EXCLUSIVE: Among the movies for sale at this year’s Toronto Film Festival is Rob Reiner’s LBJ, a stirring biopic focusing on the achievements, insecurity and presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Woody Harrelson stars as the former President. It is the second major film project this year about Johnson after HBO’s All The Way, which was based on the Tony-winning play starring Bryan Cranston, who also won a Tony for his performance and now is responsible for one of film’s eight Emmy nominations.
Two competing projects are not an unusual thing in Hollywood, and the fact they were actually before the cameras at the same time isn’t that unique either. What is rather head-turning is the fact the two respective stars of these movies, the two LBJs, actually forged a relationship while shooting these separate projects.
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The fact Cranston, who had months on Broadway playing this role, was shooting a movie version bothered Harrelson. “I thought, ‘Oh my God. Bryan is like the Brando of our time and I’m also playing LBJ?’ I was a bit terrified of that because it’s Bryan Cranston. I thought, ‘What the hell are we doing LBJ for when he’s playing LBJ?’ But I realized you take that thing that is a problem and turn it into an advantage.” Harrelson said he contacted Jay Roach, director of All The Way (as well as director of Recount, which co-starred Harrelson) and through him got to his “rival” Cranston to get advice — which turned out to be a very good thing for all involved.
“I just can’t tell you how helpful Bryan was – he didn’t look at us in competition at all,” Harrelson said. “He looked at us as we’re fellow actors in a great spirit of cooperation, and he wanted me to be as good as I can be. He’d take an hour on his day off, on a Sunday, working six to eight weeks in L.A., and I’d be on the phone with him, and he’d give me all this incredible insight and inspiration. It really was an embarrassment of riches what he provided me.” He said Cranston hooked him up with several Johnson scholars and people at the LBJ Library and LBJ ranch who proved helpful. “I mean, what a mensch. I can’t say I would do that. No way I am helping this guy. I hope he fails miserably. I just hope it’s a disaster,” Harrelson laughed.
“But instead, this guy was amazing. I can’t say enough about him. And it wasn’t just one or two times, but throughout the whole process he was really, really helpful,” he added. “If I had seen Bryan’s performance before I did mine I would have stolen a lot from him. I have seen it now and I thought he was incredible. I had sent him an email waxing the superlatives and he sent a very gracious thing back. Oh God, I want to remember the last thing he said: ‘This acting thing is a big tent. Let’s fill it’ — something like that. I mean that guy’s an incredible person.”
Comparisons between the projects will obviously be made, but having seen Harrelson’s work in this I can say he is equally brilliant in channeling the essence of Johnson, just as Cranston was. There definitely is room for both.
Reiner, who directed the film from a Joey Hartstone script that had been on Hollywood’s prized Black List of great unproduced screenplays, told me Harrelson wasn’t necessarily his first thought in casting Lyndon Johnson, but he definitely wanted an actor from Texas. “And Woody Harrelson is just an incredible actor. I just knew he could do it, and he is off-the-charts great,” he said. “I think people are going to see that and hopefully he’ll get what he deserves, which I think should be an Oscar nomination.” Reiner told me he doesn’t think they will be able to get a distribution deal in place in time for this year’s Oscar race and will have to look at next year at some point. “We do want to get a distributor that really believes in it it and really is willing to support the movie, and give Woody his due that he deserves.”
This isn’t the first time around for Reiner and the White House. Of course one of his most successful films was the fictional 1995 hit The American President with Michael Douglas, but he did not recycle that White House set for this independently made production, although he said the TV series The West Wing did use some of the American President sets. What both Reiner and Harrelson point out about this version of the LBJ saga is this one gets to the human side of him, as well as his surprising insecurity at times. And both men were at first reluctant to even tackle this subject since they were adamantly opposed to what he did during the Vietnam era. “When I was a young guy growing up I was of draft age when he was President and I despised him…It’s only as the years have gone by and I’ve understood how politics works, and how government and policy works, and having spent a lot of time in it, that I realize how incredibly powerful and effective he was,” Reiner says.
Harrelson was even more initially reluctant, even at one time considering an earlier LBJ project. “I don’t really respect LBJ because of Vietnam, and there’s other things about him that I didn’t respect, and of course that’s part of his legacy. But it forced me to ready a biography of him and there were several things in there that interested me, but anyway I didn’t do that project,” he said. However, when Reiner came along with this script by Hartstone which he thought was fantastic, he decided to give it a go.
LBJ has its world premiere at TIFF on Thursday. Voltage Pictures is handling international sales and the film was produced by Matthew George, Tim White, Trevor White, Liz Glotzer and Reiner.
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