The first thing that you notice about the American Repertory Theater production of All the Way, Robert Schenkkan's new drama about Lyndon Johnson's first year as president, is the cast list. LBJ is played by multiple Emmy Award winner Bryan Cranston, now coming off a five-season run as meth dealer Walter White on the acclaimed AMC drama series Breaking Bad. The enviable ensemble of stage greats also includes Reed Birney (as Hubert Humphrey), Brandon J. Dirden (as Martin Luther King Jr.), and Michael McKean — a veteran of films like Best in Show, television series like Laverne & Shirley, and Broadway shows such as The Pajama Game — playing one of his first truly humorless characters: longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
McKean, who has been seen in dramatic roles in Broadway revivals of The Homecoming and Gore Vidal's The Best Man, is relishing this opportunity. Despite considering himself too good-looking to play J. Edgar, he's sunk in his teeth and is ready to play the villain. But that's just one side of his portrayal, which he discusses in the following interview.
You all must be so excited that the run sold out before you even started previews.
If I was in Boston and I had a chance to see Bryan Cranston play LBJ, I'd be buying a ticket, too. So is everyone else, which is good for us. Who knows? Maybe the demand will be so great we have to take it somewhere else, God forbid. [laughs]
Tell me about your involvement with the show.
I saw it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Our daughter is an actress up there. Jeffrey Richards, who's an old friend and who I've worked with four times before, called up and said, "I hear you're in Oregon. Would you mind checking out All The Way?" I said, "I saw it last night, and it's awesome." He loved it on the page and he loved it on the stage. I think it was his doing. He'd been in contact with Bill Rauch, our director. He just thought I'd be a good J. Edgar. All they had to do was run it by me.
I remember our jaws collectively dropping when we first saw the cast list for the A.R.T. production.
We have this unbelievable cast with some of my favorite actors in the world. If you just had Bryan, that would be one thing. But you have Dakin Matthews and Reed Birney and Brandon Dirden, who is an astonishing actor, doing a brilliant job as MLK, Dan Butler, Betsy Aidem, it just goes on and on. And there were a few that I was not familiar with who are now among my favorite actors in the world. It's a great company.
Had you ever envisioned yourself as J. Edgar Hoover?
On the page, I didn't seem like a perfect fit. I was a little tall and slightly better looking, not to toot my own horn. [Laughs] I was kind of the exotic choice, I thought. I rarely play a person who has no sense of humor. It's difficult because a lot of things he says on the level are so funny from the outside, but I cannot comment on them. I just have to play a man who spent his whole life gathering and analyzing clues. But he never had one himself.
What was your research process like?
I knew an awful lot about Hoover. The interesting thing is, you can't find any specimen of him talking off the cuff. Everything he says that was recorded was scripted. He was not an expert speaker, but it all felt very orchestrated or very rehearsed. He watched the cult of the G-Man grow up in movies and radio; he watched it from the inside. He fancied himself one of them — he was America's top cop who became savior of the free world. When the OSS became the CIA, that was his dream job. He probably would have had no problem running the FBI and the CIA. But they went with Allen Dulles, which made Dulles a deep, bitter enemy. However [Hoover] justified it as "I'm saving the country from communism." There was a real, intensely personal angle to it.
In reading the play, it seems like it would be so easy to play Hoover as pure evil. But as an actor, that must be very limiting.
It's uninteresting. As an example, take Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. That's a completely evil character. He's this dead-eyed creature. The one time you see any light in his eyes is at that moment of killing. But Javier Bardem in Skyfall, that was a remarkable performance because you can kind of see the evil that was done to him. I'm all for bad people in good movies, but I want to understand them. I don't want them to be there just wringing their hands.
How do you inject that into your performance?
You go there as much as you can. There are only so many clues when you're [playing] a real person. You really can't know what life is like. Helen Mirren and I were doing this movie [Teaching Mrs. Tingle], and she played an awful person. She said, "Whenever I have to play someone who's really terrible and bad to other people, I try to figure out what great cruelty it was that turned them this way." I didn't have a lot of those clues. I was left with my own imagination and I was left with a man who carefully manicured his public persona as the top cop and commie buster. History does not tell us what he specifically had against Martin Luther King [one of his main adversaries in the play]. There are no real traces of racism; it's beyond the racism of a privileged white official of the early part of the century. We have to assume racism, but you can't play that as a character. It's too thin.
You spend most of your time onstage interacting with Bryan Cranston as LBJ. Will audiences see in All the Way any flashes of Walter White, his character on Breaking Bad? I don't think so. I think people are going to be shocked and chilled the first moment they see him. He has become the character. He's been off book since day two, and it's a part the size of Lear. Even palling around with him for six weeks, we don't know who he is. He's still the same guy, but when we see him, we're seeing LBJ. It's pretty phenomenal.