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Michael McKean talks becoming J. Edgar Hoover for A.R.T.'s 'All the Way'

Character actor Michael McKean co-stars with Brian Cranston in A.R.T.'s new play 'All the Way.'

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Sometimes a sequel follows something so bright that it simply can’t get the attention it deserves, until enough time has passed to give it the space it needs to shine on its own.

Such is the case with American Repertory Theatre’s season-opener, “All the Way,” which examines the 11 dramatic months between John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 and Lyndon Johnson’s path to victory in the 1964 presidential election.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan’s play (directed by Bill Rauch) features a star-studded cast led by “Breaking Bad”’s Bryan Cranston in the role of Johnson, who stakes his presidency on the July 1964 passing of the Civil Rights Act. The play also features a gallery of historical heroes, such as Martin Luther King Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden), and villains like FBI head (and relentless King antagonist) J. Edgar Hoover — here portrayed by character actor Michael McKean.

“It’s history. It’s a suspense play. It’s a nail-biter. Even though we know [Johnson] won in 1964, it’s all about the machinations,” says the New York native between rehearsals in a sit-down with Metro at A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center, where he made his stage debut in 1968 with “Troilus and Cressida” — and where he has been spending his days fine-tuning his portrayal of the eccentric Hoover.

Although most know McKean as Hollywood’s satirical funny man (notably in mockumentaries “This Is Spinal Tap” and “A Mighty Wind”), his work in “All the Way” marks his third consecutive historical play (following runs in Gore Vidal’s drama “The Best Man” and Jonathan Lynn’s “Yes, Prime Minister”). His latest role presents a new challenge for the actor, however, as he finds himself in the rare position of playing not only an actual historical figure, but one of the most elusive that modern history has known.

In constructing Hoover, McKean draws partly from his memories of growing up in the 1960s, as the son of Louisiana expats who migrated north after WWII to enjoy the more liberal climate. “The first thing that I ever published in the high school newspaper was a piece about the [Mississippi] civil rights murders,” recalls McKean of one of his primary memories of the real-life characters and situations explored in “All the Way.” “I remember my father on the phone with Western Union sending a telegram to LBJ saying, ‘Suggest you give Hoover one week to solve murders, then fire his ass. ... OK, then fire him!’”

Everyone knew of Hoover, but when it came to studying the FBI founder, McKean couldn’t find any footage of Hoover talking extemporaneously. “It was all about image,” he says. “And knowing what we now know about Hoover’s private life, image is very important — especially if who you really are is not for public consumption.”

For McKean, the desires, emotions and secrets (including his rumored homosexuality) of the inner Hoover are more interesting than the personality and affectations of the outer Hoover who hated, and was hated by, so many — especially King.

“Why am I obsessed with King? I have my secret reasons,” says the actor, reflecting on why King — a character Hoover does not speak to once in the play — looms so large over Hoover’s psyche. “[King] is my bugbear. He is my bete noire. Hoover is very much afraid of the ‘wrong people’ having too much power.”

 
 
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