Elvis and Nixon premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in April. I enjoyed the film immensely because of the sardonic humor, the performances and the director’s approach to the meeting of these two iconic figures. In a press conference at the Conrad Hotel back in April, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to laugh with director Liza Johnson, Kevin Spacey (Nixon), Michael Shannon (Elvis), Alex Pettyfer (Jerry Schilling), Johnny Knoxville (Sonny) and Colin Hanks (Egil “Bud” Krogh), about their experiences on the film.
What was the process that you used to portray these two iconic figures?
Michael Shannon: It was really challenging for me because there was not much about Elvis out there. (huge laugh) No, I just started by watching the films on Elvis, the narrative films and the documentaries: That’s the Way it Is, Elvis on Tour. I watched press conferences, much like this one, particularly one he did in Houston which predates this movie by a few months. I found that one particularly enlightening. I also had a great gift from Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ friend who Alex plays in the movie. Jerry gave me a forty-five minute interview that Elvis had recorded for Elvis on Tour, which they didn’t wind up using in the movie at all. So it’s an interview that not many people have heard. As these people will attest, I listened to it constantly. Either I was doing a take or listening to that. That’s my exciting story. (laughter)
Johnny Knoxville (he plays Elvis’ friend Sonny): Kevin (he directs this to Kevin Spacey), how did you prepare?
Kevin Spacey: Well, Johnny, it started with me. (to Johnny Knoxville…press laugh because of his timing and tone) Weirdly, I had a previous experience when attempting to play Richard Nixon. I screen tested for Frost/Nixon, which by the way was a movie I did not get. (laughter)
Liza Johnson: This is really a revenge thing.
Kevin: Yeah, this is my revenge film. Though because at the time Ron Howard, though he ultimately did choose Frank Langella, he did ask a number of actors he was interested in seeing, if they could go on tape and present a “Nixon.” I was in Las Vegas shooting a movie in the hotel room there with my makeup and hair people on that film and sort of put together a version. And then I filmed four scenes, including a farewell to the White House staff and then I thought I lost this DVD.
I thought it was gone, but then I located it when I knew I was going to come on to this film. And I was able to watch what I did wrong in that version. Some of the major reasons why I didn’t get that role became very clear as I watched it all these years later, and I thought, “Well, you’re not going to do that again.” But it was actually very helpful and yet I think Michael and I both felt that these are two figures who people obviously know so much from the way they present themselves. There’s so much public stuff, but not that much private stuff. I found a recent documentary that used a lot of footage sort of behind the scenes of Nixon at the White House that Haldeman shot. Our Nixon is what it’s called. I found that very helpful. Also, a lot of photographs of Nixon looking remarkably uncomfortable in chairs (we laugh) that I found very useful and of course obviously, the many, many hours and hours of tapes of private conversations. (Spacey pauses to comment about his own pronunciation) That “P” was really excellent.
Michael: Plosives. That’s what they call it, right? Plosives.
Kevin: Yeah… that I found very helpful because this was a private meeting even though the photograph became quite public. And that was interesting for me, to try to understand what Nixon was like in private. I came away feeling that he swore more than any human being I’ve ever heard. (we laugh) And he was decidedly grumpy. Something was always fucked-up. (we laugh) Someone was always trying to get him about something. I think Michael and I both didn’t want to feel that we had to do an imitation in any way, but just to try to find an essence of each of these figures and allow them to respond to each other genuinely. And what’s most interesting was the fact that these two people which you wouldn’t think would have anything in common, had this meeting…had an appreciation for each other.
Well, I was going to ask you something along those lines…
Kevin: Well then don’t. (we laugh)
So why do you think people are fascinated by this meeting of these two men? It’s such an odd couple to get together. The photo is iconic, but the story is kind of like an urban myth. Did you know what had happened?
Kevin: No, I was thirteen when Nixon resigned. (asking the director) Did you know anything about this?
Liza: No I was actually born the week before this meeting. (laughter) I think the script, when I received it, does get at why people are actually so fascinated by that photograph. To me it’s because both of those men are so iconic and so well known but for radically different things. Elvis is known for defining a Rock and Roll youth culture…for being as “cool as shit.” And Nixon, I think, is a super effective president and he has a huge fan base. People are incredibly interested in him, but he is not known for being as “cool as shit.” And I think that not only in their personal style, like what they’re each wearing in that photograph, but what they’re known to stand for in American culture is very dissonant. And the juxtaposition even within the photograph has an absurdity to it that I think is then drawn out and explored by the script.
