Michael Mosley digs comedy. “It’s what I love,” says the Iowa-born actor. Drama, though, crushes on him. While it was ABC’s popular sitcom Scubs that landed him on audiences’ radars back in 2009, the actor’s dramatic turn on shows including Pan Am, Longmire and Castle is what has fueled his rising star.
Still, Mosley’s sense of humour is evident from the moment one sits down with him; his wit—supported by a nimble quip reflex—makes an indelible impression. Given his natural aptitude for comedic timing, it’s no surprise the actor became a favourite on Sirens—the now defunct TBS comedy. Closer to British deadpan than relentless funny man, the actor has a bit of Heathcliff to him—with dark eyes and an oblique charm—cut with the slouching disposition of a ‘90s grunge rocker. The combination lends itself to roles with a more somber bent, while nudging way for the sardonic.
Opportunely, serious men with cynical world lenses dominate the narrative of the actor’s latest project, LBJ, a biopic about America’s 36th President. Helmed by director Rob Reiner (Flipped) with Academy Award-nominated actor Woody Harrelson (True Detective) in the title role, the historic drama takes the Mosely back in time to the genesis of those turbulent years, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“LBJ was going to go in and do politics as usual,” says Mosley of the those years. “But the Kennedys—these young Harvard kids—had shown up and taken over the zeitgeist of the country, and he had to adapt based on that.”
For fans of House of Cards, the bio attached to Mosley’s character, may recall the sway of one Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly). In the role of Kenneth “Kenny” O’Donnell, the actor steps into the life of a covert Washington insider, whose legacy begins with Camelot.
In the political history books, O’Donnell—who passed away in 1977—is remembered as JKF’s closest adviser. O’Donnell provided counsel during the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis that followed, he arranged and was present during that fateful trip to Dallas, and thereafter, he was a White House aide to Lyndon B. Johnson—JFK’s Vice President and successor after his assassination.
Johnson was voted into office that same year and acted as Commander-in-Chief from 1963 to 1969. Serving LBJ through the Civil Rights Movement, O’Donnell—who was widely regarded as the padrone of JFK’s “Irish Mafia”—struggled with the philosophies of the president’s office, eventually vacating his post to support Senator Robert Kennedy during his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, until Kennedy’s fatal shooting in Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel.
With the film currently traveling the festival circuit, we had a chance to catch up with Mosley while he was in town for the film’s world premiere at the 41st Toronto International Film Festival. Below, transcribed from a conversation on a rooftop bar in Toronto, the actor delves into the history of Kenny O’Donnell and the Washingtion man’s windy relationship with LBJ.
To start, can you tell me how you researched for this film? There’s a lot of history behind the name Kenny O’Donnell.
Yeah, so his daughter Helen O’Donnell has written a bunch of books about him and Jack. I talked to her on the phone; she shared a lot good stories about him. [gestures to waitress] Two shots of Jameson please. [pauses] He was a really interesting guy… he went to college with Bobby. They were Harvard roommates. They played football together and they use to like to incite political discussions among the rest of their teammates.
Did his daughter have some good stories?
She told a funny one about when Kennedy got elected as President of the United States. Kenny was helping Bobby, who was the campaign manager… [waitress arrives with Interac Debit terminal] One of these again.
What’s the matter? It’s just a terminal.
[pauses] A terminal? Is that what it’s called? You know, we’re getting these in the States now, too. [shakes head, laughs] Anyway, the election had one of the smallest margins for a victory in American politics… it was him and Nixon going up against each other at the time. And while the votes were being counting, Kenny said to his wife—who by this time was just so sick of him being on the road campaigning—“as soon as we’re done with this, I’m yours. We’re going to go on vacation. I’m sorry, I’m just trying to get my buddy’s older brother elected.” Then, the minute the count comes in and it’s announced that Kennedy has won… I think he won by around 100,000 votes… [waitress sets our drinks down in front of us] Thank you.
Okay, now the count is in…
So, the minute it’s announced that he’s won, Kenny O’Donnell—who is in bed with his wife—gets this knock on the door, and it’s four secret service guys. Kenny is like, “what’s going on?” And they say, “the president-elect wants to talk to you.” And Kenny says, “sorry hunny, I will be right back.” And so then, he gets in the car, and the minute he gets into the car, they all salute him. And he’s like, “what the fuck is going on?” [laughs] Now he’s in the car and goes to where Jack and Bobby are at…
Jack Kennedy is in the other room… Bobby is there and he goes, “you’re in the cabinet, you’re called Special Liaison to the President.” And Kenny goes, “what the hell is Special Liaison to the President? What does that mean?” And then John Kennedy says from the other room, “Whatever the hell I want it to. Pack your bags, we’re going to D.C. tomorrow. [both laugh] And that was it, he was back in the fold.
