At the center of Liza Johnson’s “Elvis and Nixon” are the two titular men, played by actors who faced an insane challenge – take two of the 20th century’s most famous, most parodied figures, and make them feel like human beings. And there’s no denying that Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley, and Kevin Spacey as President Richard Nixon, are singular interpretations of these figures.
For two actors playing very different men, Spacey and Shannon seemed relatively simpatico when Indiewire got them on the phone, reflecting on the bond between the President and the King documented by the film (which is based on a real story, or at the very least a real photograph). Below, they reveal what the secret was to keeping their portrayals authentic, what they learned about Elvis and Nixon’s real-life bond and whether they approach film differently from their previous work in television. An edited transcript follows.
How’s the day going so far?
MICHAEL SHANNON: Good! Fantastic. We’ve really found out a lot about the movie and each other.
[laughs] This day has been full of surprises?
Well, I don’t know how much you’ve already talked about this – but taking on two personalities who are so well-defined in the public sphere and finding something unique in them, I imagine that was a bit of a challenge.
SHANNON: Oh yeah, of course. Yeah, but I feel like as well-known as these men are, they were also private people. Particularly Elvis. When I was exploring his life, I realized that there was almost a whole entire other version of Elvis kinda trapped inside of Elvis, which I was, you know, surprised to find out. I mean, I spent a lot of time with Jerry Schilling, one of Elvis’s closest friends. And it was very revealing about as happy as Elvis was to be Elvis Presley, and as much good fortune as that brought him, he also dealt with a lot of frustration that there was aspects of himself that he wasn’t able to fully explore.
KEVIN SPACEY: And I would say similarly, about Nixon, that with any public figure, there is a public persona and the way in which people might think of a person or reputationally, or what history has said about them. And then there’s the private person, and very often, we discover either through books or through movies or remembrances that actually someone was a human being, and has as many foibles and difficulties and loneliness that anyone has. And so I think that Michael and I tried to approach playing these two iconic figures with as much empathy as we could. And also just to try and get to the essence of these men and not feel that we were not settled by doing imitations.
In ensuring that your performance doesn’t hit that territory, was there anything you used as a touchstone?
SPACEY: For me, it’s trusting the actor that you’re working with — in my case, an actor I admire a great deal — and really trusting your director to encourage you in going to the right direction, right tone. I mean, we took this serious thing, we played it seriously, but we also were quite aware that the circumstance is still kind of absurd and crazy, that there was a huge comic value. You know, just like all of “Dr. Strangelove.” So to me, it’s always about not my own little touchstones. When you’re collaborating with others, you want to make sure that you’re all in the same world.
SHANNON: Yeah, Liza’s really our spirit guide through all of this. She really grounded the picture, I feel like. In the wrong hands, it’s so tempting to juice it up or feel like you need to make it… I don’t know. Make it more flamboyant or something. But Liza, the direction she gave to me, encouraged me to ground it in a real place and a real person.
Yeah. Especially in regards to telling a story about Nixon on the screen, this is honestly one of the more endearing portraits of him that I’ve ever seen, which is not something I ever really expected.
SHANNON: Oh, I know. Like Kevin said, this is pre-Watergate. He hasn’t been saddled with all this corruption yet.
SPACEY: Yeah, they weren’t recording anything in the White House – this is about a year and a half before they started recording anything in the White House – it was nice to be able to play a Nixon that wasn’t saddled by all of that.
I mean, do you think this portrait would have been different, if it had been recorded?
SHANNON: Well, they definitely had a bromance. But because the fact that the conversation isn’t recorded means that you can then kind of use your imagination to speculate what they talked about. I mean, ultimately, you can make quite a few different versions of this picture. I liked where the screenplay landed, in terms of the substance of the conversation. Mostly because I feel like it really established a very unique rapport between the two gentlemen. Because it wasn’t known that they remained in contact after that meeting and kept tabs on one another. Particularly if one of them ever wound up in the hospital, the other one would always call and wish them well. See how they were doing.
In terms of that – of course it’s scripted, of course you know what you’re getting on the page. But how much of the rapport did you find actually in the room when you were shooting?
SHANNON: Oh, a lot. I think a lot happened in the moment. I mean, it’s like when you have people that are incredibly prepared and incredibly serious and someone of a different stature, just time and time again proves he’s one of the best there is. To be able to walk into that room and just… One of the main things you learn is no matter what separation you do, you need to be alive and awake and paying attention in the moment and that’s something that actors know. Particularly actors that spend a lot of time in the theater, which Kevin and I have.
Was that your experience, Kevin?
SPACEY: Yeah, I mean, look. Since this meeting was not recorded in any way, other than the fact that the two men and both Nixon and Elvis’s wives were sort of there and coming in and out of that room if there was time. There was a large period of time where they were alone and what they talked about has been imagined. So even though it’s based on a real event, it’s in some ways, allowed us to imagine stuff. And you know, coming to work everyday with an actor that’s in the same zone, and certainly a theater head like me. There’s a certain sensibility at work and I had an almost instant trust and relaxation, and an ability to then go to work and try to serve the story.
We’re in this kind of crazy place right now where independent film is being produced on this one level, and then we have television which can range from anything, from a blockbuster experience to much like an independent film. I’m wondering for you, is there any distinction in your mind between television and film at this point? Is it all the same beast, or doing something like this feel different from the television work you’ve done?
SPACEY: Well, all I know is that in all the experiences that I’ve had in front of the camera… The camera doesn’t know it’s a TV camera, and a camera doesn’t know it’s a film camera. It’s just a camera. And you can do the best work that you possibly can in front of it and what platform it ends up on is of little distinction, certainly now to audiences. I don’t think they care what it’s on, as long as it’s quality and it’s good and it’s interesting.
And we’re probably going to end up seeing more new platforms as the years go by, and more new ways for people to discover how to view and watch storytelling. But I think storytelling is storytelling. I’ve had incredible experiences in all kinds of different films and television and all kinds of different budgets and all kinds of different schedules. And you’re always fighting time, and you’re always behind, and you’re always afraid you’re not gonna make your days. It’s a constant fight, a constant struggle every single day no matter what you’re doing. And no matter what your budget is, for me, it’s interchangeable. It doesn’t change.
SHANNON: Yeah, the one thing I’ve been thinking about film is that you’re telling the whole story in that project, in that period of time that you’re shooting a film. The one time I had extensive experience on a TV show [the HBO drama “Boardwalk Empire”], I was never quite sure what was coming next — it was kind of like the house was being built as we were living in it. Sometimes that’s a bit disconcerting for me because I like knowing what the end is, what the story as a whole is going to be.
But yeah, other than that, I pretty much agree with everything Kevin just said.
“Elvis and Nixon” is in theaters now.