Michael: Somebody said something interesting to me the other day. They said, “Yeah. I didn’t know Elvis was so conservative.” They asked, “Is that true?” I said well, first of all, Elvis never talked politics with anybody. I don’t think it was anybody’s business what his politics were. He didn’t think it was his place to instruct people on politics. He was a singer. But I think it also points out an interesting trait in Elvis. Elvis is always incredibly aware of who he is talking to. He’s willing to have whatever conversation the other person wants to have. I think one of the real charming things about it is to see Elvis meet this man who is perennially grumpy, and actually coaxes him into having a semi-decent time for a couple of minutes. (laughter) So I think maybe that’s what’s so interesting about the meeting.
Johnny Knoxville: Don’t forget your karate moves.
Michael: My karate moves. (Shannon laughs) Yeah, Johnny was my trainer on those. It was a quick session.
Johnny: Let me show the President my karate moves…
I have a question about the production. I noticed from press clippings a lot of the dialogue was the actual conversation that happened. But for the production did you consider embellishment or think about adding some more drama or humor to the production?
Kevin: There was a dog, but we cut it. (laughter)
You’re kidding, right?
Kevin: (smiling) I am.
Michael: Kevin came up with some really good buttons on some scenes. A lot of the buttons you see on the scenes in the Oval Office are the things you came up with. (he looks at Kevin)
Kevin: I’m a button man. (laughter)
Johnny: To hear him swear as Nixon was very satisfying. But we really didn’t have to add too much to the story. The story is so bizarre…the truth of what happened is so insane. We just were true to the story. Liza would allow us to go off book a page or two, but we stayed true to the story.
Kevin: Most of that stuff is cut out of the movie.
Michael Shannon: But the “cool cat” one with you dropping the gun…
Spacey: (thoughtful) Oh yeah, yeah, that’s right. The thing also is that while this is such a famous meeting, it wasn’t recorded. In a way it allowed us and certainly the screenwriters to be able to imagine what this conversation was. Although the character that Alex plays was there and certainly in and out of the room, as was the character that you play (refers to Johnny). And so they were helpful in terms of snippets, though I think it was expanded. And that was the fun of it, that we could imagine it.
Johnny: You kind of want to see Elvis do karate in the Oval Office. You still want to see it. Did it happen? But you still want to see it.
Liza: I think that is one of the things that is beautiful about fiction and that you can do through drama. If I was a detective, I could make a certain version of everything we know to be exactly true. And that would have a certain kind of truth value. And there are certain other things that we know that are emotionally true. We know a lot about Jerry’s friendship with Elvis that we were actually able to study with Jerry Schilling and through his book. And I believe that there are some relatively small changes in time frame and things like that we decided to put in the movie in the time frame. If we leave it out of the movie, does that make it more true or less true? We know those things are emotionally true. You say, “Oh, that happened on Thursday so that can’t go into the movie. Does that make it more true or less true?
Kevin, you are already in a role where you are President of the United States…
Kevin: Yes. I’m only ever going to do presidents from now on. (laughter)
Would you be willing to play any of the people currently in the race now? (It is April of 2016) Also, after doing that role, are you more interested in politics?
Spacey: I’ve always been interested in politics. No particular election has put me off politics. I think some elections are more amusing than others. (laughter) I’m all for the entertainment factor. I love a good laugh. And I very much enjoy doing House of Cards. It’s an incredible job to have. I wouldn’t want to play any of the current people running for office. I think that would be bad casting. However…(laughter)
Michael: How about Hillary? I’d play Hillary. (laughter)
Someone kibitzes: How about Ted Cruz? (laughter)
Spacey: Cruz? Oh…get orange make up, lots of orange makeup. (laughter)
I think it’s interesting in the film that Elvis doesn’t want anyone to think he’s famous because he doesn’t want to use his celebrity. Have any of you used your celebrity to get something that you really wanted?
Colin Hanks: Reservations? (others nod) Yeah, I think we’re all guilty of trying to get a better table at a restaurant.
Spacey: I used to walk up to Broadway theaters when I was starting out broke and wanted to go see a play. Because I had been doing standup comedy and did a Johnny Carson impression, I would pretend at the Box Office to be Kevin Carson. (in a voice not unlike Johnny Carson’s) “You have two tickets under my name.” (huge laugh) And the most surprising thing is that I usually got in. They usually were like, “Yeah, someone from the Tonight Show set this up.” It was always early previews and they wanted the house to be filled, so they’d give me tickets. So, in a sense, I used Johnny Carson’s celebrity. (huge laugh)
Michael: A complex matrix actually. (laughter) The combination of Carson and the early previews… (laughter)
Michael: Very diabolical.
Kevin: (Johnny Carson impression) I did not know that.
