(WASHINGTON) — Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robert Schenkkan’s play All the Way, which opens this week at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chronicles President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s tumultuous first year in office in 1964. In an interview with This Week, Schenkkan explained the inspiration behind the play and the cast, featuring Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston.
Schenkkan said his fascination grew out of his own shifting feelings toward President Johnson. His original support transformed for the senator-turned-president, going through phases of questioning and reexamination.
“Now having spent four years working on this play, I’ve really come to appreciate the complexity of President Johnson and the theatricality of this man and what he accomplished in his two terms of office,” Schenkkan said. “He’s a fascinating individual and a great way into a subject that interests me, which is the whole notion of power and morality.”
Schenkkan said he cast Cranston – known for his role as chemistry teacher turned ruthless drug kingpin Walter White on the AMC hit Breaking Bad – based on his ability to embody the tension in these conflicting ideals.
“You want somebody who can warm the cockles of your heart and chill you to your marrow. And I think Bryan Cranston is that actor,” Schenkkan said. “Somebody who is funny and entertaining and endearing and then terrifying. And that’s what LBJ was. He was all those things.”
Schenkkan says All the Way captures the complexities of Johnson’s first year in office, highlighting the success of his 1964 Civil Rights Act and contrasting it with the low of the escalating Vietnam War.
“We cheer him. We take pleasure in how he bullies and manipulates and lies and gets this big thing done. And then we watch him use the same toolkit to ensure his reelection and to take us into Vietnam. And we stop cheering,” Schenkkan said. “It’s the same set of skills, but they’re being applied to a very different end. And suddenly we are uncomfortable.”
Schenkkan said the play reveals the former president’s inner fears and illustrates the “bloody, messy business” of politics – from a time when Congress was far more productive than today.
“At least before it was… productive. Now it’s bloody and messy and we’re not doing anything,” Schenkkan said. “In 1964 there was no shame in crossing the aisle and making a deal.”
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