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'Elvis & Nixon': The story behind history's curious meeting

President Richard Nixon meets with Elvis Presley December 21, 1970 at the White House.
President Richard Nixon meets with Elvis Presley December 21, 1970 at the White House.
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In December 1970, Elvis Presley decided he wanted to meet President Richard Nixon, so he and his buddy Jerry Schilling traveled to Washington, D.C. to make it happen.

The president's staff thought it might help boost their boss's popularity to be seen with such a huge celebrity, so they set up some time.

"Elvis & Nixon" is the new film starring Kevin Spacey as the president and actor Michael Shannon as the rock star. Director Liza Johnson joined host Alex Cohen with more.

Interview Highlights

On Michael Shannon not looking like Elvis:

"I think a lot of the times when people think of Elvis, there's this face of Elvis that's burned onto everyone's brain world-wide. And there isn't really anyone who looks like that, including, actually, Elvis in this period... and he goes on to transform even further. So for me, the likeness issue wasn't really what was at stake, because I don't think there is anyone that looks like Elvis. I can appreciate that maybe for some fans, that could be a hard thing to sort of get one's mind around but I thought that probably better than anyone I can think of, Michael Shannon is so good at disappearing into the depth of a character and I really did feel that he could handle the kind of unusually intimate treatment of Elvis. We always think about his sparkly, blingy surfaces, but it's rare that we actually ask ourselves, 'Well, what did Elvis want?' I thought Mike would be able to do that, and also, to play that through the comedy of situation."

On what the famous photo told Liza Johnson about the meeting between Elvis and Nixon:

"One of the things that I couldn't get out of my mind was the little bird sculptures in the background... I guess Nixon had a lot of bird tchotchkes. It's interesting how much you can learn about the characters from what stuff they have around them. It helped us think about the production design, which I think then is also meaningful in terms of character. And I guess for me also, their fashion really says something. Do you know where Nixon is wearing a somewhat unremarkable and maybe poorly-fitting business suit, and Elvis is wearing this incredible velvet number with a kind of capey jacket that wraps around his shoulders, and a big gold belt... So, for me, I think why people are interested in the photograph and why they're interested in the meeting in the first place which is that those men are coming from radically different worlds, you know, and where Elvis is flamboyant and emerging from a counter-cultural world and then Nixon is really trying as hard as he can to preserve the establishment against all the forces that don't like the establishment. And even if Elvis is proposing a lot of points of contact for them, I think in the images, there's no way that you can see those two icons without knowing that they don't represent the same thing, right? And so then, when you look at it, I think it's mysterious to think, 'Well how did they get to be in the same room, and why did they want to be there and what are those points of contact?' And I think you can actually see that in this still image."

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above.