Saturday , February 24 2024
Part two

Tribeca Film Festival: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Liza Johnson Talk ‘Elvis and Nixon’ Part II

Elvis and Nixon, Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Richard Nixon, Elvis, Tribeca Film Festival
‘Elvis and Nixon’ poster with Michael Shannon as Elvis on the left and Kevin Spacey as Nixon on the right. Courtesy of the film.

Part One of our Tribeca coverage of this press conference will be found here.

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)

Kevin Spacey, Elvis and Nixon, Tribeca Film Festival, Richard Nixon
Kevin Spacey at a press conference at the Conrad Hotel for ‘Elvis and Nixon,’ during Tribeca Film Festival. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

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.

Alex Pettyfer, Tribeca Film Festival, Elvis and Nixon
Alex Pettyfer at a press conference for ‘Elvis and Nixon’ during the Tribeca Film Festival. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Which is???

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.”

Elvis and Nixon, press conference, Tribeca Film Festival, Kevin Spacey, Liza Johnson, Michael Shannon, Colin Hanks
(L to R): Candid of Michael Shannon, Liza Johnson, Kevin Spacey, Colin Hanks at a press conference at The Conrad Hotel during the Tribeca Film Festival talking ‘Elvis and Nixon.’ Photo by Carole Di Tosti

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.

Elvis and Nixon, Tribeca Film Festival, Alex Pettyfer, Michael Shannon, Johnny Knoxville
(L to R): Candid of Johnny Knoxville, Alex Pettyfer, Michael Shannon at the press conference for ‘Elvis and Nixon,’ during Tribeca Film Festival. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

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)

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' ( 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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One comment

  1. Fantastic interview, Carole! Looking forward to seeing the film.