Billy Campbell tried to check out Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar-nominated performance in Lincoln recently, but it wasn't meant to be.
"Oddly enough, when I went to see the movie at the 3rd Street mall in downtown Santa Monica, the projector malfunctioned," Campbell says. "They gave us tickets to come back. So I haven't seen it yet."
Which means that Campbell's take on our iconic 16th president in Killing Lincoln, premiering at 7 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic Channel, is still completely his own.
Granted, Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, co-authors of the bestselling book that inspired the movie, get an assist in shaping his performance -- as does Erik Jendresen, who wrote the screenplay.
Campbell also throws credit to his makeup artist, Ashley Fetterman, because an actor can't portray Lincoln, a face so familiar we see it every day on the money we spend, if he doesn't look the part.
But the point is that Campbell, as Lincoln, is distinctly different -- and Killing Lincoln is unique.
It would be a mistake to dismiss it, just because it's on TV and came second, as Lincoln-lite.
"I think we've created a new kind of filmmaking," Campbell says. "It's a brand new animal."
Which is to say that Killing Lincoln is neither a straight documentary nor a straight drama.
"Previously we've seen documentaries where you have talking heads and actors in the background doing things, but you don't really hear what the characters are saying," Campbell says. "This film uses dramatic scenes interspersed with a narrator [Tom Hanks, who is frequently seen onscreen].
"To my knowledge, that's never been done quite this way."
Killing Lincoln doesn't attempt to cover every nuance of Lincoln's presidency. It focuses squarely on the conspiracy hatched by actor John Wilkes Booth, a man deeply at odds with Lincoln's politics, to assassinate not only the president, but also Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.
In that respect, the real star of the film is an unheralded actor by the name of Jesse Johnson.
While chewing scenery as the actor-turned-assassin, Johnson manages to transform one of American history's notorious villains into a flesh-and-blood human being.
"His performance is nothing short of brilliant," Campbell says. "He had a difficult job, the toughest of anyone in the cast, because he had a very fine line to walk, and I think he walked it.
"It was a tricky portrayal, but he knocked it out of the park."
Killing Lincoln is constantly illuminating, particularly in showing how dramatically different the times were just 150 years ago.
Consider, for example, the ease with which Booth stalked the president.
When Lincoln addresses the public during his second inauguration, Booth is standing in the crowd, shockingly close. Another time, when Lincoln gives a speech from a second-floor window of the White House, Booth is standing below, only a few feet away.
But those were days when a citizen could march right up to the front door of the White House and ask to speak to the president. Lincoln was adamant that people should have that level of access.
Campbell says it's a shame, thanks to people like Booth and Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, that it's necessary to buffer a leader from the public.
"I think we've lost a lot as a result," he says.
Campbell, who starred in such acclaimed TV series as The Killing and Once and Again, savored playing the role of Lincoln because he's a longtime Civil War buff.
"I grew up in Charlottesville, Va., which is 60 miles from where we shot in Richmond," he says.
"You can hardly throw a rock without hitting some piece of Civil War history in Virginia.
"I grew up running around barefoot on historic battlefields. And my mom took me to a re-enactment on my 16th birthday, after which I did re-enactments for a few years. I had uniforms for both sides. I would flip-flop as needed.
"So being a part of this movie was a particular thrill for me."