Ben Walker reveals how he stays centered in the center role of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The edgy emo musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson created a major stir during its last Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater in New York, so much so that it was actually brought to the Great White Way for a three-month run starting in mid-October. What is amazing is how the irreverent show—which portrays our seventh president both as a political idealist and genocidal murderer—even made it into the mainstream. Originally performed in Los Angeles more than three years ago, the musical enjoyed two runs at the Public before hitting Broadway. Its sarcastic wit, rich pop culture references and sharp political commentary—a mash-up of high and low art, if you will—contributed to its longevity and success.
The show’s engine is Benjamin Walker, who previously appeared on Broadway in Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Inherit the Wind along with some Hollywood films. While BBAJ’s ensemble cast definitely exudes talent, Walker’s sexy swagger, sense of irony and sheer boldness has made him a magnetic figure on stage. He believed so much in the show—which he likes to a “Romper Room White House”—that he gave up the chance to appear in the next X-Men movie to bring BBAJ to Broadway. That’s dedication.
Stage Directions: You turned down the chance to be in the next X-Men movie to do this on Broadway. You completely created this role, but was it still a painful choice to make?
Politically, the show is not as obvious as you think. As times it seems like you’re satirizing Bush, but there’s a little bit of Obama there as well. What was the process of building this character, and how has it mutated since you first developed it in Los Angeles three years ago?
It’s interesting. It has deepened as we’ve continued to cultivate the project, but when you talk about the political parallels, when we did it in Los Angeles it was a Bush play. There was a stolen election. Then it was a Lincoln play. Then Palin when we were down at The Public. Now it’s definitely Tea Party and Obama and “change we can believe in.” There were a few aspects of the show, particularly in the third section, that have changed, but it has mostly stayed the same. There are still those parallels there every time we do it. Frankly, it is because of who Jackson was.
How do you relate to him and to that role?
I feel like as an American we can all relate to him in terms of how divisive he is. We’re still debating whether he was a great president or a genocidal maniac. Especially as Americans today, we’re such a divided country right now that the legacy of Jackson is certainly something we need to be discussing.
I’ve definitely grown up with him, and through the progression of the show he becomes a man. As I get older I start to notice the new nuances in him. Even over a span of three years, you grow a lot in your twenties and you start to feel the responsibilities of being an adult in a way that he did, that moment of: “Now I’m in the White House, gotta pay the rent. What I do now?” That’s been exciting and really rewarding as an actor. It’s a rare opportunity to be able to live with a character this long, and it’s been very gratifying.
You went to Juilliard, have been in a couple of Hollywood films and had supporting roles in a couple of Tony-nominated plays. How does a role like this fly in the face of your formal training or previous experience?
I’ve got to say it doesn’t. My training, specifically at Juilliard, is what makes it possible for me to be able to do the show eight times a week. This is a hugely physically and vocally taxing show, and if I didn’t have that technique I would’ve blown my voice out by now, broken a bone, pulled a muscle, who knows what. I have to say that working on classic pieces and classic plays is how you become capable of doing wild rock shows and capable of navigating intricate tonal comedy like Andrew Jackson.
The emo songs in BBAJ are not complex, but there’s still a lot of power behind them.
It’s interesting, in traditional musical theatre the song will further the story. But we don’t. We just take a moment, stop and almost dissect a moment in time in the play and in minds and psyches of the characters. We take a moment to stop the action and rock out for a minute.
At the same time this show is still controversial. Have you received negative reactions from people who might not appreciate the irony or humor?
This is a good story: A disgruntled woman came up to me after the play the other night and inadvertently gave me the highest compliment she possibly could. She said, “I didn’t like it, it was too loud and too bright, and it wasn’t funny. But I’m going to go home and Google Andrew Jackson!” Well, that’s fantastic. We don’t care if you’re in on all the dick jokes, we want you to be activated as an American. So thank you.
I don’t know. It’s different every night. Because we’re so interactive with the audience—although we’re telling the same story and doing the same parts—because of the temperature of the audience it can be an entirely different show every night. The audience can be part of that conversation, and so you never know what’s going to be a hard part.
Do you ever worry about too much blood splatter during the wrist-slitting scene with Jackson’s wife?
There’s never enough blood. I change three or four times during the show anyway.
What did your previous Broadway projects teach you about theatre that helped you with this show and developing this role?
They certainly taught me about the longevity of things, specifically during Inherit the Wind. Watching Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer do that show eight times a week really taught me about how to put on a good show every night. Especially in film, you might work for a day on a scene, but then you never do it again. Once the movie is over, it’s recorded, and you never have to revisit that character, think about it or do anything else with it. And this is such a different piece. I think we’re on our 50th show uptown. Some of us have been working on this play for three years and change, and the question is how do you keep that story exciting to yourself and fresh every night? That’s something that I definitely learned doing a few other Broadway plays.