‘The Butler’ puts a new spin on LBJ, says Liev Schreiber

The new trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” shows an up-from-his-bootstraps man moving, Zelig-like, through U.S. presidential history, demonstrating how “one man overcame his past.”

But for at least one of the actors working on it, the fact-based film offered something else: a history lesson.

Liev Schreiber, who can be spotted in the trailer (in surprising old-man makeup) as Lyndon B. Johnson, said he found himself thus enlightened.


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“Before I did this movie I wasn’t really aware of the extent to which LBJ had moved forward the Civil Rights movement on Kennedy’s behalf,” the actor told The Times. “He was a white male from Texas and perhaps wasn’t the obvious choice for this kind of change, but working with Mexican immigrants [when he was younger] became a powerful part of his life and continued to influence him as president.”

“I don’t know if as many people credit him with these advances as they should,” Schreiber added.

Starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and set for an October release from the Weinstein Co., “The Butler” offers a snapshot of several eras dating from the Eisenhower administration through Reagan’s 1980s.

Many of those periods, Schreiber says, strike him as very different from the contemporary D.C. gridlock.

“Look at LBJ’s presidency and what a truly effective use of the House that was,” said the actor, who will next be seen on the small screen in Showtime’s Hollywood-fixer series “Ray Donovan.” “He had an innate ability to keep both sides of the equation happy in a way you don’t see today.”

Audiences will make up their own mind about the trailer, which has a tense, melodramatic quality (in keeping with recent Daniels movies like “The Paperboy” and “Precious”) and a sweeping sense of history (less aligned with the director’s previous work).

Schreiber, though, says he sees all of this as of a piece.

“I think of Lee as someone who’s very politically active wants to make films that are contemporary and important,” the actor said. “ The fact that it spans a period of time Civil Rights and it follows the life of a butler who serves under six presidents -- all of that is strangely in Lee’s wheelhouse.”


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