But the Oscar nominee admits that his personal horror over Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War, coupled with a competing performance by Bryan Cranston in HBO’s “All the Way,” made him hesitant to take the role. “LBJ” opened this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it is hoping to find distribution.
Harrelson spoke with Variety about the advice Cranston gave him about playing Johnson, why he considers himself an anarchist and the hours of makeup it took to turn him into the 36th president.
Variety: Were you surprised that Rob Reiner picked you for this role? You don’t really look like Johnson.
Harrelson: I didn’t know how Rob thought of me, but I was glad he did. I did have a little bit of trepidation. My view of LBJ has always been a little bit skewed by the Vietnam thing. I can’t think of LBJ without thinking of Vietnam. You have to tally the whole Vietnam experience. Ultimately 2 million people died, mostly civilians, innocent people. Probably Nixon, a lot of it had to do with him, because the war did go until ’75, but you’ve got to put a lot on LBJ for the escalation and so forth.
Did you come out of making the film with a more favorable view of Johnson?
It would be hard to really look closely at LBJ and not be a little bit impressed. He was complicated, but he was a relentlessly tireless worker. As a politician, he was amazing. To hear him get on the phone with someone like Richard Russell, who didn’t want to be on the Warren Commission and to hear him basically, not only talk him into it, but say, you’re going to do it. He was unbelievable in how he was able to convince people of things. He really was great at getting his way.
If he would have been wise enough to figure out how to get out from under the military advisers and not pursue Vietnam, I believe he would have been one of our greatest presidents.
How much did his insecurity cripple him?
That was a big part of who he was. He had a lot of insecurity. A lot of self-doubt. He had that side where he was like a little lost boy who felt like he wasn’t loved.
How long did it take you to get into makeup?
It would take two hours and then an hour to take off. But I’d just spend the time listening to [tapes of] his phone calls. There were a couple times I got a little squirrelly, but I generally felt like there was productive stuff to do while I was sitting there.
It was critical. The worst thing is even if I were lucky enough to turn in a good performance, if the makeup and the prosthetics sucked, then it don’t matter. I’ve seen that so many times with characters. Where even if the acting is good, they just look fake.
Did you talk to Bryan Cranston about his experience playing Johnson in “All the Way”?
Oh yeah. It’s a daunting thing to take on a role that one of our greatest actors, like the Brando of our age, is taking on simultaneously. It’s daunting enough just playing LBJ, but then you have Bryan Cranston playing him.
He was a great friend to me in helping me through the process and wanting me to do well. The cool thing was, I contacted Bryan, and his generosity, the time he took on the phone with me, giving me tips and ideas, was so magnanimous and generous. I was really blown away by him. I don’t know that I’d feel the same way if I were in his shoes. He gave me ideas, in terms of mannerisms, and the way he walked and moved, and the way his weight was in his body. Some practical advice. He hooked me up with people, like the guy who runs the LBJ Library. I ended up going to Austin and meeting friends of [Johnson’s].
He didn’t look at it as competition. He said to me, “It’s a big tent, lets fill it.”
What are your own political views? Do you still define yourself as an anarchist?
That’s exactly how I’d define myself. Some government would be important in that you want to be able to coordinate your traffic lights. Coordinate trade. You want to be able to defend yourself in case of attack. But if you look at the level at which government is just completely entrenched in our lives, it was never supposed to be like this. I think we’re a lot closer to fascism in this country — like fascism with a friendly face — than we realize.
Where does that leave you in terms of this presidential race? Will you support Trump or Clinton?
I’m going to vote for Hillary, of course. With eight of the last nine years being the hottest on record, and global warming a serious threat, and all kinds of ecological threats, from mountaintop removal [mining] to pesticides to fracking, we need to be focused on that kind of thing instead of warring and building walls and more division and more separatism and, frankly more narcissism.
You’ve been quite open about your pot smoking. Do you think marijuana will be legalized in your lifetime?
It does appear to be changing. It’s just another war we don’t need — the war on drugs.
You are in five films this year and have six scheduled next year. Are you a workaholic?
I consider myself the opposite, to be honest with you. I’m about the laziest man alive. It’s killing me. It’s absolutely killing me. I don’t want to be doing all these projects, but when things are really quality, how can I say no? I’m overworked now, but I’m planning on next year, having teacher’s hours, where there’s six months off a year.
This interview has been edited and condensed.