Meet the Johnsons

Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Jason Leigh were initially a bit skeptical about playing a 1960s president and his wife.

No, you’re not high. That’s Woody Harrelson playing Lyndon B. Johnson in Rob Reiner’s LBJ, now playing.

Outside of acting, Woody Harrelson is best-known as an anti-war and pro-cannabis environmentalist. Long-time Bay Area residents still remember the Saturday after Thanksgiving, 1996, when the actor, along with members of North Coast Earth First!, was arrested for climbing the Golden Gate Bridge to hang a banner in protest of the logging industry. This alone made him a less-than-obvious choice to play former president Lyndon B. Johnson, best known today for escalating the war in Vietnam.

Harrelson recalls the chant of “Hey, hey LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” quite clearly, so he was reluctant to commit to the LBJ biopic when director Rob Reiner first approached him. But as Harrelson learned more about the former president — a fellow Texan, who was around the same age as Harrelson is today when he first took office — the actor learned they have more in common than he initially imagined. He and costar Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Lady Bird Johnson, spoke to SF Weekly about revising their opinions of their subjects, their remarkable character transformations, and why pot is preferable to war.

Woody, you were initially reluctant to play LBJ because of his Vietnam record. What changed your mind?

WH: I associated him with Vietnam. I still do, but it was very hard to disassociate him from Vietnam. But because it was Rob Reiner wanting to do it, I just had to. I’m glad I did, because I do see LBJ in a different light now. Rob said it’s “The Tale of Two Presidents.” There’s the Vietnam Johnson, and there’s the guy who did all kinds of very important legislation that I admire him for.

Like the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

WH: Yes, knowing he’d alienate his base, the Southern caucus, he pushed through the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, the National Endowment for the Arts, the War on Poverty, all kinds of things that didn’t benefit anybody but the people. That, to me, was the true sign of what was really in Johnson’s heart, and that’s why I’ve come to begrudgingly admire him, despite Vietnam.

Jennifer, did you feel similarly when you were approached to join the cast?

JJL: When Rob approached me, I’d heard about the project and Woody’s involvement and, of course, I know Rob, Rob’s work, and Rob’s politics, so I was intrigued. Then I read the script and learned so much about LBJ, like how much legislation he brought forth that really helped our country.

What was it like working together for the first time?

WH: Jennifer’s kind of unique, because she stays in character all the time. So I was hanging with Lady Bird Johnson. That’s how she spoke, and because of that, I talked to her like LBJ. She really immerses herself, and also she’d come up with great ideas. Like that whole scene where LBJ is saying, “I never wanted the presidency this way,” and comes in, really bummed out, with the ice cream and the drink. That scene was maybe a couple of sentences, and it got expanded because we felt there should be more to it. It’s since become one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

JJL: I’ve been a big fan of Woody’s for a long time, and it’s always hard that first day, because you don’t know what the person’s going to be like. But Woody is so warm and sweet. On the first day, Woody said, “Why don’t you come over and ride bikes with me and [my wife] Laura?”

Your character transformations were so impressive. How much of that do you credit to makeup and prosthetics and how much to acting talent?

WH: I was really concerned about that aspect, because I knew I’d have to do prosthetics, which I’ve never done, and I’ve seen movies where it really looks fake and takes you completely out of the film. So my first call was to Ve Neill who’s a great, highly awarded makeup artist. She did The Hunger Games, and I said to myself, “If Ve does it, then there’s hope.” Ve said yes, and then got [special makeup effects designer] Arjen Tuiten, who is a perfectionist with such amazing talent. Between the two of them, they created this look that I could look in the mirror and say, “Man, that looks enough like Johnson that I believe it.” That really helped in terms of the acting, to not feel like it was something that’s gonna take the viewer out of it.

You really captured her supportive side. But could she also be viewed as a strong, feminist figure?

JJL: In her own way, she was. I don’t think she would have termed herself that, but she was an incredibly strong woman. She was smart and very well educated for a woman of that time. She drove herself 15 miles to school every day when she was very young. She was Lyndon Johnson’s harshest critic, but in the kindest most straightforward and loving way. She was not shy to give her opinion or to hold her ground and fight the good fight. I think she was the first first lady to have her own chief of staff. …  Of course, he had affairs. It wasn’t an idyllic marriage, but it was one that worked.

Woody, you once made the papers for scaling the Golden Gate Bridge to save a 60,000-acre ancient redwood grove in Northern California. What happened, exactly?

WH: I joined this group that was protesting the logging of the ancient redwoods. Unfortunately, what happened was I got up on the bridge, and the cops wanted to talk to me. We just wanted to get this banner deployed, and then we’d be happy to talk to them. Well, they didn’t accept that, and I get word that they were gonna shut down a lane on the bridge. But I didn’t get what a threat that was. Traffic was flowing fine, the cops had been there, and it was no problem. They knew our equipment was good; it’s not like they thought we were gonna fall.

Well, that threat was pretty big. Once they shut down a lane … I should have just gotten on the phone right then with them, and I didn’t. The consequence was unfortunate, because it was one of those things where you couldn’t see the forest from the traffic. It was my fault, but on the other hand, if I would’ve gotten on that phone, there never would’ve been a traffic jam.

You’ve admitted to quitting pot about a year-and-a-half ago. Now that you’re smoke-free, will you continue to advocate for marijuana legalization?

WH: I don’t think you can call me an advocate when you have all these guys breaking their backs out there to advocate. I’m just one who, when asked a question, gives an honest answer. But, of course, I still believe it should be legal. As long as I’m not hurting you or your property, I should be free to do what I want. If I want to smoke a joint, how is that hurting anybody? And is it better to incarcerate somebody than let them smoke a joint? That really hurts their family. That’s like the whole notion of “Hey, in Vietnam we were trying to stop the red tide or the domino effect of communism, so we’re gonna bomb the shit out of you. To show what a good form of government we are, we’re gonna kill 3 million people in Vietnam.” It’s kind of faulty thinking.

LBJ is now playing in wide release and at the AMC Van Ness 14, the Century 20 Daly City, and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood.

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