Michael: Speaking of late night talk show hosts, I’m just glad that I got on Letterman before he retired. (pause) That’s about it. (laughter)
Congratulations on the film. I thought it was really marvelous. Coming from that generation, way, way back, I was part of the counterculture I hated Nixon and I didn’t like Elvis.
Someone kibbitzes: Wow. You went into this movie…really…(laughter).
What you brought to this movie was that you humanized both men for me and it was absolutely superb. I really enjoyed the humor and the sardonic irony was absurd and wonderful. And the private moments exposed were just great. Do you know if any of the families have seen the film? Have you invited the Nixon family or the Presleys to screen the film?
Spacey: We’ve invited them all to a screening together in a tent. But they haven’t responded and we’re hoping…(laughter)
Liz: You know, it’s not quite an answer to the question exactly, but a friend of mine told me that in the John Dean biography, there’s a chapter about this San Francisco theater company The Cockettes (Hippie acid freak theater artists who performed in drag-circa the 1970s), that did a piece called Tricia’s Wedding (also a film). Apparently, in the John Dean biography, all of the Nixon boys gather to analyze how to respond to the Cockettes’ piece Tricia’s Wedding. And if we could organize something like that, it I would be really happy. (laughter)
Johnny: I would like to be in the Cockettes.
Michael: You’re in. (to Johnny). He’s not with us right now, but Jerry Schilling, who Alex plays in the movie has kind of shepherded this project along. It was a very sensitive thing for him. He’s been asked over the years to be involved with this subject and he’s always declined. The one you mentioned earlier he’s not a fan of. But when he got on board and gave us his support and was there on the set every day, that meant a lot. I don’t know if Priscilla’s seen it yet. I was in Jerry’s car driving around Memphis with him and it was Priscilla calling from London. And yeah, Jerry said, “I’m sitting next to Mike and he’s going to play Elvis.” That was one of the more surreal experiences of my life. (laughter) But I don’t know if she’s seen it yet or if she will see it. Obviously, it’s hard for her.
Liz: I was concerned actually just because some of the more comic moments came to the public first through the trailer, and I thought it might not go over. I thought it was all right for the public, but for the people who might have a stake in the reputation of Elvis or Nixon, I thought, “Oh. I wonder how that will be?” I don’t know if Priscilla saw it, but I do know that some of the people at Graceland saw it. Their favorite scene was in a way, the most absurd. But people really do deserve to have whatever response is their true response. And I honor and respect and hope for the best on that front. But I was encouraged by the fact that they could endure the most absurd moment and actually like it.
Liz: In the trailer there’s a scene where there’s a karate element and then there’s a bonus, a karate element that involves the knuckle development. Elvis’ cousin really appreciated that moment with the knuckles because they actually did used to play a game like that as kids.
Michael: I did it all with my mind. (laughter)
I wanted to ask Kevin about playing Nixon, Richard III and Frank Underwood. Are you drawn to playing these Machiavellian, dark, figures of power?
Spacey: Well, I suppose in hindsight and certainly knowing what happened to Richard Nixon with Watergate, you could put him in that category. But what was interesting to me about this Nixon is that he’s not saddled by Watergate. And in fact he hadn’t started taping in the White House and wouldn’t for another year and a half or so. So this wasn’t for me exploring a dark, Machiavellian figure. There are elements to his paranoia, elements to the sense that something was always fucked up or wrong or that people were screwing up that was interesting. But I actually think that the conversation and how it shapes itself out and how Elvis provides for Nixon this conversation…brilliantly played by Michael in terms of giving him what he wants to hear, but a conversation that I think Nixon didn’t expect. For me, he is a different kind of Nixon from the two other figures that you mentioned.
How did you find the balance with the comedy and the sad melancholy?
Kevin: Drinking. (laughter) I find drinking really helps.
Michael: I give Liza a lot of credit for that. Like I said, Jerry kind of gave us our marching orders in the beginning, like I don’t want this to be silly. And both of these figures merit attention and respect. There is so much already in the popular culture, the mocking caricature of these two people. Why add to that? Life is too short. It is such an amazing opportunity. On the one hand this was a real event and on the other hand, it’s an imaginary event. You don’t get that opportunity very often to portray this. When I say it out loud, it doesn’t even make any sense, but it’s the truth. I kind of think that’s how we all worked. Alex was incredibly devoted to Jerry and spent a lot of time with Jerry and was very interested in capturing Jerry’s point of view in the story. And Johnny and Colin and everybody who showed up to work, even the day players just had a respect for the project. The humor is inherent in it. The humor you don’t have to go looking for. It’s there.
Liza: There’s actually not even really jokes in it. We all acknowledge that there’s a comedy to the situation. I think there were two jokes written into the script and half of the time when we’d get to them, you guys would refuse to say them, because you were like, “This isn’t a joke movie.”
