The photograph of Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley is not only the most requested photo in the history of the National Archives, it’s also the subject of the new historical comedy Elvis & Nixon. The film directed by Liza Johnson is a lively portrait of all the events that led to the iconic photograph, and stars Kevin Spacey as Nixon and Michael Shannon as Elvis. However unconventional the casting choices may seem on paper, they work within the confines of Elvis & Nixon, with Shannon giving a truly surprising turn as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Ahead of the film’s release, I had the opportunity to talk to director Liza Johnson and co-star Johnny Knoxville, who plays Sonny West, a member of Elvis’ entourage known as the Memphis Mafia.
The two leads of Elvis & Nixon isn’t the only decision that might give prospective viewers pause. After all, crafting an entire movie around the events behind a photograph might seem like a stretch, yet Johnson and company are able to craft an entertaining and compelling film out of it.
“I think that the writers took a very clever and playful approach to the historical information that was available, and there’s actually quite a lot of it,” Johnson said of bring the story behind the picture to the big screen. “Jerry Schilling’s book, Me and a Guy Named Elvis, was a big influence on the writers and also on me. Because he took an interest in the project and was willing to consult with us he really became a guiding star and a real collaborator for me. That’s just really, really helpful.”
The filmmaker continued, “There is no archive of Elvis’ emotions. There is no archive of how he did feel in that moment. Jerry Schilling is that archive.”
Even as a self-confessed Elvis fan, Johnny Knoxville has his set of apprehensions about the film’s subject matter. “On the surface, you would say, ‘No.’ But once you know the how of the entire story, you wonder how a movie hasn’t been made about this yet,” he said. “It was so crazy. Every step of the way of this story. We didn’t have to add to it. We didn’t improve on what really happened. It’s nuts.”
“It’s ridiculous,” he elaborated. “To show up to the White house on a whim, bringing guns and wanting to deliver a gun to the president, and wanting a federal narcotics badge. You know, you’re the biggest star in the world and to just show up at the White House like that unannounced. Elvis doing the karate for the president when he gets in there, showing him his karate moves. What is going on?”
Of course, those apprehensions were actually quite brief. “I heard Michael Shannon was playing Elvis and Kevin Spacey was playing Nixon and Liza Johnson was directing, I think I said yes before I even read the script.”
The former front man of Jackass was emphatic in his praise of his co-stars. “I love Michael Shannon,” he said with some enthusiasm. “I’ve done another film with him years ago, and he’s an intense, passionate actor and that focus purveys the whole set. It makes everyone better. If he’s in it, he’s in it. He was Elvis. I was Sonny. When we were on the set, that’s how it was. I love that part of it, too. As an actor, to just watch him and Kevin Spacey go at it was a highlight of my career, to work with people of that caliber.”
Knoxville wasn’t alone in praising Shannon. “When the script was brought to me Michael was already interested in it,” Johnson said of the somewhat unexpected casting decisions. “I never read it without him in my mind. But I have to say when they sent it to me, I was like, ‘Really, Mike is gonna be Elvis?’ As soon as I read it I could see why he was right to be this Elvis. Already in the script there was this kind of real infinite depth treatment of Elvis, which is pretty unusual. The face of Elvis is basically the most famous portrait of a human that has ever existed, and people really do think of him as an icon and don’t really think of his inner life. When I read these intimate moments in there, I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s a good reason to have Michael Shannon.’
There is a real cultural and political heart behind Elvis & Nixon, with the King being an icon in the counterculture and Nixon being the counterculture’s sworn enemy. Yet these two united through their unique disdain for the counterculture of the early ‘70s.
“In the photograph, you can see worlds colliding. That’s unexpected,” Johnson says of the significance of these two iconic figures shaking hands. “This super-cool rock ‘n’ roll world with – Nixon definitely has many, many interesting qualities, but no one ever said he was cool. I think even in the photograph, part of what people took interest in is that on some level you know that worlds are colliding.”
“I think in a way it’s a part of the irony of the story is that Elvis has been such a figurehead of this rock ‘n’ roll youth counterculture. It seems ironic that at this moment he’s feeling good about this rock ‘n’ roll youth counterculture,” Johnson continued to elaborate. “I think that part of the way that Jerry helped me understand that was simply to realize that there is the logic of the superstar at play. If you’re a normal rock star and have a giant following of rock ‘n’ roll counterculture, that’s great. But if you’re a superstar, that’s not enough. You need to have an entire enchilada. You know, like the whole world needs to be your fan base, your market, the people that love you. I think that’s part of how I think about, too. It’s not only about an ideological shift.”
I would be remiss of me not to ask Johnny Knoxville about the possibility of Jackass returning to the big screen any time soon. “There’s no plan right now, but we could possibly do it,” he said. ”I still write. I’m prepping a couple of things right now – comedies and hopefully I can get a couple of the guys in it. If it’s not Jackass, we’ll be working together in other ways.”
Of course, I couldn’t just let it go at that, and tried to convince Knoxville to use his influence to sway John Waters to return behind the camera for his first feature since 2004’s A Dirty Shame, in which Knoxville starred. “One of my favorite people on the planet,” he said of the legendary shock filmmaker. “He has a movie that he wanted to do and wanted me to do it. I’m like, ‘John, let’s go.’ But he has such an incredible career as an artist now, that and speaking engagements take up a lot of his time. I love John Waters. He’s one of the most intelligent people. There’s not a question to bring up that he doesn’t have a well thought out, hilarious, insightful answer ready to go. I’ve never seen anything like it.”