Jack Willis Brings LBJ All the Way Home to Our Nation's Capital
The original star of Robert Schenkkan's Tony-winning history play returns to his Presidential post at Arena Stage.
Before Bryan Cranston became the Broadway face of Robert Schenkkan's All the Way in 2014, Jack Willis laid the groundwork for the future Tony-winning drama in its 2012 world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Willis originated the role of Lyndon Baines Johnson in Schenkkan's bioplay — which follows the 36th President from the assassination of President Kennedy through his landslide victory in the election of 1964 — and he now returns to the piece for its upcoming mounting at Arena Stage in the poignant city of Washington, D.C.
In the four years since premiering All the Way, he's also debuted Schenkkan's sequel play, The Great Society, and performed both massive plays concurrently at Seattle Repertory Theatre. "I can't imagine I'm doing it ever again after this," says Willis about the Presidential role. But while rehearsing at Arena Stage, he took a few minutes to talk about his cross-country journey as Commander in Chief.
How does it feel to be revisiting the role you originated over four years ago?
It's good to be doing it in D.C. during an election year, and it's good to be doing it with a new cast of people, a new director, and in the round as opposed to a proscenium.
After spending several years with both All the Way and The Great Society, do you still feel like you're working on the character?
Yes, somewhat. Everything changes when you go from a proscenium stage to the round. And when we did it in Oregon I was working with actors who I had done four or five years' worth of theater with. All of these people [at Arena Stage] are brand-new to me. So yeah, you're figuring out. You're not doing the same show because it's impossible to do the same show.
Are you still learning new things about LBJ?
He's always been a hero of mine, so I've always been up on him. He tried to change the world — change this country. Vietnam bit him in the ass. Domestic programs for health, education, welfare, hunger — all the money from those programs had to go to Vietnam. The first two years in office he passed over two thousand pieces of legislation to try to make this country a better place.
How does the character change between All the Way and The Great Society?
All the Way ends with him just being elected president, so he's at the top of his game. It's the largest landslide victory since the 1800s. And the end of Great Society is him leaving office. So you end All the Way with a man in power and you end Great Society with a man who's lost all his power. The great thing about the last play is the last line is, "Let's go home Byrd." He's going back to his ranch. And I don't believe it was because he was defeated, I believe he knew the Vietnamese were not going to negotiate with America as long as he was president, and so he decided not to run again. And the day he left office the North Vietnamese sent peace feelers to Nixon and Kissinger saying, "We're ready to start negotiating," so he was right about that.
What's the hardest part of performing All the Way?
It's a long play. We did both [All the Way and The Great Society] in rotating rep in Seattle. With half hours and everything, it was over a seven-hour day with over six of them onstage. So that's the most challenging thing — just getting through it.
Did you enjoy getting the opportunity to build this play from the ground up?
I love new plays. A brand-new script is the best thing about being an actor. Because no one's ever done it before, so you get to put the first thumbprint.