Bryan Cranston Takes LBJ ‘All the Way’: His Journey From Stage to HBO

Bryan Cranston Anthony Mackie Jay Roach
Peter Bohler for Variety

Four minutes into “All the Way,” the actor Bryan Cranston, playing Lyndon B. Johnson, walks into the Oval Office. The camera cuts back and forth between the 36th president’s point of view and a tight shot of his face as he slowly moves through the room, which is filled with the belongings of the recently dead John F. Kennedy. It’s Johnson’s first time entering the room as president. The scene is silent. For a full minute, it’s just Cranston, a camera, and some music. It’s a powerful moment, one that wasn’t in the Broadway version of “All the Way,” which also starred Cranston, and was, like the HBO original movie premiering May 21, written by Robert Schenkkan.

“You’d have a hard time making that work onstage,” says Schenkkan. “It’s a film moment. That’s what I looked to create.”

The Oval Office scene notwithstanding, turning “All the Way” from a Tony Award-winning play into a movie involved more trims than additions. The play is nearly three hours long, while the movie is a tighter two hours and 10 minutes. But the film is no condensed-soup version of the play. In style and structure, HBO’s “All the Way” is every ounce a movie.

Reworked for the screen, “All the Way” serves the same two essential functions the play did — it turns the mid-1960s into a prismatic mirror of our current moment in history, and it gives Bryan Cranston a vehicle to show, once again, why he holds the belt for most surprising actor on television. As if he needed one.

Schenkkan and the film’s director, Jay Roach, are both, like Johnson, native Texans. They are also both deep political nerds who’ve donated big chunks of their careers to earning their bona fides in that department. Cranston is neither. He was still in grade school when Johnson’s greatest achievements — the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Great Society legislation — became reality. Cranston was not yet a teenager when Johnson exited office through the fog of the Vietnam War.

“All the Way” came to Cranston in the mundane way that most material comes to actors: his agents sent it to him. He was shooting the penultimate season of “Breaking Bad” when he first read it.

Peter Bohler for Variety

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival premiered the play in 2012 after commissioning it from Schenkkan, and the producers were on the hunt for a Hollywood star to carry the play through out-of-town tryouts in Boston, then on to New York. Cranston was on the hunt for stage work.

The Boston production began previews two weeks before the “Breaking Bad” series finale aired, and sold out before Cranston ever stepped on stage as Johnson.

“Sometimes you just get really lucky,” Schenkkan says. “I don’t think any of us, including Bryan, honestly, had any idea really how much the ending of “Breaking Bad” — what a media event that was going to be.”

The show catapulted Cranston from sitcom dad on “Malcolm in the Middle” to the most decorated TV actor of his moment, earning four Emmy Awards for lead actor in a drama. The finale drew 10.3 million people in Nielsen overnight ratings — making it the third most-watched end to a cable series ever, behind only “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.”

But lucky wasn’t what Cranston felt as “All the Way” began to take shape in Boston. “I got scared,” he says. “I started to panic. I didn’t look at the lines or start memorizing before I got to Boston.”

He had become myopically focused on researching Johnson — reading books about him, visiting his presidential library in Austin, talking with people who had known him. Meanwhile, he’d neglected the script. At the start of four weeks of rehearsal, he hadn’t memorized one line.

Cranston had last been onstage in 2006, in Sam Shepard’s “The God of Hell” with Jason Alexander. He was accustomed to the stop-start nature of TV production, where if you forget a line, the world does not spin off its axis.

One week into rehearsal on “All the Way,” he met with Schenkkan and the play’s director, Bill Rauch.

“I said, ‘I feel like I’m underwater here,’” he recalls. “They said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘We’re now starting week two, second act. I don’t remember the first act.’ And Bill, to his credit, supported by Robert, said, ‘Just trust the process. The brain opens up, you feed it, you rest.”

Cranston did as he was told. He ate meals with the script in hand, ran lines during pauses in rehearsal. The only scheduled breaks from the script he gave himself were to shower, to run every other day, and to watch “Breaking Bad” on Sunday nights.

“We watched each episode during that month, and the rest of the time I was just running lines,” he says.

The process worked. Cranston went on to win a Tony for “All the Way.” When the play opened on Broadway in March 2014, Schenkkan sat in the audience with Nancy Pelosi behind him and Steven Spielberg in front of him.

Schenkkan had worked with Spielberg on “The Pacific” for HBO, and it was through Spielberg’s Amblin Television that “All the Way” made it to the network.

