Woody Harrelson plays Lyndon B. Johnson in a new biopic detailing the accidental president’s first two weeks in office after Kennedy’s assassination. Director Rob Reiner sat down with The Daily Texan to discuss his new project, “LBJ.”
Daily Texan: You started as a writer for the Smothers Brothers, who often targeted LBJ and the Vietnam War in their jokes, and now you’re directing a biopic honoring him. How did your perceptions of LBJ change over the years?
Rob Reiner: That’s a great question, because when I was of draft age during the Vietnam War, I hated LBJ. I mean, he was my enemy — I was against the war, I thought it was immoral, I thought it was illegal — but he had the power to send me to my death. But as I’ve gotten older and mature, I’ve spent a lot of time in politics and also in government … His presidency is a tale of two presidencies. If you look at his domestic achievements legislatively, it’s without compare, except maybe for FDR. Had it not been for Vietnam, I think he would’ve gone down as one of the greatest presidents of all time.
So, I was curious to look at this guy who I had certain feelings about and had a certain image of this kind of bull in the china shop, bully kind of guy who would browbeat people into coming around to his position, to see what else was there with him. Who else was he? And doing all the research, I found out he was a very complex person, and as much as he had this highly functioning ability to get things done, he was also incredibly insecure. He was frightened of not being loved — it almost paralyzed him at times into making decisions. So, I wanted to tell that story of who this guy is, not so much his entire biography, but who is LBJ, and what you discover is that he’s an incredibly complex person.
DT: When Joey Hartstone came to you with the script, how did you collaborate in deciding how you wanted to tell the story?
RR: If you look at the film, it all takes place in a two-week period. It starts with Kennedy arriving at Love Field in Dallas, and it ends with Johnson delivering that very famous speech to the joint session of Congress on the civil rights bill. Within that structure, you have flashbacks to when he was majority leader, to when he was deciding to run for president, through his time as vice president, but it starts the day in Dallas when Kennedy gets assassinated. Why we chose that period was because, to understand who somebody really is, you want to look at him at a time when he was under the most pressure. A real person will emerge when somebody is under the most pressure, and here he was having to assume the presidency from a president who was beloved, and you have this guy Johnson who is so insecure that he will never be loved and certainly never be accepted the way the country accepted Kennedy, and that’s what we wanted to explore.
DT: When you’re putting the cast together — Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bill Pullman, Richard Jenkins — how did you choose who would be right for the role?
RR: (When I tell people) I just made a movie about LBJ and they say, ‘Who’s playing LBJ?’ and I say, ‘Woody Harrelson,’ they say, ‘Really?’ I say, ‘Wait until you see what he does.’ I mean, he’s absolutely incredible in it, and I chose him not only because he’s from Texas and understands the Texas mentality, but he also brings with him a tremendous amount of humanity, a great sense of humor, and all of the strength and power the Lyndon Johnson had. I wanted to show a full three-dimensional portrait of who Johnson was, so I wanted somebody who would bring all those qualities to him. And Jennifer, I just called her up and she said she would do it, and I was so thrilled because she’s a great actress. Richard Jenkins I had worked with before, and to me, he could read the phone book. The guy to me is just a brilliant actor, so I got lucky with him too.
DT: The film centers on the (Civil Rights Act), and I think LBJ represents a person who maybe has older ideas and is needing to adjust.
RR: I have a different take on it. I don’t think he had old ideas, I think he always held these ideas that people in poverty, people who didn’t have the same advantages, he wanted to lift them up. He wouldn’t have gone on to build the Great Society unless he was completely devoted to doing that. But he was also a consummate legislative politician. He knew the mechanics of getting things done and he knew when you could get something done and when you couldn’t, and I think that he never viewed himself as a Southerner. He thought as himself as a Texan, and most Texans I’ve talked to view themselves as Texan, not so much as Southerners. In case of Johnson, he also thought of himself as a Westerner because he was from the hill country in West Texas, but he was more than happy to take on the southern mantel as a way of trying to broker things with the southern Democrats at the time. But I don’t think he would’ve done what he did unless he thought he could get it done, and also he had some feeling it was the right thing to do.
DT: You screened this film for the first time at Toronto last year. Do you think that this film will have a changed impact coming out this year with the new administration?
RR: I think it will. I watched this film before Trump became president, and I’ve seen it since Trump became president, and it’s like watching two different films. The landscape has shifted so dramatically in American political life, that to watch (Johnson) function at the highest levels and see what we have now, it shows you what can be done when somebody really understands the nexus of politics, policy, and government, and knowing how those things intersect and how they all work together. To have somebody like that who’s as effective as Lyndon Johnson only makes what we have now seem more silly.
DT: You, Woody, and Joey Hartstone have already shot a new film, “Shock and Awe,” since this film has shown. What was the chemistry like between you three that made you want to continue working together?
RR: Joey did an amazing job on LBJ, so obviously, I wanted to work with him again. And Woody, I mean, I love Woody. I’ve said this before: If I could make every movie with him I would. He’s great to work with, he’s totally professional, he has a great instinct, and he’s fun to work with.