Hagerstown native tells of 'role of a lifetime' in 'Lincoln'

January 08, 2013|By DON AINES |
  • Christopher Boyer is shown at the premiere of 'Lincoln,' in which he played Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Submitted photo

His work has been seen by millions — most recently in the Stephen Spielberg film “Lincoln” — but this Hagerstown native might not be easily recognized despite his appearances in scores of movies, television shows and commercials.

With a beard that is more salt than pepper, Christopher Boyer does bring to mind Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the role he plays in “Lincoln,” a part that producers had to go to the West Coast to fill.

Shelly Strong, a producer for DreamWorks Studios and another former Washington County resident, told Boyer they were having trouble finding an actor to play Lee, Boyer said during a recent visit back home. There are plenty of Confederate re-enactors in the East, he said, but most were too old to play Lee, who was 58 years old at the time of his surrender at Appomattox.

Boyer, 52, went to a wardrobe house in Los Angeles, rented a Confederate general’s uniform, had a friend take some video and sent it to the producers of the film.

“They wanted to know if I could ride a horse,” said Boyer, who has been riding since the age of 11 and is a certified farrier. He went to Griffith Park in Los Angeles, rented a horse and had some more video taken to send to the producers.

“This is the role of a lifetime here,” said Boyer, who spent plenty of time at Antietam National Battlefield as a boy, sleeping a night on Bloody Lane, jumping from Burnside Bridge and occasionally getting chased off by National Park Service rangers.

Boyer got the part and went to Richmond, Va., in November 2011 for a fitting and a toupee, and back again in December to film his scene with Ulysses S. Grant, played by Jared Harris, son of the late British actor Richard Harris and a regular on AMC’s “Mad Men” until his character hanged himself.

Spielberg did not assign the scene to a second unit director, but handled it himself, Boyer said.

Without dialogue, Spielberg wanted Boyer’s Lee “to embody the nobility of the South, flawed as its cause was,” the actor said.

Boyer met with Spielberg a couple of times to discuss expressions, gestures and movements, he said.

“It was very exact,” Boyer said. At the same time, the two-time Oscar-winning director “made me feel like the most important person on the set.”

A 1978 graduate of South Hagerstown High School, Boyer described himself as “a journeyman, blue collar, in-the-trenches actor.”

While millions have seen “Lincoln,” no doubt tens of millions have seen some of Boyer’s other work, including a recent commercial for the travel service Kayak, in which he played a brain surgeon.

A Christmas commercial for the “Power of Cheese” campaign ran annually for about eight seasons, Boyer said.

A good commercial can pay a lot of bills, particularly if it runs on network television rather than cable, Boyer said. That and his other credits have allowed him to be an actor for most of the past two decades, rather than waiting tables.

“Scientist in the background ... with a clipboard” is how Boyer described his role in the Jodie Foster sci-fi film “Contact.”

“That was a good gig because it was three weeks of work,” he said.

And it provided the opportunity to work with Foster, another double Oscar winner.

“The job is as much about being available for the audition as anything else,” Boyer said.

Instead of agents shopping around actors’ photos to producers, most submissions are made electronically, he said. An actor might have to be ready to drop whatever he or she is doing when a call is received and head for an audition at a moment’s notice, he said.

Boyer’s first role was in kindergarten, playing a gingerbread boy.

“The notices were such that I decided not to return to the stage for 30 years,” Boyer said.

A graduate of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., Boyer found himself helping out on some student productions, doing sets and lighting and moving up to producing and directing. That continued after graduation, with students putting on productions in a restaurant he once owned.

Eventually, he decided to give Hollywood a shot “as kind of a lark,” he said. Boyer did some acting for University of Southern California film students and took some behind-the-scenes work in films.

He also did some breakfast catering for Japanese commercials featuring American actors — Harrison Ford pitching whiskey and Demi Moore selling cosmetics, for example.

“What, no luggage?” was his first line in a feature film, as the hotel clerk in the 1992 crime thriller “Peephole.”

Boyer said his most “cringe-worthy” performance was in 1993’s “Uninvited,” a horror film featuring the character actor Jack Elam, who drove down with his wife from Oregon in a Winnebago for a one-day shoot.

Boyer said his own acting was pretty rough in the film, but it was memorable because of Elam, who was near the end of his career, but had plenty of Hollywood anecdotes to tell over a camp bar with which he traveled.

Boyer worked on a number of films produced by legendary low-budget director and producer Roger Corman.

The 1990s and first decade of the millennium saw him appearing in films with titles like “Sleepstalker,” “Cyber-Tracker 2” and “Zarkorr! The Invader.”

At the same time, however, he was appearing in TV shows such as “LA Heat,” “NYPD Blue,” “Crossing Jordan,” “Desperate Housewives” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Las Vegas” and “Monk.” He recently played Christina Applegate’s father in the sitcom “Up All Night,” he said.

After visiting with family and friends here, Boyer said he will head back to Hollywood, where he’ll wait for the phone to ring for his next audition.


Editor's note: This story was edited Jan. 8, 2013, to correct Robert E. Lee's age at the time of the surrender at Appomattox.

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