Quick Answer: Building on his Machiavellian Frank Underwood in House of Cards and his stage performance of the plotting Richard III, Spacey seems to be pursuing a series of dark, power-hungry figures. But for Spacey, this pre-Watergate Nixon is not yet the paranoid figure we remember. Spacey said Elvis & Nixon is about a surprising connection in a private meeting between Nixon and the King. Spacey's approach was to try to understand Nixon as a private person and embody his inner emotional state, rather than relying on surface imitation.
Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon (2016) offers two beloved actors a showcase to step into two of the most publicly recognizable personas of the last century: The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, played by Michael Shannon, and the only president to resign from the office in disgrace, played by Kevin Spacey. The two actors bring to life a real meeting from history—one that resulted in the most requested photograph from the National Archives—but what Elvis and Nixon really said to each other behind closed doors, no one knows for sure. That mystery is what Elvis & Nixon explores by re-imagining the coming together of the two icons.
For Spacey, coming off of his Machiavellian Frank Underwood in House of Cards (2013 - ) and his performance of the plotting, twisted Richard III at London’s Old Vic, the role of Nixon seems to continue a trend. In Season 4, Episode 8 (“Chapter 48”) of House of Cards, Underwood and his opponent Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) directly compare Underwood to Nixon, saying that if Underwood were a Republican they’d be a strong match. Later, when Conway takes a private phone call in the bathroom, Underwood quips to the audience, “It's times like these that I wish I was Nixon - he had every nook and cranny bugged.”
Is Spacey in the midst of a fascination with dark, scheming figures of power lust? Or does he just have a particular gift for playing them? ScreenPrism asked Spacey how Nixon fit in with Underwood and Richard III at the New York Press Day for Elvis & Nixon.
“In hindsight and certainly knowing what happened to Richard Nixon with Watergate you could put him in that category,” Spacey said. “But what was interesting to me about this Nixon was that he was not saddled by Watergate, and in fact he hadn’t even started taping in the White House and wouldn’t for another year and a half or so. This wasn’t, for me, exploring a dark Machiavellian figure. There are elements to his paranoia, elements to his sense that something is always fucked up or wrong or people are screwing up.” Ultimately, though, “this was a different kind of Nixon from the two other figures that you mentioned." For Spacey, the more central drama at play is the way that Elvis surprises Nixon and exposes a deeper commonality between the two, resulting in a “conversation that Nixon didn’t really expect.”
Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey in Amazon Studios' Elvis & Nixon (2016)
Spacey is famed for his skilled impersonations, but his performance of Nixon and Shannon’s of Elvis both shy away from cartoonish, surface-level impressions. The makeup, likewise, is restrained, choosing not to overuse prosthetics to turn the actors into spitting images of the historical people. The mission for both actors and their director Johnson was to capture a deeper truth about the inward characters—a side of these people no one knows. Spacey said, “We both did not want to feel like we had to do an imitation in any way, but to try to find an essence of each of these figures and allow them to respond to each other genuinely. I think what’s most interesting was the fact that these two people you wouldn’t think would have anything in common actually had an appreciation for each other.”
Spacey’s Nixon is pre-Watergate and pre-recording all his conversations within the Oval Office, but he’s still an irritable man who doesn't grasp why he should take advantage of Elvis’ celebrity to win over the hostile youth vote. For Spacey, the path into his character was uncovering the private side of Nixon. “There was so much public stuff, but not so much private stuff,” Spacey said. “I found a recent documentary that used footage of behind the scenes of Nixon at the White House that Haldeman shot, Our Nixon (2013) — I found that very helpful. Also a lot of photographs of Nixon just looking remarkably uncomfortable in chairs,” he joked. But perhaps the most valuable resources were “the many, many, many hours and hours of tapes, of private conversations that I found were very useful because [what’s shown in Elvis & Nixon] was a private meeting, even though the photograph became public.”
Elvis and Nixon, 1970
Through this attempt to understand Nixon in private, “I came away with the feeling that he swore more than any human being that I’ve ever heard, and he was decidedly grumpy. Something was always fucked up, someone was always trying to get in.”
In fact, Elvis & Nixon is not the first time Spacey contemplated portraying the cantankerous president. “Weirdly, I had a previous experience in attempting to play Richard Nixon when I screen tested for Frost/Nixon (2008), which by the way was a movie I did not get,” he recalled, joking that this is his “revenge film.” At that time “[Frost/Nixon director Ron] Howard, who ultimately did choose Franklin Langella, he had 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, with my makeup and hair people on that film, sort of put together a version, and then I filmed four scenes, including the farewell to the White House staff. I thought I lost this DVD, I thought that it was gone, but I located it when I knew that I was to come on this film, and I was able to watch what I did wrong in that. I saw some of the major reasons why I didn’t get that role very clearly as I watched it. I thought, ‘Well, you’re not gonna do that again!’ But it was actually very helpful.”
Director Liza Johnson with Spacey on the set of Elvis & Nixon (2016)
For Spacey, Nixon has a mix of qualities he can relate to and qualities foreign to his own nature—much like any other character. As an actor, Spacey said he works much like a detective: "The way I feel about acting is that we are given clues by a writer or by someone's essence or persona, and it's our job to figure out which of those clues are true, which of those clues we decide to follow, and which of those clues we think are red herrings, or only the way another character thinks of that character."
Spacey believes that the actor's investigative history is one reason we enjoy seeing the same roles performed over and over—whether the role is Nixon or one of Shakespeare's characters that we’ve watched for centuries. “There’s something that’s so incredible about watching what someone else does with a role that we know, like the Hamlets, or the Henry the Fifths, or the Othellos or the Cleopatras that we see on stage,” he said. “There’s something interesting about the way each individual actor approaches stuff, and some of that stuff is a 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 as far from my own experience as it 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 you go on as actors is an interesting one and sometimes a revealing one.”
Asked if he’s ever used his celebrity to get any perks, Spacey recalled, “I used to walk up to Broadway theaters when I was starting out, broke, and wanted to see a play. Because I did standup comedy and did an impression of Johnny Carson, I’d pretend that I was Kevin Carson. And most of the time, I got in... So in a sense, I used Johnny Carson’s celebrity to get into theaters.”
We’ll have to wait to see if Spacey continues to take on politically ambitious, morally flexible characters, but at least his passion for politics has not been dulled by the current election. “I’ve always been interested in politics,” he said. “No particular election has put me off of politics. I think some elections are more amusing than others – I’m all for the entertainment factor, and I love a good laugh.”
When asked if he would play any of our present candidates, he declined. “I wouldn’t want to play any of the current people running for office—that would be bad casting,” he said, but he noted that his Elvis & Nixon co-star Colin Hanks would make a convincing Ted Cruz.