Accidental president. Vietnam. Civil Rights Act. Bully. This is Lyndon B. Johnson”s legacy, or at least how he”s often remembered. New HBO film All the Way seeks to illuminate many sides of the man who stepped into the highest office in the land after John F. Kennedy”s assassination.
Bryan Cranston plays LBJ in the film, premiering on HBO tonight, following his Tony-winning turn as the president in All the Way on Broadway.
After he”d already done extensive research and study of the play”s text (itself thoroughly researched by playwright Robert Schenkkan), Cranston went on a second visit to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, TX, and that”s where the person of LBJ really clicked for the actor.
“The character is always outside of you until you hopefully allow it to seep in. Then it becomes a part of you,” Cranston told HitFix.
He found something in the museum he”d missed on his first visit: A letter from Jackie Kennedy to Johnson, dated November 26, 1963, four days after JFK”s death. She thanks Johnson for always treating her well, for walking with the Kennedys” three-year-old son at the funeral, and for writing letters to the boys who had just lost their father.
“That hit me like a ton of bricks,” Cranston said of his realization that Johnson had written letters to the Kennedy children just a couple days after the shock and chaos of suddenly becoming head of state. “The entire burden of being the president of the United States, and all that implies – here he is, writing to two children. That was his emotional core. I was able to build from there. His emotional core was true desire and appreciation and concern for others. Yeah, it got muddied up with ambition and agenda and that sort of thing, and ego and politics. Everything is added to the soup [and] you forgot the original stock.”
Cranston has been getting to know all the ingredients that made LBJ for about four years now, both in what he said was “daily discovery” of the man during filming and, before that, in prep for the Broadway production that was staged in 2013. It was five years before that when Schenkkan began his own deep dive into life of LBJ when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned him to write a play for their program called American Revolutions. The line-up of new plays strives to do with American history and American writers what William Shakespeare did with English history.
Photo credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO
Alison Carey, director of OSF”s American Revolutions program, told HitFix that Schenkkan, who also wrote the HBO film”s screenplay, “has a very, very thorough approach to history but a remarkable capacity to essentialize it down to those most important moments that tell a story super effectively.”
The Vietnam War, several pieces of civil rights legislation, enacting Medicare, and the act that created PBS and NPR are all part of LBJ”s time in office. All the Way focuses in on just some of that. The film begins with Kennedy”s assassination – just the sounds of it while the opening credits appear onscreen: the cheers of the Dallas crowd, three gunshots, then those cheers turned to screams – and takes the viewer through election night in 1964. It delves into LBJ”s campaign for the presidency and his calculated methods of persuasion to pass civil rights legislation without jeopardizing his campaign. There is one intense scene dealing with Vietnam, featuring some fraught but quick decision-making by Johnson and a clash with his eventual vice president Hubert Humphrey (played Bradley Whitford). More of the film deals with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
A second play by Schenkkan, The Great Society, which also premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, covers Johnson”s first elected term.
Photo credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO
Constantly on display in the film is Cranston”s portrayal of LBJ”s strategic approach, alternately bullying and beguiling, to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. In one Oval Office scene, the president tells Martin Luther King, Jr. (Anthony Mackie) that he”s taken the section protecting voting rights out of the bill. “We”re gonna take care of segregation and public accommodations first,” the president says. The scene featuring that meeting was filmed on Mackie”s first day of shooting.
“I don”t know if [director] Jay Roach brilliantly did this or if it just happened,” Mackie said of that scheduling that ended up being helpful to the two actors. “That first opportunity with another actor is always hesitant. And you see that hesitance in the scene. But it works in the scene because that”s how they were with each other in real life at that moment.”
Mackie filmed All the Way last summer two weeks after wrapping shooting on Captain America: Civil War. His Avengers hero, Falcon, certainly doesn”t have the same build as Dr. King. While Cranston spent more than two hours in the makeup chair each day of filming to become LBJ, Roach and Mackie decided to forego prosthetics and any kind of body suit in Mackie”s transformation into the civil rights activist.
“I didn”t want to disrespect him and his legacy by being the actor that tried to look like him instead of capturing his essence,” Mackie explained during his phone call with HitFix while he was in a car taking him from Atlanta”s airport to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library for an All the Way screening and Q&A on Thursday.
A play launching political conversation
Events like that one in Atlanta are what Roach has thoroughly enjoyed in the process of promoting the film.
“I like talking about a movie that”s about something because you can extend the story beyond the boundaries of the actual film. You sort of hope that”s what happens, that it triggers conversations,” said Roach, who previously directed political dramas Recount and Game Change for HBO. He also directed Cranston in last year”s Trumbo, which earned the Breaking Bad alum an Oscar nomination.
With the play premiering at OSF in an election year in 2012, and the film now debuting with another presidential election less than six months away, All the Way“s creative team have watched the productions become part of political conversations. Parallels drawn between the civil rights movement and the unrest in Ferguson has further embedded All the Way and The Great Society in attention on #BlackLivesMatter. A 1964 campaign ad recently went viral for its uncanny relevance to the 2016 presidential campaign.
