When actor Jack Willis steps up to the podium to deliver a political speech in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "All the Way," his portrayal of former President Lyndon Johnson instantly shifts.
Willis goes from being charismatic and larger-than-life to stiff and robot-like.
"He wasn't very good in press conferences, especially when you think about who came before him," Willis said. "Kennedy was so glib, at ease and funny. Johnson was really kind of static. Everything that was great about him was behind the scenes. He purposefully tried to keep that away from the camera. He didn't think it was presidential."
Away from the podium and the cameras, Willis masterfully shifts gears, capturing Johnson's personality and political tactics.
To many Americans, Johnson was a bully and a calculating wheeler-dealer, using threats, bribery and flattery to get his way.
"All the Way" portrays that side, but also the heart of the man who pushed through landmark civil rights legislation knowing it would alienate many white Southerners from his Democratic Party for decades.
Willis portrays that passion, along with the human, earthy side of Johnson. In one scene, Willis stands in his boxer shorts in a bedroom, scratching his butt as he discusses political developments.
Willis also tells Johnson's down-home stories and jokes in a way that is captivating and warm.
"I love some of his stories and one-liners and attitudes," Willis said.
While Kennedy came from American aristocracy, Johnson was from a family that was by turns wealthy and dirt poor, scratching out a living in the Hill Country of Texas.
Johnson had to pick cotton as a kid in the Texas heat and watched others ridicule his father after the family lost its ranch.
Like Johnson, Willis said he grew up poor in a rural part of the country.
Also like Johnson, Willis has risen to achieve remarkable success, appearing in more than 200 theater productions and securing television and movie roles in productions that include "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Law and Order."
Willis was raised in Kansas. He said he's no stranger to the Texas accent he employs in his portrayal of Johnson.
"I spent a lot of time in Texas. My voice grew up in Texas. It's not that hard of a dialect for me," Willis said.
Although he does use a Texas accent in the play, Willis said playwright Robert Schenkkan and OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, who directed "All the Way," made it clear from the beginning that they didn't want the actors to do impersonations of the many famous people — from Johnson to Martin Luther King Jr. to Strom Thurmond— who populate the play.
Willis, who was in his early teens during Johnson's presidency, said he has seen many film clips about the man, but he concentrated on reading about the former president to prepare for the play.
The events of the 1960s are burned into his mind, providing additional inspiration.
"I remember cross burnings and the Klan. I remember segregated swimming pools," Willis said.
At the same time, he said, there were inspirational civil rights marches and protests taking place in the South.
"You saw good things happening, and you saw bad things happening," he said.
Many white people were cautiously supporting Martin Luther King Jr. while being scared of Malcolm X, he recalled.
Willis said he is honored to work with so many OSF living legends in a play that captures that tumultuous time.
"It's been a brilliant trip. I'm very excited about continuing the run," he said.
"All the Way" plays through Nov. 3. For more information, visit www.osfashland.org or call the OSF Box Office at 541-482-4331.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.