From director Rob Reiner, the political drama LBJ showcases what happened after Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (Woody Harrelson) lost the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination to Senator John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), but agreed to be his running mate. After they won the election, Johnson found himself sidelined as Vice President, but that all changed on November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson, with his devoted wife Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by his side, became the President of the United States and set out to honor JFK’s legacy while also establishing his own.
At the film’s press day, Collider sat down with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh to chat for this 1-on-1 interview about why she wanted to sign on for LBJ, how daunting it was to take on Lady Bird Johnson, the prosthetics and make-up that went into transforming her, what she enjoys about working with Rob Reiner, and the newfound respect she has for the woman that she portrayed. She also talked about what attracts her to a project, how much fun she had on Twin Peaks: The Return, how thrilled she was to be a part of the Patrick Melrose limited series (set to air on Showtime), and working with Alex Garland on Annihilation.
Collider: When the idea of you playing Lady Bird Johnson was presented to you, what were you hesitant about and what convinced you to do it?
JENNIFER JASON LEIGH: I love Rob Reiner and I’ve known him for a long time, but we’d never actually worked together. And I’m a huge fan of Woody Harrelson. I didn’t even really think about tackling Lady Bird when I first said yes because I was so excited to work with the two of them, and then it hit me, what a huge responsibility it is to play her. It was daunting.
What did you ultimately do to transform yourself?
LEIGH: Rob called me and asked me if I wanted to do any prosthetics to help me look more like her, and I said, “Yes, absolutely!” I don’t really look that much like her, and I didn’t know if I could. And then, I remember the first day sitting in the chair, after they’d done molds and stuff, they put the nose on, the make-up, the wig and the brows, and I was like, “Holy, shit!” I really did look like her, and I’d been listening to her voice, endlessly. I wanted to get it almost like a score. She had a very specific way of talking, and there’s so much available to listen to, so that was really helpful. It was helpful to look like her, which I didn’t know would be possible, and to have her voice in my head, all the time, and then there was the wardrobe. She also had very nice posture, which I don’t have, at all, and she was very polite. She was shy and I’m shy, so I could click into that.
How was it to see yourself like that? Does it feel like you’re looking at a different face?
LEIGH: It does, and you are. It moves when you move, but it’s not you. It’s really a bizarre phenomenon, like nothing you’ve ever experienced. I guess it’s like having a really good Halloween costume. It’s a weird feeling to look in the mirror and it’s not you looking back, but it was incredibly helpful. I could believe I was her, a little bit, which you need to, if you’re gonna act.
Was it also weird to look at Woody Harrelson, and have him not look quite like himself?
LEIGH: Yeah, but it was also helpful. When we talked to each other, we used the same endearing terms that they would use with one another. He’s so much fun to work with. He’s also really encouraging and sweet, and very inclusive and warm. So is Rob. You feel like you’re a part of some family, all of a sudden, but it didn’t feel fake. It felt very genuine.
How was it to take all of the make-up and prosthetics off, at the end of the day?
LEIGH: It took a lot longer than one would imagine. We’ve all seen the Mission: Impossible films, and it’s not like that, but you want it to be. If you do that, you’re going to get a horrible rash. It’s glued on, and it’s really hard and painstaking to get off. If it takes two and a half hours to get in it, it takes an hour and a half to get out of it, and getting out of it isn’t as much fun as getting into it. Also, it’s at the end of the day. Although, on this film, the days were so short ‘cause Rob was so fast that it wasn’t as bad as some other times.
Was it hard to adjust to working so fast, or did you like that?
LEIGH: I think every movie has its own life and its own rhythms. It’s nice to get off early, while the sun is still out, and go for a bike ride or whatever. It’s incredible! I didn’t mind, at all. I’m not used to it, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see that again, but it was a lovely experience.
What did you most enjoy about collaborating with Rob Reiner?
LEIGH: He’s really instinctual and open and encouraging, and it really feels collaborative with him. He can have an idea about a scene, but if you have an idea, he’s open to hearing it. He wants to get the best out of everyone. He knows that, to do that, you have to make someone feel safe enough to give their ideas, whether they be bad or good. Ultimately, it’s up to him, but it’s so nice to work with him because he is so genuinely warm and kind. He also is so knowledgeable. He’s made so many great movies and he really knows what he’s doing, and yet he still really enjoys it. He loves making movies.
Do you feel like you have a respect and understanding of Lady Bird Johnson now, that you didn’t have before?
LEIGH: Certainly! She started the tradition of the modern First Lady. She had her own Chief of Staff, she had her own projects, and she toured around the United States. She also financed his campaign with her investments that she made. She was really well-educated and she loved to read. She was a real environmentalist.
At this point in your career, what gets you interested in a project and what gets you to say, “This just isn’t for me”?
LEIGH: There’s not a list of things that don’t speak to me. I don’t even have to relate to something to want to do it. I just have to want to be attracted to it, maybe because the storytelling is so good or I want to work with the director. Maybe I don’t even understand the story, but I love the director, or it’s the actors involved. Usually it starts with the script.
Twin Peaks is my all-time favorite TV series. I was glued to the TV, every week, when the original series was on ABC, and it was so crazy, surreal and exciting to see it return on Showtime, after so many years. What was it like to get to be a part of that?
LEIGH: I was actually shooting this when I got the call from David Lynch to work on Twin Peaks. I barely had to read it, honestly. I got sent three pages. You only got your part. But if David Lynch calls you, you just say yes. It was really fun. I had a really great time. Tim Roth and I got to play husband and wife, and we had just done The Hateful Eight together, so it was really fun for us. It was very easy for us to relate to each other as husband and wife ‘cause we had spent six months of our lives, in a cabin having the time of our lives together. It was really nice to reunite that quickly.
What was David Lynch like to work with? Is his direction very abstract?
LEIGH: He’s also very fast. He doesn’t give you abstract direction. I would say the opposite, really. He can be very specific, but it’s more about the visual. You have a certain amount of lee-way and freedom, and he’s very open, but he might want you to hold a gun exactly certain way. You can see in his paintings, in his filmmaking and in all of his art that he’s very, very visual. I remember wanting to change my eye color, and he was completely open to the idea. It’s nice when you feel like you’re not just showing up and saying lines. You’re bringing your imagination to it, as well, and that’s welcome.
Do you know what you’re doing next?
LEIGH: I just finished something, so I want to take some time off, and then I’ll figure out what’s next. I just finished Patrick Melrose. It’s fantastic! It’s really, really great. I had read the novels, seven years ago and loved them, and I never thought making a movie or a series of movies about them would even be possible. It’s something I’m really thrilled to be involved with. I just finished working on that, and it was a fantastic shoot.