“Steven was just coming off ‘Lincoln’ when he first read ‘All the Way,’” says Justin Falvey, who, with Darryl Frank, heads Amblin Television. “It was very clear that this was very easily adaptable, and would make for a remarkable film.” Like “Lincoln,” “All the Way” focuses on a president trying to work all the levers at his disposal to get what he wants.

Roach’s film version of “All the Way” arrives just five months before the next presidential election. Len Amato, president of HBO Films, insists that the timing is a coincidence. “It’s really hard to make movies and predict when a film is going to successfully come together,” he says.

It would have been even harder to predict the nature of the current presidential election. Donald Trump’s ascendance and the civil war it has set off in the Republican Party provide an uncanny backdrop for “All the Way,” which takes place between Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and Johnson’s victory in the presidential election the following year.

To secure the Democratic nomination, Johnson had to overcome a challenge from George Wallace, the populist Alabama governor whose campaign was driven by large rallies and a pro-segregation, anti-Washington message designed to whip working-class, white voters into a frenzy. In the play, Wallace is one of a fleet of characters. He is seen delivering speeches and even speaking with Johnson. In the film, he becomes a specter, often talked about in fearful tones but rarely seen. When he is shown, it’s in vintage footage of his campaign events that Johnson watches on TV. The effect is that Wallace becomes a dreaded force, a manifestation of everything Johnson is trying to claim victory over by passing the Civil Rights Act.
Wallace calls Trump to mind.

“It was truly Ali-Frazier. Every time I finished
a scene, I wanted to shake his hand.”
Anthony Mackie

“We knew going in that I was going to have to reduce the story,” Schenkkan says. Transforming Wallace from flesh-and-blood to a broadcast image helped accomplish that. “But it also did a number of things. It underlined the importance of television, which was just coming into its own as a primary campaign tool, [and] the whole idea of the media — how that’s going to affect the race. The best solutions solve many problems, not just one.”

Roach, whose history with HBO includes the election-politics movies “Recount” and “Game Change,” came to the project at the suggestion of Spielberg. Before he signed on to direct, he and Schenkkan had multiple conversations about how to adapt the play.

Part of what makes “All the Way” feel so unlike a play is how close Roach’s camera stays to his actors — particularly to Cranston, who is under layers of transformative makeup. Roach had just come off working with Cranston on “Trumbo” (“I hope this Trumbo film works out, because if it doesn’t, it’s going to be awkward,” Roach recalls thinking) — and had faith that intense scrutiny from the camera would bring out the best in the actor.

“I thought what might make it cinematic would be very close-up coverage over the shoulder or over the face,” Roach says. “I knew Bryan, I knew what he was capable of, and suspected we would get access to a whole other range that might not have been available for audiences on stage.”

The approach worked.

“It was truly Ali-Frazier,” Anthony Mackie, who plays Martin Luther King Jr. in the film, says of working with Cranston. “I’ve never been opposite someone who, every time I finished a scene, I wanted to get up and shake his hand. He delivers a performance in this movie that every actor dreams of delivering.”

But all those tight shots did more than give Cranston a chance to do work more nuanced than is possible in a 1,300-seat Broadway theater. It also gave viewers an approximation of the way Johnson operated. Johnson was known for employing everything in his arsenal — including but not limited to his imposing physical stature — to compel rivals and allies to move where he wanted them. By keeping the camera in Cranston’s face, Roach gives viewers an approximation of the discomfort that politicos felt on the receiving end of Johnson’s “Texas Twist.”

“All the Way” presents Johnson as flawed and deeply insecure, a person who, at his worst, was willing to turn his closest friends into roadkill. But it also celebrates his political genius — his resourcefulness and doggedness, his willingness to stop short of nothing to achieve what he thought was right. By doing so, it portrays Johnson as using his influence across party lines, the opposite of today’s political leaders, for whom partisanship is all.

“There’s a compare-and-contrast thing,” Roach says when asked about parallels between “All the Way” and current politics. On the “compare” end is the power of populism and the lingering infection of racism in our body politic. On the “contrast” side is Johnson himself.

“It’s inspiring to see Lyndon Johnson use his persuasiveness to cut across factional lines,” Roach says. “The man lived to try to improve the lives of Americans through government. He believed that good government is good, and if we can harness it for our own purposes — as we’re meant to do — then we can accomplish incredible things, right many of the injustices, and improve people’s lives. That is a seemingly lost conviction.”