Kevin Spacey Talks About 'Elvis & Nixon'

Category: Movies


Kevin Spacey and Michael Shannon don’t look anything like their alter egos, but 10-minutes into Elvis & Nixon hardly anyone will notice or care. For both actors are master craftsmen at getting directly to the very essence of their protagonists.

The stranger-than-fiction, political satire uses as its springboard the Dec. 21, 1970 White House photograph of the famous handshake between the world’s most powerful leader and the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Since there’s no audio recording of their fateful meeting screenwriters Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes were free to provide their own narrative, one that brilliantly strikes just the right balance between dead serious and a laugh-out loud riot.

The 87-minute movie begins with a scene of Presley shooting out a television screen. On a whim, he then decides to fly to Washington with his Memphis Mafia sidekick Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to get deputized as a “Federal Agent-at-Large,” for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The “King” actually imagined himself going undercover to help curb the rising drug problem in America. A more accurate assessment later appeared in Priscilla Presley’s memoir that his real motivation was so he could “legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.”

In preparing for the role, Spacey took to heart the advice his mentor Jack Lemmon once gave him – “Do it with total abandon.”

Ironically, this wasn’t the first stab Spacey got at playing the 37th President of the United States. In New york for a round of interviews, the 57 year-old actor explained, “Weirdly, I had a previous experience trying to play Richard Nixon when I screen tested for Frost/Nixon, a part I did not get. I guess you might say that this is my revenge movie.

“I thought I had lost the DVD, however, 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 on that. Some of the major reasons I didn’t get that film became very clear when I watched years later. This is obviously a figure that people know a lot about, the way he presented himself. There’s so much public stuff, but not that much private stuff.

“I found a recent documentary that used a lot of footage of behind the scenes of Nixon at the White House, Power Nixon was what that was called. I also found a number of photographs of Nixon looking remarkably uncomfortable in a chair which I found very useful. I came away thinking that he swore more than any other human being I’ve ever heard, and he was decidedly very grumpy. What you wouldn’t think is that these two people had anything in common, yet at this meeting there was a sort of appreciation for each other.”

New Jersey-born and California-reared, he continued, “Both of these figures merit attention and respect. There’s so much already in popular culture – the mocking of these two people. Why add to that, life is too short. It’s such an amazing opportunity, because on the one hand this is a real event, and on the other hand an imaginary event. You don’t get that opportunity very often.”

Boasting a productive career that stretches back to his first profession gig in New York’s 1981 Shakespeare  Festival  staging of Henry I, Spacey went on to garner a Best Supporting statue for The Usual Suspects and returned to podium to collect another Oscar for American Beauty. In a surprising turn of events, he moved to London in 2003 to become artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre. During his decade long stint Spacey oversaw 39 plays, starring in seven, managed a staff of 75, and became quite adept at raising money.

The role that television readers would more quickly identify the enigmatic actor with is Frank Underwood of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards, which recently embarked on its fourth season. The idea was first proposed to Spacey when producer/director David Fincher was busy shooting Social Network.  The concept hinged on “a nasty politician, who could be devious, nefarious, cold blooded and cutthroat, but at the same time have television viewers rooting for him.”

No pilot episode, no audience testing, Netflix immediately jumped at the proposal and sealed the deal with a $100 million commitment for the first year.  Spacey admits, “I’ve always been interested in politics. Some elections are more amusing than others. 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. That would be poor casting.”

With his feet firmly planted again on the big screen, Spacey returns later this year with Billionaire Boys Club and Nine Lives. 

About the Author
Winnie Bonelli is a former entertainment editor for a daily metropolitan New York City area newspaper. She is passionate about movies and television and loves to take readers behind the scenes.