Elvis & Nixon: How Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey Riffed on a Bizarre Moment in History

Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey
Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey

Elvis & Nixon Tells a Fictional Story About the Bizarre and Iconic Photo

We know it happened. We just don’t know what happened.

“Elvis and Nixon,” starring Michael Shannon as The King and Kevin Spacey as the president, goes inside the White House for a fictional riff on their secret meeting of Dec. 21, 1970, which was captured in a strange and iconic photo.

Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley on Dec. 21, 1970
Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley on Dec. 21, 1970

“I wanted to understand what he was like privately,” Spacey tells Made in Hollywood’s Damaris Diaz, “because this is a private meeting. It wasn’t like a speech or seeing him in public, which is a very different kind of Nixon. He didn’t even want to have this meeting. And there’s just a kind of general grumpiness that I wanted to try to capture.”

Michael Shannon Risked Backlash Playing The King in Elvis & Nixon

For Shannon, playing Elvis came with some risk.

“There’s always going to be some form of dissent from somewhere, you know, because people have very strong feelings about him, and there a lot of people who know a lot more about him than I do,” says Shannon. “But I do have the solace of knowing that (longtime Elvis friend) Jerry Schilling, who’s played in the film by Alex Pettyfer, has given his blessing to the film and his blessing to my performance, which is a relief.”

Plus, Shannon got to slip into a fabulous Elvis Presley suit. “I felt incredibly sexy,” he says.

“Elvis and Nixon” is a surreal comedy but Shannon and Spacey play their characters straight because, as costar Johnny Knoxville says, the script depicts “a situation so bizarre you don’t need jokes.”

Elvis & Nixon Script About a Moment So Strange It Didn’t Need Punchlines

“We’re not actually trying to land jokes or hit a punchline,” says Hanks. “It’s more showing these two titans, if you will, as actual real human beings and then throwing them together in a room and watching a karate demonstration.”

Pettyfer says the film may even change some perceptions about Elvis. “What’s great about this movie is Michael brings a grounding to who he really was in that time,” he says, “and you’ll a different kind of Elvis in this movie.”

The movie opened last Friday.