Rob Reiner explains how he brought Lyndon Johnson to the big screen

Woody Harrelson as Lyndon Baines Johnson
Woody Harrelson as Lyndon Baines Johnson
Image: Electric Entertainment
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When director Rob Reiner struggles to find the right word to describe what drew him to his latest project, the feature film LBJ, a nuanced, and surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Lyndon Johnson, the 36th US president, his star, Woody Harrelson chuckles. Both had long viewed Johnson, whom they considered the architect of the Vietnam War, as the enemy—and a failure, despite his huge achievements on the domestic front—but came to find LBJ to be a remarkably misunderstood and sympathetic figure, which helped paint the Texas-born politician who ascended to the presidency by way of an assassin’s bullet, in largely new and fascinating ways.

“I’m not, I would say, a fan of him,” Reiner finally says, fumbling. “But I’m appreciator of his.”

Harrelson nearly keels over with laughter.

“Try that on for size,” Harrelson says to me, between laughs. “An appreciator!”

We all come to LBJ’s story with baggage, and the struggle for words by Reiner, long a progressive activist and stalwart, is no surprise. When Quartz sat down with him, he was candid and passionate, about not only the subject of his new film, which is in theaters now, but the state of the world today, and the man he sees as a true nemesis of our democracy, Donald Trump.

Quartz: How did you end up casting Woody Harrelson as Lyndon Johnson?

Rob Reiner: When people would come to me, while the film was being developed, and they’d ask who was playing LBJ, and I’d say Woody Harrelson, they were pretty shocked. But I’d tell them, “Wait till you see. Wait till you see what he’s done. And then, once they’d seen the finished product, they’d go, “Oh, my God!” But to answer your question, I wanted him because he’s not only from Texas, and has a great sense of humor, which LBJ also had, he brings humanity, he brings vulnerability and insecurity, that were so present in Lyndon Johnson. I wanted to show Lyndon Johnson’s human side, and that’s really what Woody specializes in.

QZ: Okay, so not being a fan, what was it about LBJ that drew you to the story?

RR: Well, that’s the $64,000 question, because to be honest with you, I didn’t really want to do the movie at first. It’s not just that I wasn’t a fan of Lyndon Johnson’s, I hated him. I was a Vietnam War protestor. So at first I was not interested. But then I thought about it some more, and I thought, “You know, I’ve spent a lot of time in politics. I’ve worked in public policy. I actually held a job in the California government for seven years, and I got to understand how difficult it is to move policy and move an agenda forward.” That gave me a greater appreciation for what Johnson was able to do and to think about him in a different way. Because, had it not been for Vietnam, he would have gone down as one of the greatest presidents of all time. Of course, you can’t take away Vietnam, so what you’re looking at is essentially a tale of two presidencies. Because on the domestic side nobody is more accomplished—except for maybe FDR—than Lyndon Johnson. So I wanted to know, “Who is this guy?” And after I started thinking about it, I realized it’s kind of a Shakespearean tragedy in so many ways that was ripe for a retelling.

QZ: So is that why you made the choice to only focus on the pre-Vietnam era?

RR: If you look at what we dealt with, the actual real time of the film takes place over just a two-week period. It takes place from the time Kennedy lands in Love Field, to the time Johnson delivers his famous speech in front of the joint session of Congress just after Kennedy’s funeral. I wanted to look at that time because that’s the time he’s under the most pressure in his life, when he has to assume the presidency from someone who was beloved. You know, he was frightened that the country wouldn’t accept him and wouldn’t love him like they did president Kennedy, and I thought that was an opportunity to show what his real personality was like, and how it came out under those circumstances.

QZ: So no Great Society, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no civil rights legislation. We’re just on the cusp of everything, really.

RR: Exactly! He hadn’t passed that, and he wasn’t going to pass that till the following year, and he wasn’t going to pass voting rights until the year after that!

QZ: That seems like several movies.

RR: Right, right! I’m thinking that if you wanted to do a full biography of Lyndon Johnson, you’d need 10 to 12 hours. I think you would need that kind of time to really try to understand him and everything that was going on to really paint the full picture. I do know that HBO owns the rights to all of Robert Caro’s amazing books on Johnson, in fact, but I don’t know what they’re doing with them.

QZ: Johnson’s relationship with Bobby Kennedy, who kept Johnson boxed in and his power limited while he was vice president, was strained, to say the least. You deal with it differently than movies have in the past, making Johnson seem much more hurt and vulnerable. How do you see that relationship?

RR: Well, they didn’t get along. [Laughter.] Really, they just didn’t like each other. Johnson saw himself as a guy who had all the experience in the world having to answer, as we say in the movie, to the kid brother and his Harvard roommate. But he also wanted to be liked; loved. But I think the way Woody gave Johnson more vulnerability than we’ve seen in the past helps give more insight into that relationship, and creates a fuller picture for people.

QZ: Before we started, you were talking about all of the things you disliked about LBJ; how he was brash and loud and inappropriate and mean, but you were still able to find the humanity in him.

I was thinking, when you were listing all the many things you didn’t like about Johnson, that you were making this film in 2015—which politically seems eons ago—and you were able to find the humanity in him, by showing how he believed in government as a tool for helping people and how he had these amazing gifts to get things done and an almost preternatural understanding of the legislative process.

Now he seems so human and almost likable given who we have as president, who doesn’t seem to have any of even Johnson’s good qualities; the things we could at least respect about him.

RR: Not only that, he has none of those qualities. No empathy, no abilities whatsoever. Say what you want to say about Lyndon Johnson—you didn’t like his brashness, you didn’t like that he had meetings while he was on the toilet or that he was always showing off his scar or whatever, because he was that kind of guy—he at least knew what he was doing. He knew how to govern. He knew how to legislate. He knew how to get things done. You have to respect that.

QZ: Having made this in 2015, you could not have possibly known where we would be as a country in 2017. And yet it seems very informed, showing how people who liked each other but couldn’t come to terms, like Johnson and Richard Russell, or people who just despised each other, like Johnson and Bobby Kennedy, but we’re able to find ways to work together. We have such dysfunction in government, especially given the top-down mentality of the current administration.

RR: I can’t even talk about it.

QZ: Well, what do you think Johnson would make of it?

RR: Oh, I think he’d be appalled. From where Johnson came from, this would be totally dysfunctional and a breakdown of democracy and the norms of the American government, especially given the Soviet infiltration in our election and the current administration’s authoritarian tendencies. So I think he would be stunned to see what’s going on because, like you said, even though he didn’t get along with some of the southern Democrats, and he had to push them, he would always find a way to cobble together the votes to get legislation passed. Also, his idea of a public servant was someone who would serve the public and who would get something done for the public good, not to score political points or simply tear things down. So I think he’d be appalled. As difficult a time as it was for him to become president, after the assassination of a beloved president, and having to take on the burden of assuming the presidency, he understood about the functions of our government and how government works. And he believed in it. He understood the nexus between politics, policy, and governing, and I think he would be appalled at what we’re seeing now. First of all, he would not have understood how somebody who has no understanding of how government works and no desire to understand how government works could have gotten to the position that he’s in. On the other hand, if he was like the majority leader right now, with the opposition of the other party, he would make sure that the government would work the way it’s supposed to. Instead, right now we’re seeing the Republican leadership in the House and Senate both enabling a dysfunctional president.