Michael: And it was very odd when we shot the scene in the airport. I love the scene when Elvis finally came face to face with Maxwell, Elvis’ impersonater (played by Joey Sagal). It was very jarring for all of us. It was pretty deep into the shoot. And Joe was actually involved in the writing of the screenplay, and definitely a huge fan of Elvis. I remember that day thinking, ”Oh, thank God we’re not doing that.”
Alex Pettyfer: That was actually an amazing day, because Jerry who I play was on set and he was so devastated and upset about how his best friend had been betrayed for so many years. It was kudos to Michael coming on the movie and Michael is an incredible actor, to come playing the real Elvis, a man that has had trouble throughout his life and was at a certain place at that time and not bring a kind of core element that we’ve seen that has made people have an impression of this man. I think that impression that people have is because this man was so charismatic, so charming and had this charisma that exuded who he was. There’s an amazing scene that we had where Elvis talks about putting on these layers that he’s a different person when he goes out into the public. I think what is great about this is that even with Nixon as well, you see two very real men that are perceived by the public as two very charismatic men who have power in two different elements. And that coming together at the same time is fantastic.
It’s a wonderful film and each and every one of you bring the characters to life so beautifully. What was the most difficult part to bring your character to life? And what is the most memorable moment with another actor?
Colin Hanks: The chance to work with everybody at the table was really significant for me. At this stage in my career, I always want to be able to be in a room where I know I’m going to be entertained and challenged. When that room happens to be the Oval Office with people like this, you sort of jump at that opportunity. I didn’t really worry too much about trying to impersonate Bud Krogh. There were two days that stood out in my mind. One was when I was told, “Hey Bud Krogh is coming to the set, and he wants to meet you.” (laughter) And I just went, “Oh, OK. Great. I hope he likes it.” I was just petrified. Bud turned out to be a very kind man, who really enjoyed it and thought it was fun. My favorite part, well there were a bunch. The first day working with Kevin and seeing what he was really doing was a fun one. It was all of us sitting down reciting about 7 pages of dialogue. He just jumped right in and that was fun. Another one was getting to sit down with Michael as Elvis and explaining the protocol of meeting the President. I’m not sure if it’s in the movie. I haven’t seen the movie, yet.
Liza: I can’t wait to show you.
Kevin: If you’re not busy we’re showing it.
Colin: No, I’m planning on being there. But he had one improv that absolutely just slayed me. I’m referring to the line where Krogh tells Elvis not to drink the President’s Dr. Pepper and if he wants, he’ll go out and get him a coke. Elvis’ line was, “I’m more of a Pepsi guy.” But Michael came up with an improv line, “No, I’m more of non-bottled spring water that’s bottled at the source.” And just the fact that he went that deep in the detail, “No I prefer this water that’s bottled at the source,” that just made me laugh.
Michael: That’s what he drank, bottled spring water, bottled at the source. That’s what he drank.
Colin: Well, it was funny. I didn’t really expect that. It was a favorite
Michael: Thanks, Colin.
Question for Kevin Spacey: In immersing yourself in this very secretive and mysterious character, you had to be a detective in order to relate to him. How do you feel that what you are is like and unlike Nixon?
Kevin: Well it’s a really interesting thing always to play any character and try to relate to that character in terms of what qualities are ones that I understand. Even if somebody does things that I would never do or behaves in ways that I would never behave in, or maybe behaves in ways that I have behaved. There’s always this interesting thing that you mentioned being a detective; it’s the way I feel about acting. That we are given clues by a writer about someone’s essence or persona and it’s our job to try to figure out which of those clues are true, which of clues we decide to follow and which of those clues we think are red herrings, or only in the way another character thinks of that character.
I guess it’s the reason why this kind of a role is interesting. We have had many actors in the past play Richard Nixon in different forms and different kinds of styles. Or why we love going to see Shakespeare or seeing Michael doing Long Day’s Journey Into Night. How many incredible actors have taken on those roles in that play. There’s something really incredible about watching what someone else does with a role that we know: the Hamlets or the Henry Vs or the Othellos or the Cleopatras that we’ve seen on stage. There’s something very interesting about the way each individual actor approaches stuff. And some of that stuff is entirely part of our process that I’m not so eager to talk about. These are investigations that you have to do. And sometimes you walk away from playing somebody and you think, “Wow that was far as from my own experience as I can possibly be. And sometimes you walk away thinking, “Wow. There are qualities in that character that I didn’t realize I had. And those can be both interesting and uncomfortable. The journey that we go on as actors is an interesting one and sometimes a revealing one. (applause)
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