When Elvis Met Nixon, Actors Everywhere Rejoiced

Kevin Spacey stars as Richard Nixon (left) and Michael Shannon stars as Elvis Presley (right) in Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon, released by Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street. Steve Dietl/Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street

The hair is immediately recognizable, the outfit unmistakable: It's Elvis—except he's taller, skinnier and looks nothing like the King.

When Michael Shannon signed on to star in Elvis & Nixon, he was "not a huge Elvis Presley aficionado." The actor, known for his creepily intense portrayals in theater (Bug), television (Boardwalk Empire) and movies (Revolutionary Road), admits he isn't great at mimicry, and, to be honest, even with a wig and an outfit made by Elvis's original suit-maker, he doesn't resemble Presley very much.

Yet Jerry Schilling, who was one of Presley's closest friends—and who accompanied him on the surreal 1970 journey to meet President Richard Nixon, recounted in this movie—says Shannon was able to transform himself into Presley. "They've never cast anyone who looks less like Elvis than Michael," says Schilling. "Yet he really captures the inner Elvis. He did my friend justice. He may be the best Elvis of all time."

Elvis & Nixon, which opens April 22, begins in the Oval Office. Kevin Spacey's grimaces, inflections and body language nail what he calls Nixon's "grumpy" persona without slipping into caricature. Then the story shifts focus to a bored and lonely Elvis, who goes on a quest for an agent-at-large badge from the federal government; he pulls in Schilling (played by Alex Pettyfer) for this secret mission.

Nixon and Presley have long proved irresistible to TV and filmmakers. Over 90 Nixons are listed on the Internet Movie Database, or IMDb, while Presley and his impersonators show up more than 250 times. In fact, in 1997 Showtime aired a variation of this same story in Elvis Meets Nixon, but Schilling made them change his character's name because "the script was a joke, and the whole movie was atrocious."

Depicting famous people from real life is always tricky for serious actors. "Obligation No. 1 is to convince people you are Nixon, who is highly imitable for any actor worth his salt," says Stacy Keach, who played Nixon in the national theatrical tour of Frost/Nixon. "But then you have to draw in all the colors of his character—the insecurity, the inability to be socially connected."

"In sketches, you do broad, quick strokes that cannot sustain itself throughout a movie," says Spacey, who, unlike Shannon, is a gifted impressionist, covering everyone from Christopher Walken to Katharine Hepburn to Bill Clinton. "I could give you a Nixon like that, but it would run out of steam."

Mark Feeney, author of Nixon at the Movies, says few actors have truly gotten Nixon down and that the bigger the role, the heavier the "burden of verisimilitude. [Saturday Night Live's Dan] Aykroyd really got the voice and body language," he says, and Rip Torn was solid in the 1979 miniseries Blind Ambition. But Feeney says most performers, like Beau Bridges (1995's Kissinger and Nixon) and Peter Riegert (1984's Concealed Enemies), were uninspired or worse, like the campy Bob Gunton in Elvis Meets Nixon. Perhaps the most famous film portrayal is Anthony Hopkins's paranoid president in Oliver Stone's 1995 Nixon, but Feeney says the Welsh-born star ended up with an accent "hovering somewhere over the Atlantic between San Clemente and Cardiff."

The approach to bringing famous people to life has changed over time, Keach says, with actors relying less on prosthetics (he ditched a Nixonian nose made for him) than they used to. "That feels old-fashioned, and actors focus now on capturing the person's essence, not being a literal look-alike." Shannon agrees, noting that "makeup can be a distraction. If you really want to spend time with Elvis, you can watch one of his 50 movies."

The original meeting between President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley occurred on December 21, 1970 at the White House. National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty

Feeney's favorite film depiction of Nixon is Dan Hedaya's in Dick, an absurdist Watergate satire from 1999. "Everything was made up, so maybe that liberated Hedaya," Feeney says. "But he's a good actor and brought a real human quality to Nixon."

Hedaya, best known for playing Nick Tortelli on Cheers and his roles in Blood Simple and The Usual Suspects, recalls that when Dick director Andrew Fleming offered him the role, he felt he'd never be able to accurately capture the ex-president. "I said, 'Listen to my voice. I'm a Jew from Brooklyn. This is impossible.'"

Fleming hired a coach, who brought Hedaya "books that had every diphthong in the world," the veteran character actor recalls. "I still don't know what a diphthong is. And I was wary of becoming a caricature. I watched only the 'I am not a crook' speech, but after 15 minutes something happened, and it was like I was channeling Nixon."

Spacey, who screen-tested for the 2008 film version of Frost/Nixon, says he was drawn to this movie for the chance to play the president "without being saddled with Watergate." Spacey studied photos and news footage to understand that Nixon was "physically uncomfortable in his own body" and listened to phone calls and tapes to understand the rhythms of Nixon's private speaking voice. After all that preparation, Spacey says, his first day on the set left him worried about another challenge: "Could I be in the Oval Office and not have people think about [his House of Cards character] Frank Underwood, not even for a second?"

The Presley impersonators have also produced a mixed track record. "Nobody looks like Elvis," says Liza Johnson, director of Elvis and Nixon. "It's harder to look like Elvis in 1955, when he had the most beautiful face, but at any point the gap in likeness is not something you can win."

While Dale Midkiff in Elvis and Me and David Keith in Heartbreak Hotel were too bland, Schilling says that Kurt Russell, in Elvis, projected the necessary charm and was "wonderful." During his decade at Elvis Presley Enterprises overseeing all record and film projects, Schilling insisted on cast approval for ABC's TV series about Presley in 1990; he forced a last-minute change from "a stiff who should have played Bill Haley" to Michael St. Gerard from Hairspray, who was Schilling's favorite Presley (along with Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a 2005 CBS miniseries) until Shannon came along.

Schilling had to push the Elvis & Nixon screenwriters to capture Presley's human side. The movie shows how Presley revels in fame's indulgences—no rules apply, and no one ever says no to him, not even the president—yet he's acutely aware of his isolation and is consumed by it. One scene the writers added has Elvis commenting to Schilling about the hairspray, black dye and facial cream required to create his public persona. "I become a thing. I become an object," says Shannon-as-Elvis. Shannon says of the real Presley, "They buried him so deep under gold, jewelry and money, flashbulbs, stage makeup, screaming fans."

Shannon got Presley's laugh and his jittery energy, Johnson says, and had the requisite charisma "to magnetize his world." Pettyfer surprised Schilling with one crucial '70s detail. The actor showed up at Schilling's house one day with a beard and asked for a razor. After he shaved, Schilling says, "he came back with huge sideburns. They looked way too big, so I went to get pictures to show him...but mine really were that huge [back then]."

Shannon could not have played Presley without Schilling, who gave him a private tour of Graceland and his and Elvis's childhood neighborhood. "When I met Jerry, the movie began making sense to me," Shannon says. "I was very moved by his devotion to and love for his friend."

Shannon's "Rosetta stone" was an unpublished tape of Elvis talking, given to him by Schilling. "When I wasn't shooting a scene, I had my headphones on listening to that tape," Shannon says. "Some people say, 'You didn't try very hard on the voice,' but the voice on the tape seemed appropriate for this. I didn't want the public voice." (Shannon did sing an a cappella "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as Presley, but it was cut from the film.)

Once Shannon started studying the part, he couldn't help falling in love with Presley. "He was a deep guy who was always searching for something. One of his favorite books was Siddhartha, which I never would have guessed."

This article has been updated to clarify that a quote about costuming given by Michael Shannon was said in character as Elvis Presley.