Woody Harrelson — the actor associated with "Cheers," "The Messenger" and now Lyndon Baines Johnson — was in a very non-LBJ place Friday: a juice restaurant west of downtown Toronto, trying to suss out a menu item.
"Organic soy?" the well-known vegan inquired skeptically of a waitress.
"Organic and unsweetened," she assured him.
He pointed approvingly.
Dressed uber-casually in sweatpants and flip-flops — and attempting an alcohol-free Toronto International Film Festival policy for the first time in several trips — Harrelson has been trying to clear his system in more ways than one.
After a spate of films in decidedly fictional entertainments (the rigor of "True Detective," the froth of "The Hunger Games"), the 55-year-old has now somewhat unexpectedly taken the mantle of one of the most complicated of modern presidents. He has tried to clear the decks even there, playing the role not with period-piece self-seriousness but a quippy, gleeful wit.
"Political dramas can get a little laborious; they can feel didactic and preachy. And ours is not immune to that," Harrelson said of the film "LBJ," directed by Rob Reiner. "But I think we have to entertain too. If we're not entertaining we're not getting our job done."
Few actors have had the kind of longevity, or range, of Harrelson. Early in his career he somehow made the transition from comedy ("Cheers," "White Men Can't Jump"), to serious cinema ("Natural Born Killers," “The People vs. Larry Flynt") in just a few short years. Soon after, he went into a decade-long dry spell, only to reinvent himself again with a hard-core indie drama, 2009's "The Messenger."
Since then he's managed to become one of Hollywood's most sneakily eclectic actors, veering between the rough-hewn blackness of "Rampart" and "Detective" to the more piquant genre-hunting of "Zombieland," to, of course, the Haymitch years.
"LBJ" is a surprising distillation of several of his periods. It certainly falls in the prestige-cinema bucket of Harrelson's past. But it also lies in the comedy of his further past, and it's difficult to imagine an actor who at once has the gravitas to pull off such a weighty part and the lightness to make it fun.
Joey Hartstone's script is built around that fateful Dallas ride for Johnson and President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. The first half of the film flashes back recurringly both to Johnson landing the vice presidency and the complicated relationship he has with the man who gave him the job. The second half centers on LBJ's career after he attains the nation's highest office, particularly the fight for the passage of 1964’s Civil Rights Act.
Harrelson plays the politician with a mix of Texas folksiness and Washington, D.C., swagger, projecting a man whose foot-in-both-worlds status was both a strength and a liability. Johnson was, after all, capable of, and burdened with, bridging Kennedy’s liberal agenda and a Southern-led conservative coalition in Congress.
But it's the no-holds-barred nature of his one-liners (Harrelson supplied a number himself), not to mention the timing with which he delivers them, that stands out.
To a lawmaker he doesn't like: "The only thing worse than a liberal is a liberal from Texas."
To a man who says he always votes his conscience. "Spoken like a true one-term senator."
Exasperated while on the phone with an inquisitive caller. "How do I know Johnson's not running? Because I'm … him." Pause. "No, I'm not … him. I am him."
To the statue at the Lincoln Memorial: "This is your mess we're cleaning up." ("I resisted that one,” he said. “I mean, who am I talking to? I'm clearly breaking the fourth wall. But now I totally get it.")
Harrelson had come to this restaurant to meet with the creators of an app that scans product bar codes for harmful chemicals. He was excited about the prospects. “It got this terrible score,” he said as he described a well-known soap. “Everyone thinks it’s better for you but there’s this ‘fragrance’ they don’t list the ingredients for and it can be highly toxic.”
Harrelson had a kind of intent manner with a hint of the surfer bro, and was eager to share and receive opinions on topics as diverse as restaurants and political systems — even as the whole enterprise was, he said, not something he was especially keen on. "I don't like doing press at this point. I mean, the movie doesn’t even have distribution and here we are talking about it.”
But he had agreed, perhaps aware that a Toronto twofer — he also has been winning raves for his turn as a terse high school teacher in TIFF's closing night coming-of-age film "Edge of Seventeen" — made a little gabbing inevitable.
Harrelson said he wasn't seeking to play a historical figure — his desire for on-screen political machinations might well have been sated with his portrayal of John McCain operative Steve Schmidt in HBO's "Game Change" four years ago. But he was persuaded to tackle the part because of Reiner, who he thought could deliver important lessons accessibly.
For his part, Reiner said Harrelson embodied the perfect LBJ. "He brings humanity to every character," the director said at the TIFF premiere Thursday night. "And he has a great sense of humor… We needed someone who could play the sadness [and] play the humor."
Of course another, more famous iteration of the leader was coming together at the same time — Bryan Cranston was about to reprise his Tony-winning incarnation from "All the Way" in an HBO adaptation.
"It gave me big, big pause," the actor said, in what might be called his Harrelson-y you-know-what-I'm-talking-about tone. "I mean, you've got Cranston, who's basically our generation's Brando, and Jay Roach, and Amblin, which is Spielberg, and HBO. They started shooting before us but we were both shooting the same time.”
He said he wished "All the Way" had finished and aired sooner. "Man, there's so much I could have stolen," he said.
As it was, Cranston helped him, offering the actor insight into Johnson's personality and introducing him to a number of experts.
Harrelson said all his research led to no easy conclusions, except that he wanted to keep exploring.
"LBJ did a lot of great things, but then there's of course also Vietnam, in which 2 million people died, and he had a large part in. And let's face it — there was a degree of racism there that was part of his upbringing," the actor said. "To this day I'm still not sure if I love him or hate him. I just know I'm fascinated by him."
Harrelson's political views are hardly simple themselves. Long known as an anti-government crusader, he said he nonetheless will support Hillary Clinton.
"I'm an anarchist. I don't believe in any of them. I think we can govern ourselves a little better; we don't need them to regulate trade or export war all over the planet,” he said. “But, I mean, it’s not really a choice — do you really want a narcissist in there who’s just there to help himself and hear himself talk, who doesn't even believe in global warming?"
Meanwhile, LBJ keeps popping up: Tom Wilkinson in "Selma," Liev Schreiber in “The Butler,” Cranston in "All the Way” — partly the result of so much JFK already being mined, and also perhaps the idea that Johnson presided during a time of racial division similar to our own. "LBJ" has the mixed blessing of being part of a zeitgeist and coming late to it, which is perhaps one reason the film has yet to sell to a distributor.
Such commercial obstacles seem of little concern to Harrelson, who at this point in his career seems set to move between as many different parts as he can. Over the next year or so he'll also be seen in a new "Planet of the Apes" movie, an adaptation of the memoir sensation "The Glass Castle," the much-anticipated Alexander Payne-produced graphic-novel adaptation "Wilson" and a new Martin McDonagh film. And then there are the scene-stealers in "Edge of Seventeen."
His next shoot is also a topical piece with Reiner — an Iraq war-journalism story called "Shock and Awe." (He won’t, as previously planned, star in George Clooney’s mystery-shrouded new project "Suburbicon.")
"I just think the chance to tell these real-life stories with Rob is something I can't pass up. The guy is one of the great directors of our time.”
A few minutes later, Harrelson obliged a few selfie-seekers, thanked the various juice experts in the restaurant and shuffled outside, giving a reporter a shaka sign before proceeding into the sunny Canadian afternoon.
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT