such as Otis Redding and Mick Jagger, but I will say that I am looking at it more as an actor. Some people are singers who act; I'm definitely an actor who sings. I adore musical theater, but I don't know if people see me as that.
TM: How would you characterize how Michael Friedman, the show's co-writer and composer, writes music for actors?
BW: I think what's great about Michael is that he knows exactly what he wants, but what he wants is that it comes from your work. If he were a symphonic composer, he would know the sound of a clarinet and write a piece of music that would sound good on the clarinet. He's not writing music that he has to force on someone. He figures out your strengths and weaknesses and writes so that not only your instrument sounds good but so does the music. He definitely has a personal style and perspective but he also has a great ability to listen and funnel that.
TM: Was there a specific moment during the run last summer at the Public when you realized the show was working?
BW: One of the first moments it really hit home was when we had high school kids bussed in to see the show. We'd have talkbacks with them after and these kids had such potent questions. They were entertained by the music and the humor, but they were also stimulated into political discourse, which we could always use more of. They asked things like "do you mean those things happened all the way back then and they are still happening today?" The answer is yes, we're still questioning the balance of executive power. The debate over direct democracy is still alive: Is that how we really want to make decisions, or is that why we have a President? I think Jackson's story is interesting in relation to the Obama administration, which has gotten into the realities of being President after a very fervent, almost rock star campaign. There are also similarities with George W. Bush, who made sweeping decisions through every branch of government. You learn history in the abstract, but when you see it presented in a fun play, you see it in a whole new light.