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Rob Reiner first unveiled LBJ in September 2016, when Barack Obama was still in the White House and the next presidential election was still weeks away. Yet a year later, the exact same cut of the biopic — which stars Woody Harrelson as Lyndon B. Johnson and hits limited theaters Nov. 3 — somehow screens differently to the director.
“It’s the weirdest thing — I was stunned watching it after Trump became president, sitting there with the audience, like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god,'” he told The Hollywood Reporter during a breakfast at the Whitby Hotel in New York City. “You don’t usually think about a film’s success based on who is in the White House. And to me, what’s more important is our country is not going to go down the tubes.”
Reiner spoke candidly with THR about what today’s leaders could learn from LBJ, who he’s backing on the California ballot and what it’s like to share an office floor with Steve Bannon.
What qualities did LBJ have that you wish today’s leaders could adopt?
It’s incumbent upon any leader to really understand how government, policy and politics intersect. You have to know that in order to get anything done. It’s one thing to advocate something, it’s another thing to push an agenda and it’s another thing to realize an agenda. And in order to realize an agenda, you need to know how government functions, you need to know how a policy affects an average person and you need to know the politics of it to get it moving. That’s what we need in a leader. It used to be standard, and now it’s, you know, it’s where it is.
I don’t know that Trump can learn anything from LBJ, because I don’t think he’s interested in learning. He doesn’t show an interest in wanting to understand how the government works or how you push policy or anything.
After helming LBJ, would you ever consider directing a Trump movie?
No, I don’t think I would be interested in that. I just want him to go away. This is a satire that you can’t make it up. It’s like you don’t have to change anything. I mean, if someone came to a studio head and told them, “I’ve got an idea for a movie. It’s about a guy who’s been a failure in business and promotes himself and becomes the star of a reality TV show and, without any knowledge of government, becomes president of the United States,” you go, “That’s a ridiculous premise.”
Has your attitude toward the administration changed since Inauguration Day?
Well, I feel like I’m in a nightmare that doesn’t ever stop. It’s bizarre. I mean, every morning, you wake up and you see another horrific thing that he’s either said or tried to do or whatever. It’s sad. I worry for the health of democracy. Hopefully we will live past this, but the question is how frayed or irreparable will be the damage to the fabric of democracy going forward. We’ve already gotten to a point now where I think a lot of the public can’t distinguish between what’s real and what’s fake. He keeps fueling that with fake news — he just goes out there and he just lies and it doesn’t matter — so it becomes ever more difficult for mainstream, legitimate press to break through with anything meaningful. And the question is, can that be repaired? One of the pillars of democracy is a free press, and we need a free and independent press, and right now, the Internet has made it so that it’s very difficult for truth to bust through.
Why did you cast Woody Harrelson as LBJ?
He brings the humanity and the humor. Plus, he’s from Texas and I always wanted that. The guy is like one of the great American actors, and he’s been great for years in so many different types of parts. We screened it at the LBJ library [last year], and Luci Baines, Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, was sitting there in the front row. After the film was over, she said, “The man I saw onscreen tonight was the man I knew.” That was it for me.
You’ve been in politics before. Would you ever run for president?
Not now. I thought of it at one point when I was in California, running against Schwarzenegger for a second term. But I talked with my family. I had three little kids at the time and I make a joke, but it was true — I polled 40 percent in family, so I figured if I couldn’t get my own family on board.… [Laughs.] I have worked in government, I did seven years, I headed up the state commission. You can get a lot done without being an elected official; there’s all kinds of ways of contributing. We were able to file the first federal lawsuit against Prop 8 in favor of marriage equality, and we’ve got this committee to investigate Russia now and trying to make people understand how critical this is and what happened. I don’t think people have a grasp of the magnitude of what happened in the last election cycle, so this is designed to help people understand how cyber warfare works, how propaganda is pushed and, ultimately, what can we do to defend ourselves in the future. There are things you can do.
What are your thoughts on Bob Iger as a presidential candidate?
Well, look, first of all, Bob Iger is a friend and he is really smart and he has been successful as a CEO. I think he would take the job more seriously [than Trump], but I don’t think that just because Donald Trump won and he came from the business world that that’s what we have to necessarily do. I think you do want to have somebody who has worked in policy, worked in government and worked in politics to understand. Bob is as smart as anybody — if we had him right now, I would feel a lot safer that somebody who is mentally balanced would be in the White House and not push a button, “Don’t touch that! Little boy, stay away from that button!” I would feel better if [Iger] were there, but I don’t know necessarily that that should be the first choice.
