‘LBJ’ director Rob Reiner: Johnson wasn’t just a ‘bull in the china shop’

8:00 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017 Movies & TV
Director Rob Reiner gets a high-five over LBJ School Dean Angela Evans from actor Woody Harrelson as they speak before a screening of the film “LBJ” at the University of Texas campus on Oct. 23. Stephen Spillman for American-Statesman

When “LBJ” director Rob Reiner — best known (after “This is Spinal Tap,” anyway) for such high-quality Hollywood classics as “A Few Good Men” and “When Harry Met Sally” — started looking into the idea of helming a movie about Lyndon Baines Johnson, he was not exactly wild about the notion of spending all that time and energy on someone he grew up hating.

“I initially was very trepidatious about doing a film about LBJ,” Reiner says.

He and “LBJ” star Woody Harrelson are sitting in a small room in the Johnson School of Public Affairs as we talk. They’re in Austin to chat up the film, in which Harrelson leans hard on his Texas roots and does a rock-solid job embodying one of the country’s most complicated presidents. It opens in Austin theaters on Nov. 3.

“I was of draft age during Vietnam, and I was passionately against the war, marched in protests and all of that,” Reiner says. “The only image I had of Johnson growing up was that he was my enemy.”

Over the years, Reiner has been involved in a laundry list of causes, from various early childhood education efforts to the anti-Prop 8 organization the American Foundation for Equal Rights to heading up the campaign to make California’s Ahmanson Ranch a state park, not to mention campaigning for various Democratic candidates and being floated as a possible candidate to run against California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006. It wasn’t until Reiner spent a lot of time in politics, he says, that he started having a much greater understanding of what Johnson was able to accomplish domestically.

“There was a lot more to LBJ personally than this ‘bull in the china shop’ image we have of him,” Reiner says.

After reading Robert Caro’s books on Johnson and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 1977 career-starter “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream,” the director felt he had a better handle on the Texas giant.

“I found in him a kind of desperate need to be loved,” Reiner says. “He had this recurring dream of being paralyzed, and that was so interesting to me. He felt that his mother didn’t love him at times, that she was very conditional with her love. And I just found myself thinking, ‘This guy was much more complex than I had ever thought.’”

Both Reiner and Harrelson signed on to the picture in 2015. Like Reiner, Harrelson wasn’t too jazzed on his subject at first.

“I did have a real problem in terms of the idea of playing him because Vietnam overshadowed every other aspect of him for me,” Harrelson says, slowly and deliberately. “Of course, now I look at him in a much broader light.”

Harrelson says he prepared by watching old footage of LBJ and listening to his voice over and over, which is awfully easy to do given that Johnson taped everything that went on in the Oval Office.

Then again, Harrelson also spent a fair amount of time in the makeup chair — he sports a whole mess of facial prosthetics to model his famous mug into that of Johnson’s, the sort of applications that take a good long time to apply.

“I had not ever done any of that sort of thing; I don’t even like makeup,” Harrelson says. “It ended up being about two hours every morning.” He pauses. “It got down to two hours,” he says, shaking his head.

“I have been in that situation,” Reiner says, “and when Woody said he had never done it before, I got worried that the anger and frustration you can feel while you are in that chair would bleed into whatever scene we were doing that day.”

“I was really freaking out,” Harrelson says. “It took me a little while to get used to it.”

After all, there is a lot riding on playing someone as iconic as LBJ, and when the production started, Harrelson says, “I was still feeling very insecure, as actors sometimes get.”

Reiner, with the comic timing that reminds you why he is famous: “That’s what I’ve heard.”

“It’s true,” Harrelson says. “But Rob’s a great director and a terrific actor and was able to mollify my tensions. He said, ‘Just keep going for the essence of who he was.”

“That why I wanted Woody,” Reiner says. “I knew he was going to bring all that humanity and sense of humor and the pathos that comes from being this guy that had to take on the mantle from a beloved president. Johnson always wanted to be president, but not this way.”

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