Woody Harrelson isn’t the only actor playing President Lyndon B. Johnson during cinema’s current LBJ renaissance, between his foul-mouthed turn in Rob Reiner’s LBJ, Bryan Cranston in HBO’s All the Way, and John Carroll Lynch in Pablo Larrain’s fellow Toronto Film Fest entry Jackie. He is, however, most certainly the only actor playing President Lyndon B. Johnson right now who politically self-identifies as an anti-government anarchist and has few kind words for the man he plays onscreen in the biopic—in a pointed Texas accent and under heavy prosthetics.
“I’m more of an anarchist than anything,” confirmed Harrelson as he spoke with The Daily Beast about LBJ, Reiner’s first politically-themed film since An American President. “I don’t really believe in government. I don’t see the positive effects of it. Our federal government was just supposed to take care of trade between the states and protect us in times of war—and instead, it’s become belligerent around the world and it’s constantly in every aspect of our lives.”
“We’re overtaxed to pay for an out of control weapons industry,” added Harrelson, 55, who has two Oscar nominations and an Emmy under his belt. Off-screen, he’s known for vocally advocating for environmental rights, fighting to legalize weed, and being one of Hollywood’s most visible 9/11 truthers. “We subsidize countries around the world to buy weapons from us. The government, I’m not terribly proud of.”
Ironically, he doesn’t think much of presidents either. “I like Obama,” he said. “He was better than what the other choices were, but in the end I look at presidents as puppets. Industries control our countries and make decisions for us. The politicians are all really puppets of the industries, and I think that’s really obvious to anybody who looks at it with any clarity. The point is, I don’t really see how we’re helped by the government. There are some good social programs that I think are worthwhile, but we could do that just as people running our own business, you know?”
Harrelson found himself playing America’s 37th VP turned 36th POTUS, whose explosive ego the film highlights in its most raucous moments, not so much because he admired Lyndon B. Johnson but because Reiner was doing it and he wanted to work with the Princess Bride and A Few Good Men helmer. He did his research, poring over records and taped phone conversations to get under LBJ’s skin—skin that, the film argues, was way thinner than the history books might have thought.
LBJ made its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, competing for buzz with the Natalie Portman contender Jackie, about Jacqueline Kennedy dealing with the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, while vying for buyers as an acquisition title. It chronicles LBJ’s private fears, questions, and ideological splits with Kennedy before the rivals became running mates—and how JFK’s assassination changed LBJ’s politics. “He did adopt a big swath of JFK’s policies so it would be hard to not see it that way,” said Harrelson. “I’m not sure how much of it was motivated by his depth of emotion or by what he considered to be politically expedient. It’s really hard to read him. He’s a fascinating character.”
Reiner’s film opens on the pre-White House days in which Johnson scrapped bitterly with his political rivals, using an acid tongue to bark at his staffers and wielding great power as the Southern Democrat enjoying his position as the Senate Majority Leader. He’s always wanted to be president, he says, but not through such secondhand ways as surviving the Dallas assassination of Kennedy, which catapults Johnson into action.
Behind closed doors, however, the powerful politician from Texas confides in his wife, Lady Bird Johnson (Jennifer Jason Leigh, also marvelous under prosthetics) his most private self-doubts.
“He’s a sensitive man with an enormous ego,” describes John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), who wins the Democratic endorsement and goes on to the White House. Only Lady Bird sees the real Lyndon: “He’s afraid people won’t love him.”
“I felt a bit ambivalent,” said Harrelson of his onscreen alter ego. “Well, even more than that: I didn’t like LBJ. I always think of LBJ and Vietnam, like a lot of people do. That’s really the legacy that he’s most remembered by. Of course he did a lot of things, good things, civil rights and the Voting Rights Act and so forth, but he did escalate in Vietnam and he lost a lot of people’s lives on both sides of the equation. So I don’t know, man. I’m still a little torn about him. I’m very fascinated by him, still.”
Harrelson brings an irritable, irascible stoicism to this LBJ, subtle in his notice of perceived slights and fiery in his exchanges with an openly hostile Bobby Kennedy. Human moments bring both him and the otherwise conventional film to life—like when he terrorizes the Senate whip by threating to slam his “two-inch pecker” on a tabletop, or holds a meeting with his aides while unceremoniously taking a crap with the door open.
“It’s fantastic,” said Harrelson, recalling how he got to re-create Johnson’s infamous conversation with his tailor shortly after being sworn in as president. “He’s like, ‘Down where my balls hang, imma need another two inches…’ it’s so funny. And by the way, that conversation happened less than a week after he became president.”
Looking to November, he has strong words for both GOP candidate Donald Trump and Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton.
“Unfortunately they’re both hawks, and I think that’s one of the big issues going on in the world today,” he said. “We’ve got three wars going on simultaneously that seem to be going on in perpetuity. I’m not seeing either one of them address that. But I don’t think Trump is presidential material. He’s like a boxer who just says the most outlandish shit to get on the front page. And he’s obviously stoking a lot of racism. I don’t see anything positive coming from Trump building a wall,” he laughed.
“I mean, I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be a better candidate than Trump. I mean, literally anyone,” he said. “But definitely Hillary—at least she’s qualified.”
Harrelson still has doubts over the U.S. government’s “questionable” behavior the morning of Sept. 11, 2001—particularly President George W. Bush’s decision to read a children’s book during the attack. “I think there’s no world leader who’s going to sit after being attacked and read a story about a goat for seven minutes,” said Harrelson. “Before I had read anything I thought that was a little questionable.”
As it happens, Harrelson is about to reunite with Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone in Shock & Awe, about a group of journalists pressing Bush’s claims that Saddam Hussein is allegedly stockpiling WMDs.
“It’s kind of along the lines of All The President’s Men,” said Harrelson. “These guys were finding out incredible information and they had good inside sources. It’s these journalists who were writing stories for Knight Ridder saying, hold on, what the hell are we blaming Iraq for 9/11? They were trying to associate Bin Laden, this deeply fanatical religious guy, with the secular dictator. There’s no connection!”
“They’re writing these articles but nobody’s picking them up,” he exclaimed. “But they’re picking up stuff from Judith Miller that’s all fabricated shit that she got from Cheney and other sources. It was really a wild situation.”
And after that, Harrelson will prepare to shoot and star in his own directorial debut. All he’ll say about the plot is that it’s based on a wild adventure he once had in London, and that the experience in question left him changed: “Well,” he said, “it taught me how lucky I am.”