Where he stayed.
Yeah, Kenny O’Donnell was always in the huddle. He was at the back of the room and he had the president’s ear. He was this neighbourhood guy, who didn’t really have a lot of political training or anything, but he was just this guy that was always there with Jack. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kenny was one of those guys in the room, figuring out whether to start nuclear war.
In terms of Kenny’s personality and what your gathered about him while researching for the film, what aspects of his character did you decide to play on for this role?
So… the movie is LBJ and it’s from LBJ’s point of view. LBJ is a Southern democrat. He’s this old school, white politician. And then… there are these Irish Catholics from the North East that democrats like LBJ didn’t even know what to make of. So, in that way, I wanted to make Kenny a little more neighbourhood.
Was that because of Rob Reiner’s direction?
I remember when I auditioned, Rob was like, “can you do more of the accent?” But Kenny didn’t really have an accent. He was from Worcester, Massachusetts, but he had gone to Harvard… and I feel like a lot of times, when neighbourhood guys get to the nice part of town or a nice school, they try to get rid of some of that stuff. They don’t want to sound like Worcester or Southie, or whatever. And so, he didn’t really have an accent, especially when he was talking to the press in D.C., but Rob wanted that.
I thought it would be fun if he had a little neighbourhood in him, if he sounded like the block because I thought it would confuse LBJ… and LBJ wouldn’t know how to read that, you know what I mean? It would be more of a point of conflict. [picks up the shots that have been sitting on the table and hands me one] This is very Kenny O’Donnell / ‘60s D.C. by the way. Actually, Helen told a funny story. They go out drinking one night—LBJ and Kenny—and they come home really late and LBJ is taking him home in the presidential limo and Kenny’s wife comes to the door, and they’re both weaving cause they’re drunk, and she goes to Kenny, “you, get in here.” And then she goes to LBJ, “you, go home.” And she slams the door! [both laugh] But it was all family, you know, so it was fine. [catches the waitress’ attention and gestures for another round]
Aside from their nights out, there was tension there though, right? With or without the accent.
They were at odds when JFK was in the oval office and LBG was his Vice President. Kennedy gave LBJ the position of Vice President to keep him close, so that he wouldn’t cause trouble. Because, if he was majority whip, he would have been a very powerful democrat [working] away from the him.
And then came the Kennedy assassination.
LBJ wanted Kenny on staff, and Helen said Kenny was very sympathetic and supportive of LBJ’s situation… I mean, it’s a very unique thing to not win an election and to become the president because of a huge tragedy like that.
How was it working with Rob Reiner?
Rob was great. Rob was amazing. I think he’s use to film—so he still thinks of it like every foot of film count.
How does that translate into his directing style.
Takes. He just does about two well-planned takes. [picks up another two shots off the table and hands me one] Cheers.
Just two takes?
Two, three, four… not a lot. We shot the whole Kennedy assassination by 2:30 PM in the afternoon. There were like 450 extras, period cars and after the morning rush, blocked-off traffic in Dealey Plaza; there were a lot of moving parts. But, done by 2:30 PM, and that was film wrap, too.
What was it like filming that scene? A little surreal, I imagine?
Being in this movie gave me a really unique perspective. While filming, it felt like you were standing in the middle of history. Driving the motorcade route—one car behind Kennedy. Think about it, I got a guy that looks like Kennedy; I’ve got Jackie with her pillbox hat, all in pink; everybody’s waving and dressed in period costumes; we’re in the cars, actually driving the route… you are in the moment. It was trippy. It’s really fucking trippy. It was wild. [laughs]
It would be! With any political film set in the ‘60s, it can feel like a Kennedy film. I mean yes, this is a movie about LBJ, his presidency and his perspective, but Kennedy in some ways defines that era, no?
Yes because it was all a reaction to this guy—to Kennedy. I was actually thinking about this the other day in terms of the current election. So, we had George W. Bush… who was a certain type of politician and a certain type of individual… but would we have a Barack Obama without a George W. Bush? I don’t know if we would have. [pause] I think it was a correction. So, with him, we have this thoughtful politician, who is young and a Harvard scholar, and then from him, we have an over correction the other way, where we have this populist Trump. Politics kind of ying and yangs all over the place; it’s always a direct response.
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