“The play and now the film have definitely entered the national conversation about race and politics and presidential power,” Schenkkan said. “The issues about which we fight so stridently today have their origins in 1964. It doesn't matter whether it”s budget deficits or immigration reform or race or institutionalized violence against black people, health care – you can check them off the list one by one.”
From stage to screen
Schenkkan and Roach, along with Steven Spielberg, who”s an executive producer on the film, all agreed they weren”t simply going to shoot the play. They set out to make a cinematic telling of Johnson”s first 11 months in office.
Cranston, not having to project to the 1445th seat in the back of the Neil Simon Theatre, could reveal different details about Johnson”s emotional state in some moments where the camera comes in close, making this adaptation feel not at all like a play.
“Some of those moments,” Roach said, “particularly the vulnerable moments, and also the threatening moments – when he comes to Hubert Humphrey, one of my favorite moments, when he says, ‘Cold comfort you are” – the camera”s right there. Sometimes going smaller and closer and putting the audience almost too close – you feel like it's uncomfortably close – can be very powerful.”
Photo credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO
Among the changes Schenkkan made to All the Way in his screen adaptation was expanding the roles of Lady Bird Johnson and LBJ”s aide Walter Jenkins. The decision to give more screentime to the relationship between the president and the First Lady was in part born of LBJ experts responding to the play with the criticism that there wasn”t enough of Lady Bird in it.
“Then we got Melissa Leo [to play Lady Bird], and we just won the lottery as far as that goes,” Schenkkan said.
Also a key setpiece that wasn”t so doable onstage: LBJ”s Amphicar. The president was known to play a prank with the vehicle that looked like a car but also could travel on water. He would host friends and dignitaries at his Texas ranch, and he”d take them for a drive, not telling them the car was amphibious. Then he”d pretend to lose control of the car, and splash into the lake, and while everyone else was screaming, LBJ was cracking up.
Johnson driving his Amphicar in April 1965. Photo credit: LBJ Presidential Library
Schenkkan wrote that practical joke into the film”s script for a scene with Humphrey, and the production used a couple real Amphicars that Cranston learned to drive. In the scene, LBJ throws Humphrey off-guard with his crashing into the lake, and then the president springs on Humphrey his plan to have him be the floor manager of the bill for civil rights and, down the road, his running mate.
“He needs Humphrey”s support and by using this tactic – it fits into the overall practice of manipulation affectionately known as ‘the Johnson treatment” or ‘the Texas Twist,” which was all about Johnson getting into somebody”s physical space and upending them. Really putting them off balance to such a degree that he could then bend them to his will,” Schenkkan said.
As for exactly how Schenkkan and the All the Way team got a meeting with HBO, that was in part thanks to the playwright”s connection with Spielberg and the network after writing for the 2010 mini-series The Pacific. The journey from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to New York was made when theater producer Jeffrey Richards optioned the play for a Broadway staging during the play“s run in Ashland, OR.
While OSF”s Carey noted that Schenkkan”s skill with writing history-based plays lies in his ability to show that history isn”t inevitable, that it takes certain people making certain decisions and taking specific actions to direct the course of history, “in this case, it felt like actually going all the way to Broadway and then going on to some kind of screen adaptation was, in fact, inevitable,” Carey said. “I was delighted and not the least bit surprised” that the play journeyed from OSF to HBO.
Lightening the mood
While All the Way (which takes its title from LBJ”s campaign slogan) certainly has its humorous moments, it”s largely a serious drama.
So in between takes, the cast found opportunities for moments of levity – “we”re a bunch of big goofs,” Mackie said.
When the cameras stopped rolling, Cranston had great fun ad-libbing as LBJ against Frank Langella”s Richard Nixon. (Langella had starred in Frost/Nixon, also taking a presidential character from stage to screen. In All the Way he plays Senator Richard Russell.) Whitford joined in too.
“Bradley does an amazing Bill Clinton, but it”s like ‘dirty Clinton.” Everything he says is just dirty, and he”s hilarious,” Mackie recalled.
Cranston as LBJ in All the Way; Langella as Nixon in 2008's Frost/Nixon. Photo credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO; Universal Pictures
Though Cranston began staying in character off-camera just for fun, he also found it helpful to continually play with LBJ”s colorful way of speaking.
“If you can get so comfortable with a character that you can ad lib in character, then you've got him,” Cranston said. “It was actually very beneficial. Something that you say might come out in the running of the scene, a look or a gesture or something that you can work out that you've discovered in the improv.”
The Great Society picked up where All the Way left off for audiences at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a handful of other theaters across the country. It”s not clear yet whether Broadway and HBO will also continue LBJ”s story with Schenkkan”s companion script. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright told HitFix “it”s certainly my hope that The Great Society will have a New York production.” No official plans are in place to make that play into an HBO film.
As for whether Cranston would be up for reprising the role, he said, “I have to just evaluate whether or not I have reached my fill of the character…. I think I need to step away and see if I miss it.”
HBO”s All the Way premieres on the network tonight, Saturday, May 21, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.