Q&A: Rob Reiner on Trump, Weinstein, ‘The Princess Bride’ and ‘LBJ’

Actor, writer, director, producer and activist Rob Reiner.
Actor, writer, director, producer and activist Rob Reiner.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Dozens of films have been made about John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States, but until recently, little has been done on Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Director Rob Reiner hopes to change that with his new film, “LBJ,” which opens Friday.

“I think had it not been for the Vietnam War, he would’ve gone down as one of the greatest presidents of all time,” Reiner said of the oft-overlooked figure. “Second to Roosevelt, LBJ passed more legislation than anybody.”

One of those pieces of legislation, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, LBJ famously managed to sign into law despite opposition from his fellow Southern Democrats and mounting racial unrest across the country.

“We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights,” Johnson said in an address before a joint session of Congress in 1963. “We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

“Initially, I was very trepidatious about making a movie about LBJ,” Reiner admitted. “I’ve grown to have a greater appreciation for what he was able to accomplish.”

We caught up with Reiner to talk LBJ, the current president, the Harvey Weinstein scandal that has rocked Hollywood and the 30th anniversary of Reiner’s classic romance, “The Princess Bride.”

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Woody Harrelson as in "LBJ."
Jennifer Jason Leigh and Woody Harrelson as in "LBJ." Electric Entertainment / Cook Allender

Why make a film about LBJ and why now?

Everybody has an idea about LBJ. He's like a bull in a china shop: He's twisting arms, he's bullying people to get his way. I thought, “Is there anything more to this guy?” and in doing research, I found that he had a tremendously insecure side. He's a very complex character, almost Shakespearean. We selected this small period of time, which, I thought, would be a good way to really explore who this guy was. And now this film takes on different meaning because of what's going on in politics.

When we decided to make this, the political climate in this country was very different than it is now. We finished the film before Trump ever became president. If you saw the film before Trump became president and you saw it now, it's completely different, in light of what's been going on in the country.

How does LBJ compare to our current president?

With Johnson, you see a president who is highly functional, highly experienced, understands to his bones the nexus between policy, politics and government and knows how all those elements work together in order to move the agenda forward. And you see now in the White House something that's completely dysfunctional: a president who not only doesn't understand how government works but has no interest in finding out.

What was important for you in casting LBJ? Why Woody Harrelson?

I wasn't trying to make a biopic on LBJ or show his entire life, which would take 10, 12 hours of a miniseries. I wanted to see if in this contained period of time we could capture the essence of him. So I knew I needed to get somebody not only from Texas, not only with a sense of humor, but also somebody who could bring some of the sensitivity and humanity that LBJ had. And Woody had a mixture of all of those things.

Rob Reiner
Rob Reiner Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

We've got to get to a point where we have racial harmony. If we don't, the experiment of democracy is a failure.

Rob Reiner

What are your thoughts on the current political landscape?

The state of affairs in this country couldn't be more dismal. It's just a disaster. I'm 70 years old and I've never seen anything like this in my life. We have a president who is completely incompetent, who has no experience in governing and has no interest in finding out how government works. And he's stirring up racism and division.

I don't think that this movie would mean as much, had Trump not raised all of these issues again. He gave voice to all this racism that we're seeing again in this country.

I didn't realize how virulent the strain of racism still is. It's terrible, but I try to be positive and think, “Well, maybe we just need to go through this.” We need to go through this in order to get to the point where we can eventually all come together. Maybe we're fighting the last battle of the Civil War here, but we've got to get to a point where we have racial harmony. If we don't, the experiment of democracy is a failure.

There's a lot of talk about impeachment. How would you feel about Vice President Mike Pence taking over the presidency as LBJ did?

Mike Pence, he's no LBJ. LBJ was a Democrat and believed in social justice and pushed liberal policies. Mike Pence is a real ideologue, unlike Trump, who only cares about himself. Mike Pence is somebody who’s got this very hard, conservative point of view, but I feel like if Trump were to go away, Pence would also be damaged in the process. He might be able to serve out the rest of the term, but I don't think he's going anywhere after that. And I do feel that Mike Pence at least is not mentally unstable. He's not going to wind up accidentally pushing the button or something.

What are your thoughts on the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal and the changing times in Hollywood?

This is not new. None of this stuff is new. Women have been subjected to sexual abuse, harassment and assault forever. I've never met a woman who hasn't experienced some kind of harassment. When you have a president who openly admits to sexual assault and gets elected anyway, there's no chance for a woman to protect herself, there's no avenue. It's going to be up to men to help out and to say things when something’s happening, because women can't do this alone. They need the help of men to stop this kind of behavior.

Robin Wright and Cary Elwes in "The Princess Bride."
Robin Wright and Cary Elwes in "The Princess Bride." Clive Coote / 20th Century Fox

On a lighter note, congratulations on the 30th anniversary of "The Princess Bride." Why do you think the film has remained so beloved to this day?

You know, I don't know. It's a story about true love, I guess [Laughs]. And as we say, “True love conquers all.” It's a crazy, wacky mixture of satire, romance, adventure, swashbuckling, and it's got a quirky tone to it. I love the fact that it's stood the test of time, and I love the fact that kids who saw it at 8 and 9 years old are now introducing the film to their 8- and 9-year-olds.

Support our journalism

Please consider subscribing today to support stories like this one. Already a subscriber? Your support makes our work possible. Thank you. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.