Following its critically acclaimed, award-winning Broadway run, HBO’s screen adaptation of “All the Way” is a riveting, behind-the-scenes look at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s tumultuous first year in office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
HBO and the LBJ Presidential Library held a premiere for the film in Austin, Texas Wednesday night, and cast, filmmakers and historians were on hand to walk the red carpet including Bryan Cranston (four-time Emmy® winner for “Breaking Bad”) who reprises his Tony Award-winning role for the film, Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker,” “Captain America: Civil War”) Jay Roach (Director), Robert Schenkkan (Writer/ Executive Producer), Justin Falvey (Executive Producer), Darryl Frank (Executive Producer) and more. Schenkkan (Pulitzer Prize winner for “The Kentucky Cycle”; two-time Emmy® nominee and Writers Guild Award winner for HBO’s “The Pacific”), adapted his Tony Award-winning play of the same name.
Awards Circuit had the opportunity to speak with the cast and crew at the premiere. See what they had to say below about LBJ’s legacy, Steven Spielberg’s opinion of the film, bringing MLK to life and more. Also be sure to catch “All the Way” when it premieres on HBO May 21st at 7 p.m. CT.
As an actor, how challenging – or is it challenging – to take the same role from the stage to the screen?
BC: It was more challenging to do the research and face the overwhelming intimidation of taking on this character and presenting him onstage in Boston, Massachusetts in late summer of 2013. That was the biggest thing. Once a character gets into your bone marrow, then I own him, and then I can take him anywhere. But the real work is all that leads up to that – all the research that’s necessary in order to feel comfortable. Whenever an actor starts a character, it’s outside of him and the more you read the text and the more research you do, the more imagination you put towards it, it starts to come closer and closer. And hopefully, and you just have to trust that at some point it seeps in. And when it does that, you’re home free.
Obviously there’s so much to this film and so much to be learned from it, so what are you hoping audiences take away most from the film?
BC: I think the biggest thing that we tried to explain in this film is the scope of what Lyndon Johnson was as a man, as a father, as a president, as a husband. And his legacy for many, many years was known primarily for the failures of Vietnam, and while that’s fair to say that that was part of his presidency, it’s unfair to say that WAS his presidency. You have to take the full experience that he brought. The domestic policies that he was able to achieve changed the face of this country. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, Head Start for preschool kids, Medicare, Medicaid, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which spawned PBS and NPR – these are landmark movements in our country that we enjoy today. So, I don’t ask that people engage in revising history, but I do ask that they take a look at it and revisit history. It’s appropriate to take the full scope of a person’s experience, and in this case it’s a president’s experience, and then make your judgement.
You play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the film. How on earth does one prepare for a role like that?
AM: You know, for me it’s different because I didn’t want to imitate him, I didn’t want to put on prosthetics and try to look like him. I feel like MLK is one of the legends where his actions speak much louder than how well I can look like him as an actor, so it was more about learning about the man and the essence of him, and creating that.
Had you seen the play before? If so, were you afraid of losing the essence of the play at all in taking it from the stage to the screen?
AM: I had seen the play, and what’s interesting is Robert, our writer, he took the role of Dr. King and made it larger in the film, so that way when you come to the film away from the play, the play was all Bryan, it was all LBJ. This was really amazing because it gave me the opportunity to actually develop the character within the world of LBJ, so it wasn’t so much a fear thing, so much as it was the idea of trying to not fit him into the world of LBJ, but create the world that they were both in together.
Tell me about the process of adapting your own play for the screen. Was it more challenging than you thought it would be?
RS: It was certainly challenging, but in a very positive way. I had a tremendous group of collaborators to work with – starting of course with Steven Spielberg, my co-executive producer – in Jay Roach, whose work I certainly knew before this, but who I’ve gotten to know in the process and now consider a friend. You know, where we started, when I first took this to HBO and said this is what we want to do, was, look. We’re not just going to shoot the play. That’s not what this is about. This is going to be a full, cinematic reimagining of this story, and that’s what they signed on for. So that gave me the freedom, you know, to remove whole chunks and write new material to really take advantage of what cinema offers me that theater does not – it’s two things really. One, is the epic, the big size, the big screen, give us a sense of the physical and political landscape out of which LBJ emerges. And then the other, which is probably the most important part, is the intimacy of the camera. How close you can get, and how revealing that is of a character’s personality. So, you know, I got to get to do some things I didn’t get to in the play. I wrote a whole bunch of new scenes, and moved things around and ultimately we’re very, very happy with how it turned out. I will say this, Steven Spielberg last night at the screening pulled me aside before we went in and said, ‘You know, I think this is the best film adaptation of a play I’ve ever seen.’
Which aspect of the film are you most excited for audiences to see?
RS: The performances. The extraordinary performances here, top to bottom. Anthony Mackie, Bryan Cranston, of course, Melissa Leo is Lady Bird, Bradley Whitford is Hubert Humphrey, Stephen Root is J. Edgar Hoover – there is not a clunker in the bunch. It is really an A-list group bringing their A-game and that makes everybody pick up their pace a little bit. It’s very exciting. That’s what I’m excited for, for people to come out and go ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that was Bryan Cranston.’
As a director, how did you strike the fine line between giving homage to the source material but also creating your own, unique film?
JR: Well, it was a great story to begin with – Schenkkan wrote a beautiful play – but he did the adaptation for the screenplay, too, so I had that going for me to get started. But for me, the main thing that the movie does that the play did to some extent but that we do a little more intimately, is be in LBJ’s face. Be with him at the most intimate possible places when he’s going through those hellish situations.
What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
JR: For me, the biggest challenge was just to get the complexity of the play’s language to visual language. Sometimes audiences in plays can be more patient with all the exposition and repetition sometimes, and I knew that in film, people pick [stuff] up quickly. So pictures do say a lot in a shorter time, but I didn’t want to lose the edge and the political minutiae, the stuff that real political junkies love, just to make it more sexy and exciting in some cinematic way. So I really tried to stay true to the original intent of the play, but just make it more visual, more immediate, more intimate. And I think with these great actors, that was the one big thing we had. The cast we assembled for this was incredible, so I’m really happy with how this came out.
I know you’re also producing the movie, “Felt.” How is that going and what can you tell us about it?
JR: Well, I’m producing it, not directing this time, and Peter Landesman [the director] is in Atlanta right now working on it. I’m seeing dailies every once in a while, but it seems great. They have Liam Neeson playing Mark Felt and my friend, Diane Lane, playing his wife and an incredible cast of people that are there. It’s an interesting flip side to Watergate. We knew the Woodward/Bernstein side, but this is the side of the guy in the garage, Deep Throat, as he was called at the time. And because he was in the FBI, and Nixon was trying to bring him down as fast as he was trying to counter Nixon, it was a great tension and I think it’s going great and from everything I can tell, Peter is doing a great job with it.
Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey
Had you seen the play when the project first came across your desk?
DF: Yes, we had seen the play. We read the play first, and then we saw it on Broadway twice, yeah. It was excellent.
So, having seen and liked the play, were you worried about how everything would turn out?
JF: I think you’re always afraid when something is as successful as the play was. How do you not compromise the integrity of something that is so pure and so wonderful. But also, at the same time, it’s an opportunity to get outside of your enclosure, so to speak, in a practical way. So that’s what we really tried to capture and that’s what, I think for Bryan in particular, having been living with this role on stage, to have the ability and go outside and be in [LBJ’s] amphibious car and be at the ranch, to all those things, and to see the White House and all its glory. It’s great and it opened up the world, in terms of the story as well.