CIVIL WAR RE-ENACTOR TALKS CRAFT
“Re-enacting is more than just a job for me,” he says. “It’s a way of life.”
HOLLYWOOD, LA – Instantly recognizable in his faded blue uniform and cap, his face bearded, brandishing a very realistic bayonet, one of the industry’s fastest emerging stars found a few moments in his busy schedule between re-enacting scenes from the Battle of Chancellorsville to sit down on a city park bench to talk with us.
Thomas Michael Whitaker, 47, takes a few minutes to breathe deeply after a particularly intense fight scene. He’s been outside for over an hour, after all.
“It’s okay, we’re all here for the sake of art, aren’t we?” he drawls.
Indeed we are. Recognizable for many years now as a key supporting player in many battle re-enactments, Whitaker has built up a steady reputation as one of Hollywood’s most reliable and agile everyman re-enactors. Not that Hollywood, just so you know. A small community in Louisiana by the same name. But still. He is finally getting his dues paid with a recent award nod for his role as Abram Fulkerson in a re-enactment of the Battle of Shiloh , and continues to garner more leading man appeal every day.
Re-enacting has always run in the family for him. “My father did it,” he tells us. “I took part in my very first ever re-enactment when I was 8, playing the role of a boy holding the Confederate flag. What’s really funny is, if you look far back enough, I actually had family members who participated in some of these battles.”
On a recent appearance on “Inside the Civil War Re-Enactor’s Studio”, Whitaker spoke candidly and honestly about his dedication to preserving the memory of fallen Southern soldiers.
“You have no idea how hard they had back then, in the 1860s,” said Whitaker, his voice shaking. “Sometimes, those guys would be outside wearing heavy overcoats in 90, 100, even 100 plus Fahrenheit. Because the uniforms are pale blue, it’s immediately obvious who’s been sweating, which can be very embarrassing at times.”
He insists that being a re-enactor is more about the process from him then any of the “local celebrity” or “free booze” or “tail” that his life might come with. When asked about the rumors circling that he had begun a relationship with one of the re-enactresses who played a nurse on site, he denies anything you may have heard.
“There is nothing going on there,” says Whitaker quickly. “We are friends and nothing more. She treats my fake injuries, that’s all. I think that a local group of kids built that story up to be more than it really was, in the hopes of stirring up some controversy. None of it is true. You might find this hard to believe, but being a Civil War re-enactor is not necessarily an “in” with the women. Doesn’t bother me though, I am far too busy for that and more focussed on my career at this point.”
The highlight of his career to date, of course, came with the recent news that he was up for Best Re-Enactor in a Supporting Role Civil A-War-d.
“Guess I have to dig up my tuxedo T-shirt for the ceremony,” he jokes. “When I got into this business, I never, ever imagined I might one day be up for a Civie. You have no idea how humbled I am to find myself in the company of past Civie nominees like ... Robert “Fatty” Nicholas, uh, Duke “The Dukester” Sulley, and Meryl Streep.”
Whitaker’s career shows no sign of slowing down, though he admits had he taken a slight turn he may have never ended up a Civil War re-enactor at all.
“There was a time, before I had a beard, when I thought I was going to be a “Star Wars” convention traveller. That probably would’ve been too geopolitical for me, though. One day I just stopped shaving, looked in the mirror, and liking what I saw, I just never looked back.”
This year should prove to be another busy one. His name is being circulated around a number of upcoming battle re-enactments. Scorsese himself has reportedly tapped Whitaker to play Robert E. Lee in his upcoming recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg. Not THAT Scorsese, but you know.
“This could be fun,” says Whitaker, adding that he “really hates the guy who might play Ulysses S. Grant for that time he cut in front of me at Wendy’s.”
What can he leave us with, in terms of advice, for any aspiring re-enactors?
“It can sometimes be very tricky,” admits Whitaker. “It’s one thing when you’re performing an original story, something of your own creation, but it’s really quite another re-enacting a historical event. Everyone knows that story, so where does the story end? Where does your imagination begin? Finding that line, that’s the most difficult part.”
Whatever battle Whitaker next finds himself re-enacting, his fans can have faith that he will do so “just sober enough that he remembers where to walk”.