“All the Way,” the story of 1President Lyndon Johnson’s battle to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- and keep his desk in the White House -- was one of Broadway’s biggest hits of 2014. If you missed the show in New York, you will get a chance to see a filmed version on HBO, starting on May 21, with Bryan Cranston reprising his Tony Award-winning role as LBJ.
We caught up with Cranston at the show’s premiere at Paramount Studios last week, where co-executive producer Steven Spielberg and costars Anthony Mackie, Melissa Leo and Bradley Whitford were among those in attendance.
What’s the difference between performing this character on film, compared with the stage?
In New York, there were 1,450 seats, and we had to raise our heads because the rake of the balcony was so steep, that if we dared speak intimately or lowly, they would just see the tops of our heads. So we were told to keep our faces up, and our voices had to be up.
So in film, you get an opportunity to drop it, and play it real. You can look away. You can look down. You can whisper. And that gives you an opportunity to connect with a real sensibility.
And yet, in the theater, there is an ebb and flow of a relationship with an audience that you don’t have in film. They’ll laugh at something, or they’ll gasp, and they’re sending messages back, and you’re sending it back, and it’s alive and it breathes. And sometimes it gets stuck, and you’re thinking, ‘It’s a strange audience tonight.’ And you’re trying to find a way to communicate with them. There’s no do-overs. Once it starts, it doesn’t stop.
In film, not having a live audience, how do you know when something is working -- or not?
You feel it. I talk to actors all the time. You leave an audition, you don’t need to call your agent to see how you did. You know how you did. You celebrate if it goes well, or if not, you say, ‘What can I do next time to make an improvement?’ You can work on your own as long as you want, but it’s not until you get on the set and feel the energy and feel the other actors, that it comes clear to you. Sometimes it takes a while to get it right. The more pre-preproduction you do -- the more you read through the script, the more you talk about it before the cameras start to roll, the less times you have where you really face a stumbling block.
What don’t people know about LBJ?
Hopefully, this movie will expose that. He’s largely known for his failed policy in Vietnam. And now we’ve reached and surpassed the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and it’s important to take the time and revisit the history in its entirety. What he was able to achieve hadn’t been done since FDR. It’s an amazing achievement – Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid ... the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was under him. And of course the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Legislation that changed the face of our country.