Interview: Billy Campbell discusses lessons from his Virginia youth

Billy Campbell as Abner in the civil war movie Copperhead.  Image: Swordspoint Productions Billy Campbell as Abner in the civil war movie Copperhead. Image: Swordspoint Productions

Some people claim that Disney World is the only place where dreams come true. I beg to differ, Cinderella’s castle notwithstanding. My case in point: a broke intern, far from her hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia, forced to babysit on the side to finance her fanatical addiction to Nike running shorts, can, in fact, find herself interviewing a superhero. All it takes is a little Charlottesville magic.

The superhero is actor Billy Campbell of 1991 Disney film The Rocketeer fame. Charlottesville born and raised, Campbell is one of the city’s best examples of small town dreams turned into big time reality. After appearing in 25 films and approximately 40 television shows (including AMC’s “The Killing” and NBC’s “Law and Order: SVU”) and a Golden Globe nomination, Campbell has cemented himself as a fixture on both the silver screen and the flat screen. His latest film, a Civil War flick entitled Copperhead will be shown at The Paramount Theater on July 21.

C-VILLE spoke with Campbell by phone, (and followed-up via e-mail when his connection dropped) to discuss his newest leading role, his favorite Charlottesville memories, and how his Central Virginia roots grew a childhood dream into a successful acting career.

C-VILLE Weekly: Copperhead is the story of the Civil War “come home”- and your character, Abner Beech, experiences a significant amount of emotion regarding his hometown. What about Charlottesville inspires emotion in you or guides you as you take on different roles?

Billy Campbell: “I grew up in C’ville, and anyone running around as a kid in Virginia can’t help but soak up the history. What’s the history of Virginia if not the War Between the States? And my mom took me to a re-enactment for my 17th birthday. I ended up joining the Albemarle Rifles, a re-enacting unit from C’ville, and so my taste for CW history was further whetted. I guess I just relate to the C’ville/southern thing of friends and neighbors, and something older and bigger than our present problems, and I really think that helps me to enjoy every job and every role I take.”

It’s certainly a unique angle for a Civil War movie. What theme or idea from the film resonated most with you during your time on set?

“The movie is about dissent, and the price of squashing it, which is surely of concern in our era, if not always. What happens when when you openly disagree with the loud and angry crowd? I think it was Ben Franklin who said ‘If everyone’s thinking alike, then no one is thinking.'”

The Rocketeer has garnered quite a following over the years. Do you have any stories about particularly passionate fans?

“There was a particularly passionate fellow in England who used to knit me sweaters. I got three, I think, over the years. He’ll never see this, so I will add that they weren’t quite my style. I don’t mind a frumpy piece of outerwear, I have a few favorite ugly jumpers, but these were a bit further in that direction than I could ever comfortably wear. I’ve wondered if he was just a really dedicated satirist, is how ugly they were.”

What is your earliest memory of your acting career?

“I was collared by my English teacher for cutting up in the hallway outside the room in which she was holding auditions for a play. This was Cathy Sublette at Western Albemarle High School and she let me choose between visiting the principal’s office and auditioning for the play, bless her. I had a sudden and intense interest in acting from that moment, which hasn’t gone away.”

So, say you’re in town in between filming. What are some favorite C’ville spots you’ve got to visit before taking off?

“Well, Sneak Reviews is one of the best video stores on the planet, and I’m partial to caffeine and I gotta say the very best coffee shop is actually in Crozet, and it’s called Trailside Coffee, out in the Old Trail development, just opposite WAHS (and I must confess I’m part owner with my sister Marcia Wilkes). I like The Virginian on The Corner (liked the West Virginian even better when it was downstairs), The White Spot, Miller’s, the Blue Moon Diner, and I loved Sarge’s Pancake House (‘Where students and townspeople meet!’) and so did my dad when he was at UVA, and we both mourn it’s passing. Just to name a few. Oh, and I can’t skip the C&O. Many, many good times there.” -Maggie Underwood