Elvis & Nixon is a film that tells the story of the famous meeting between Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon in 1970. I was surprised to discover that the movie is a comedy, but the comic elements are simply inherent in this bizarre story.
Kevin Spacey plays Nixon, and Michael Shannon plays Elvis. British actor Alex Pettyfer plays Elvis’ friend, Jerry Schilling, who served as a consultant on the film. Schilling was in the Oval Office during part of Elvis’ meeting with Nixon. Johnny Knoxville plays Sonny, another friend of Elvis, and Colin Hanks plays Egil “Bud” Krogh, the Nixon Administration official who coordinated the meeting between the two icons.
Elvis & Nixon was directed by Liza Johnson and written by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes (yes, the “Princess Bride” Cary Elwes).
Some of the cast gathered for a press conference during the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about the movie, and the conference was almost as funny as the film. Below are some of the highlights.
Kevin and Michael on the challenges of playing these iconic figures:
Michael: It was really challenging for me because there’s not much about Elvis out there. I had to do some digging. [Laughter] No, I just started by watching the films – both 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 pre-dates the events of this movie by a few months. And I found that one particularly enlightening.
I also had a great gift from Jerry Schilling that Alex plays in the movie. He gave me a 45-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. And I, as all these people will attest, listened to it constantly. I was either doing a take or listening to that CD pretty much. And that’s my exciting story.
Kevin: Weirdly, I had a kind of previous experience in attempting to play Richard Nixon when I screen-tested for “Frost/Nixon,” which is, by the way, I will just point out, a movie I didn’t get.
Liza: So, this is really a revenge thing.
Kevin: Yeah, this is my revenge film. Because at the time, Ron Howard, even though he ultimately did choose Frank Langella who’d done the stage version, he asked a number of actors that he was interested in seeing if we could go on tape and present a Nixon. So, I was in Las Vegas shooting a movie, and in the hotel room there, I, with my makeup and hair people on that film, sort of put together a version. Then, I filmed like four scenes, including the farewell to the White House staff.
Then, I thought I lost this DVD. I thought it was gone. But anyway, 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. Some of the major reasons why I didn’t get that role were very clear to me 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 – these are two figures who, obviously, people know so much from the way they presented themselves, and 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 that Haldeman shot. “Our Nixon” is what it was called.
Also a lot of photographs of Nixon just looking remarkably uncomfortable in chairs that I found very useful. Then, of course, the many, many, many hours and hours of tapes of private conversations … that I found very helpful because this was a private meeting, even though the photograph became quite public. And that was interesting to 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 on tape, and he was decidedly grumpy. Something was always “f***ed up.”
Michael and I didn’t want to feel that we had to do an imitation in any way, but to try to find an essence of each of these figures and then allow them to respond to each other genuinely. I think what was most interesting was the fact that these two people you wouldn’t think would have anything in common actually, at the end of this meeting, had sort of an appreciation for each other.
Liza on why people are fascinated by the Elvis and Nixon meeting and the resulting photograph:
To me, it’s because both of those men are so iconic and so well-known, but for radically different things, right? Elvis is known for defining a rock ‘n roll youth culture, for being as cool as sh**. And Nixon is, I think, a super-effective president. He has a huge fan base. People are incredibly interested in him. He’s not known for being cool as sh**.
And I think that not only in their personal style, like what they’re each wearing in that photograph, but also what they’re known to stand for in American culture is very dissonant. And just the juxtaposition even within the photograph has an absurdity to it that I think has been drawn out and explored by the script.
On the accuracy of the script:
Johnny: We didn’t have to add too much to the story because the story is so bizarre. The truth of what happened is so insane that we just were true to the story.
Kevin: The thing is also that while this was such a famous meeting, it wasn’t recorded. So, in a way, it allowed us, and certainly the screenwriter, to be able to imagine what a lot of this conversation was, although the character that Alex plays [Jerry Schilling] was there and was sort of in and out of the room, as was the character that you play [turns to Colin Hanks who played Bud Krogh]. So, they were helpful in terms of snippets, but I think it was expanded. And that’s sort of the fun of it that we could imagine it.
Kevin on playing presidents, his interest in politics, and whether he would want to play any of the current presidential candidates:
I’m only ever going to play presidents from now on…. [Laughter] I’ve always been interested in politics. No particular election has ever put me off politics. I think some elections are more amusing than others, and I’m all for the entertainment factor. I love a good laugh. And I very much enjoy “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, look at you [turns to Colin Hanks].
Colin: Stop! Don’t finish the sentence. Hillary. I’d play Hillary.
Kevin: No, I think Cruz. You could be Cruz. A little orange makeup.
Colin: A lot of orange makeup.
On using their celebrity to get something they wanted:
Colin: Aside from dinner reservations? I think we’re all guilty of trying to get a better table at a restaurant, but that’s about as far as I feel comfortable going. And even that’s like ripping a Band-Aid off very slowly, painfully. “Hi. Just wondering. Can we get a table for two? It’ll be at the bar. That’s fine. That’s fine.”
Kevin: I used to walk up to Broadway’s theaters when I was starting out and broke and wanted to go see a play, and because I had been doing stand-up comedy and I did a Johnny Carson impression, I would pretend at the box office to be Kevin Carson. [Launches into a Johnny Carson impression.] “There’s two tickets under my name.”
And the most surprising thing is that I usually got in. I’d say, “Somebody from the Tonight Show set this up at NBC.” 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 to get into theaters.
Michael: That’s a complex matrix, actually – the combination of Carson and early previews. It’s very diabolical.
Kevin: [As Johnny Carson] I did not know that!
Michael on Jerry Schilling’s participation with the film:
Jerry Schilling, who Alex plays in the movie, kind of shepherded this project along. It was very sensitive for him. He’s been asked over the years to be involved with projects about this subject, and he’s always declined…. But when he got on board and gave us his support, and he was there on set every day, that meant a lot.
I don’t know if Priscilla [Presley] has seen it [the film] yet. I was in Jerry’s car driving around Memphis with him, and his cell phone rang. And it was Priscilla calling from London. He was like, “Yeah, I’m sitting next to Mike. He’s going to play…” That was one of the more surreal experiences of my life. But I don’t know if she’s seen it yet or if she will see it. Obviously, it’s hard for her.
On running into an Elvis impersonator while shooting the film:
Michael: It was very awkward when we shot the scene in the airport. I loved the scene, but we finally came face to face with an actual Elvis impersonator. It was very jarring, I think, for all of us because it was pretty deep into the shoot…. I remember that day being like, “Oh, thank God we’re not doing that because that would get old fast.”
Alex: That was actually an amazing day because Jerry was on set, and he was so devastated and upset by how his best friend had been portrayed for so many years. And kudos for Michael coming on this – Michael, as we all know, is an incredible actor – to come on and play the real Elvis.
Colin on his most challenging moment of the shoot:
I really didn’t worry too much about trying to impersonate Bud Krogh, but there were two days that really stick out in my mind. One was when I was told, “Hey, Bud Krogh’s coming to set, and he wants to meet you.” And I just went, “Oh, OK, great! Hope he likes it!” I was petrified about meeting the guy, but Bud turned out to be a very, very kind man who really enjoyed himself. He had a really good time….