To the crowds that gather every day in the garden of the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, the lanky red-haired gentleman standing among them, in 18th-century breeches and silver-buckled shoes, is Thomas Jefferson. He looks like the sagacious statesman, and he sounds like him. But put him in jeans and a T-shirt and he’s Bill Barker, the guy who’s been portraying one of Virginia’s favorite sons for more than 20 years.
Not just one of a stable of historical characters passing waistcoats and wigs to the next performer, Barker is Colonial Williamsburg’s one and only Jefferson. A professional actor and director with a degree in history from Villanova University, Barker more than resembles TJ. He’s a Jefferson scholar who’s spent years studying and perfecting the art of historical interpretation. Who’s the guy behind this most famous of men? Erin Parkhurst spoke to Barker to find out. Excerpts:
So, how did you get this gig?
In ’83, I was in Philadelphia, acting and directing, and a friend who was portraying William Penn at the time told me I looked like Jefferson. I got hired to do a photo shoot as Jefferson at Independence Hall. After that, agents got wind and started hiring me. I came to Colonial Williamsburg in ’93 and have been here ever since.
Tell me something that most people don’t know about Jefferson.
He had a wonderful, sublime sense of humor. We tend to think of him as the lofty philosopher-king, but when he got to know you he was talkative and very funny. He once tried to discover if there was a coat of arms for his line of the Jefferson family. He contacted the College of Arms in London and discovered there wasn’t. When it was suggested it could be created for purchase, he said, “Apparently, a coat of arms may be purchased as readily as any other coat.”
You’ve been doing TJ for a long time. Do you still like this guy?
Without question! He’s one of the most consistent people in U.S. history; he never gave up on what he wanted to achieve. He’s never boring. He’s always relevant to what’s going on.
How much time have you spent studying Jefferson and his life?
I’ve been interested in him since I was a kid. This is a true story: I was fired once for reading about Jefferson. It was the late ’70s and Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History had come out. I was in Philly working a summer job during college at a department store, and I was engrossed in the book. My boss caught me reading on the job two times, and on the third I was out.
How have you prepared to portray Jefferson?
I’ve built a database from studying primary documents over the years. I rarely use a contemporary author’s account of something Mr. Jefferson said. I speak from his actual letters, public papers and eyewitness accounts. It keeps me non-political and honest! You know there are more than 20,000 letters? I’ll never be finished reading them.
What book about him would top your list?
Anyone who wants a full reference should read Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time, all six volumes. I also recommend a wonderfully fluid and spirited book, the opposite of Malone, Albert J. Nock’s Mr. Jefferson. It’s short, concise, gets right to the point.
You’ve lived on Duke, above Edinburgh Castle, since 1995 …. Do you have to be in character when you go out to buy milk?
No, or a beer! It’s a delight living in the historic district. To live in 2009 and yet be in a world 200 years removed every day has given me a great lens from the past to the modern world. To wake up and walk out the door to go to work is wonderful, absolutely wonderful. We just keep all modern things like A/Cs in the back, out of view.
You’ve traveled around the world as Jefferson and met U.S. presidents and world leaders. Do any of them stand out in your memory?
About 10 years ago, I met Jiang Zemin, the former president of the People’s Republic of China. He was fascinated by Jefferson. He knew that Jefferson’s ideas for the Declaration of Independence came from the English philosopher John Locke. It made the world seem smaller to me, more connected.
What has kept you doing this for so many years?
[My] continual fascination with the man. This is what I was meant to do. I enjoy this too much, it can’t be work.
Does Jefferson creep into your own daily life unexpectedly?
Yes, when I’m in jeans and a T-shirt in line at a shop in Williamsburg and someone says “Hello, Mr. Jefferson.” I usually just say, “Hello, how ya’ doin’?” I’m not the only one—George Washington and Patrick Henry have the same thing. It’s a small town.
Have you had any particularly memorable moments portraying Mr. Jefferson?
I was on the Colbert Report about three years ago with a couple of Jefferson interpreters from Pennsylvania and North Dakota. Colbert spent four hours trying to provoke an argument between us, but we wouldn’t do it! He ended up tossing a coin to decide who was the best Jefferson. He brought out a throne, a crown, an ermine robe and a scepter for the winner, about the worst insult you could make to Jefferson.