Benjamin Walker is on the eve of his Broadway inaugural, and it’s been a long, hard campaign. For the past three years, over the course of several workshops and productions, he’s played our seventh president in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a freewheeling bio-musical that gleefully filters Manifest Destiny through rocker swagger—and took the public (and the Public) by storm last season. Walker’s Old Hickory(concocted with writer-director Alex Timbers, of the inventive para-theater troupe Les Frères Corbusier) is a self-absorbed emo punk with abandonment issues and pants twice as tight as Brandon Flowers’s. But Walker, 27, Georgia-born and Juilliard-trained, isn’t much for self-seriousness: He’s got a second career as a comedian, after all. Worse, he’s never killed even a single Indian, much less exterminated whole tribes. (He’s actually—scandale!—part Cherokee.)
But they’re both battlers, with bumptious histories and ropy scars. Jackson fought off the British, the Spanish, and, most notoriously, the Native Americans. Walker was nearly strangled to death by a homeless man in a YMCA bathroom shortly after coming to New York. Jackson fought constant duels. Walker got his right eye badly smashed in a boxing bout. Jackson had to choose between the love of his life and the presidency. Walker had to choose between Hollywood superhero and Broadway superstar. (The love of his life, Mamie Gummer—Meryl Streep’s daughter, to whom he’s engaged—seemed willing to marry him, either way.) Walker hasn’t been shot at as many times as Jackson, but the theater season is young.
“We didn’t want a musical-theater performer, but a classically trained actor. Who can sing really well. Who also has comedy chops,” says Timbers. “That’s a pretty hard combination to find.” Luckily, he ran across Walker at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2006, where he was workshopping an early draft of Jackson. “And there’s something great about how physically imposing and virile he is, and how young and boyish he is at the same time.” (The size issue, Walker says, got him bounced from another youth-driven, rock-backed Broadway phenomenon, Spring Awakening, shortly after he played Melchior in the pre–Atlantic Lincoln Center concert version: “A guy who’s six-three taking advantage of Lea Michele in a barn is very different than, say, Jonny Groff. They were going in a different direction, a healthy direction. A less rape-y direction, yes.”)
Timbers likes that Walker can combine “the self-awareness and the lack of awareness, and the ability to go to an ugly place to make the comedy work.” The musical itself nearly went to an ugly place not long ago: Walker won the part of Beast in Fox’s new X-Men: First Class just as the Broadway transfer to the Jacobs Theatre came through. “There was a question of, should we, can we, be doing this without Walker? Or should we try to wait for him?” says Timbers. Negotiations came down to the wire: The production was hours from losing the theater when Walker pulled out of the film. (The choice was somewhat mutual: Fox apparently wanted an even younger Beast.) Ultimately, Walker thinks the decision was the right thing, karmically and professionally: “I’d have regretted it for the rest of my life. It would have broken up the family.” Plus, he just plain loves playing “Andrew Fuckin’ Jackson”: The tantrums, the speeches, the occasional genocidal impulses. He’s also pumped about the new theater, which he says the producers plan to stuff with Jacksonian bric-a-brac and red-blooded American kitsch—including, hopefully, a Big Buck Hunter arcade game, which Walker imagines ol’ “Sharp Knife” would love. “It’s important to think of Jackson as a young man,” he says, “and America as a young country, lashing out at its Founding Fathers. It’s, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I want, even if it’s destructive to others and ultimately myself. I’m gonna make my own mistakes.’ ” Godspeed, Mr. President. And hail to those tight, tight jeans.