Could he rise to that challenge?
I think he could, I think he could. But I would prefer, like I say, somebody who has more experience in government.
Do you have a pick for California governor?
I don’t know. We’ll have to see who decides to run. We’ve got two great candidates so far, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa. I like both those guys, I think both of them would do great. But I’m with Antonio, only because I like the idea of a Latino being a governor of California. In Los Angeles, we’re 60 percent Latinos and in California, whites are not a majority. But we’ll see. If Gavin wins, I’m not gonna shoot myself. It’s just like two great choices, like when Hillary Clinton ran against Barack Obama. I was for Hillary, but the minute she lost the primary, then I was fine with Barack Obama — more than fine.
What about for California senator: Dianne Feinstein or her primary opponent, Kevin De Leon?
I’m with Dianne, she’s been amazing. She’s been there on gun control for forever. And she’s someone who really understands how government works and how to move things. He’s good, too, but I’m with Dianne.
How much did you work with Steve Bannon at Castle Rock?
I never met him. To this day, I haven’t met him. We have an office, Castle Rock, in this building in Brentwood, and down the hall from us is Breitbart. There’s no sign on the door, there’s no listing in the directory downstairs, and I’ve never seen Bannon because he comes up the back, but people in the building say they’ve seen him come and go. So, every time I go to the bathroom, I go [look into their office] to see if Bannon is coming.
He has a little piece of Seinfeld, but here’s another crazy thing: my wife, Michelle, is a professional photographer, and she took the picture of Donald Trump that is on the cover of The Art of the Deal. She was taking a picture of him for the cover of Fortune. And he liked the picture and put it on the book cover. So the two of us, indirectly, feel a little tiny bit responsible. We’ve been atoning ever since.
What are you doing next?
We have Shock and Awe, which premiered at the Zurich Film Festival, and we’re starting to look for a distributor. And then I have a TV project that I’m working on, and I can’t really talk about it until we get it. We haven’t shopped it anywhere yet, but we’re hoping for Netflix and Amazon, anybody that would want to put it up. I want it to be streamed because it’s a 12-part thing that would be good if you watched them all in a row, if you wanted to. I’m a binge guy.
What are your thoughts on the allegations against Harvey Weinstein?
What he did is disgusting. The only positive thing to come out of it is that people are talking now about sexual harassment. All I take away from all this is that how difficult it is for women to come forward. When you see how long it took for women in the [Bill] Cosby thing or in the Fox News thing or this, all it tells me is that women are up against ridiculous obstacles. Because they’re either going to be told that they lied or that they were asking for it, or that they’re punished somehow because of it. People are even willing to vote for somebody who overtly said that he sexually harassed women, and he becomes president. How does a woman ever decide to come forward? If that’s not going to be punished — given how the guy became president, he was rewarded — how does a women fight that? They discounted Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas is on the Supreme Court now.
Since this has come out, I have not talked to one woman that hasn’t said that something like that hasn’t happened to them. Some untoward advance, from words to physical to rape, all the spectrum of it. It comes down to the men — the ones who are not doing stuff like that — to help out. What’s good is when you have someone like Alyssa Milano comes out and says, “Me too.” And then all these women are coming forward and are saying, me too, me too, me too. And so, that could be a positive thing ultimately.
Were you aware of this behavior of his?
That’s the crazy part, I didn’t know. Here’s what I knew about Harvey Weinstein, because I’ve dealt with him in political things. He’s always been a good fundraiser for politics and all this stuff. I had no idea he was doing that. What I did know about him was that he was difficult to deal with. Every filmmaker I talked to said he’s impossible, he makes it really uncomfortable, he’s a bully, this and that. That I heard. But this sexual stuff? I had no idea. No idea. He’s getting his — he’s getting fired from his companies, he’s out of the Academy and he’s been “exposed,” pardon the pun.
And did you see that thing? It’s the most disgusting thing. He apparently masturbated into a saucepan, a frying pan. What is that? I’ve heard the term “pansexual” but this is ridiculous!
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