Michael Shannon might not be the first person you picture if you were casting someone to play Elvis Presley—but the Academy Award nominated actor certainly slips into the skin (and wardrobe) of the King of Rock ‘n Roll in Elvis & Nixon. Shannon plays Elvis circa 1970, when he set up a meeting with the President of the United State, Richard M. Nixon (Kevin Spacey), in an attempt to become an undercover federal agent at large. Yes, this is a true story. And it’s pretty wacky. The photo of their meeting in the Oval Office is, famously, the most requested photo in the history of the US Archives.
This week, I sat down with Shannon to talk about the daunting task of playing Elvis, his visit to Graceland, the sage advice of Presley’s longtime friend, Jerry Schilling, and a few of his upcoming projects. In the film, Presely and Nixon both share a love of M&Ms, but in our sit down, let it be known that Shannon had a bag of Jolly Ranchers. Fans of Batman v Superman, take note: General Zod ate Lex Luthor’s bribe candy of choice.
Collider: You have played real life characters previously but none as high profile as Elvis—who is one of the most high profile real-life figures you can play—in that regard, what did you zero in on to prepare?
MICHAEL SHANNON: Well, once the movie was green lit and I knew it was going to happen. I just dove into Elvis world, I watched all his movies and the documentaries, That’s the Way It Is and Elvis on Tour. I read books, I watched press conferences that he did. I listened to his music. I just completely immersed myself. I was just trying to find him. I wasn’t trying to put my spin on it or whatever. I wasn’t trying to make a statement one way or the other. I just wanted to get as deep into his psyche as possible.
One thing I liked about your performance—which was also staged, I assume, by Liza Johnson, as well—is that a lot of his most famous gestures and movements are not directed at the camera, instead it’s often to the side and less pronounced, in a way that feels a little more natural. Was that something that you had any input on?
SHANNON: Oh yeah, I mean Liza gets a lot of credit for that approach to the film in general really and Jerry Schilling, who is played in the film by Alex Pettyfer but who was actually there on set was keeping an eye on that, too. Because he felt like this is a great opportunity to show Elvis in a more organic way as opposed to this caricature that has dominated the cultural perception of him. So we were definitely going for that.
What kind of notes did he give you on set as far as keeping it organic?
SHANNON: He was very supportive. He never pulled me aside and said you are doing it wrong. I was very nervous the first time I met Jerry. We went to Memphis together and we had lunch and we went out to the parking lot, thinking we were going to Graceland, and I had told Jerry during lunch how nervous I was about doing the movie, and he stopped me and grabbed my arm and he said, “Look I can tell in the brief time that we spent together that you are going to honor my friend and you are going to take it seriously. I know you feel like you are in over your head right now but I want you to know that I believe in you, and I believe you can do this.” That was very sweet of him to do that, and it helped.
What in particular was making you nervous?
SHANNON: Well, because nobody can really be Elvis, I mean. Elvis is a singular event. It can’t be replicated. All you can do is approach it with humility and dignity and hope for the best.
This is a very particular time period for both Elvis and Richard Nixon. Did you know anything about this story prior? Did you know anything about the photo?
SHANNON: Nope, Nope. I didn’t know a damn thing about it until I read this script. I never even knew they met. It wasn’t really my era of music. I was more into late 70’s and 80’s music.
With the music that you are interested in did you see any Elvis influence in it. In the 70’s and 80’s what were you obsessed with?
SHANNON: My favorite band growing up was Talking Heads, so I can’t really imagine two more different musicians than Elvis Presley and David Byrne, but when I watch Elvis perform, which I did quite a bit, he really does deserve his place on the mantle. You can’t take your eyes off of him. I feel in his way he is a genius. It’s not just dumb luck, he worked hard and he’s a tremendously talented individual.
You had a great monologue about something I had never heard of before, but he had a stillborn brother and that made him work harder. Can you talk about some interesting things that you found in your research that didn’t make it in the film about Elvis, Graceland…
SHANNON: Well you see a little bit about the Book of Numbers (Numerology). But he was a very spiritual person. He was looking for something. He read Siddhartha, he read The Prophet. I believe he was somewhat religious, but even beyond that he was trying to understand life and his own life and why what happened to him happened. And I don’t think you hear that or see that very much in the popular mythos of Elvis. We don’t see that side of him.
When you were watching his performances were you primarily focusing on this 1970-71 period, or kind of all of it?
SHANNON: Well I took it all in, just because I was kind of enjoying it. There was one particular press conference anyone can see it it’s on YouTube. He did it in Houston, he was performing in Houston. It predates the meeting between him and the President by a few months and that was kind of my touchstone. I watched that quite a bit. It was a fascinating interview. He seems to be a little bit under the weather. He is not peaceful. There is something on his mind.
What was it like visiting Graceland?
SHANNON: [laughs] It was incredible. Me and Jerry got a private tour and it was intimidating because the guy that was giving the tour was very friendly with Jerry and knew who Jerry was but would look at me kind of cross-eyed, out the side of his eye a little bit. At one point he said. “So you are going to play Elvis, huh? Well I hope you do it right.” Jesus, that’s a lot of pressure. But it was incredible when we went down to that TV room and I knew that the TV room was how the movie opened. I saw the porcelain monkey that was on the table. Like where are they going to get that, and sure enough, and that was the last thing we shot, the TV room. And when I walked in on set it was exactly like the TV room, I have to give a lot of credit to the production designer (Mara LePere-Schloop) and the team for doing that.
What was it? Three TV’s all going at once?
SHANNON: Yeah he had three TV’s, boom, boom boom.
Was there any methodology on what he selected?
SHANNON: I don’t know. One particular night while he was channel surfing he didn’t seem to be able to find what he was looking for so I don’t know why he had three TVs. In that particular room there were three TV’s but he had TV’s all over the house, I guess he liked TV.
SHANNON: I never thought of it like that. That’s actually really interesting. You know, I haven’t heard of that, but I think you’re onto something. Three also in design is just really nice.
Yeah, when I first moved to Los Angeles, like in the first month, someone filled me in on numbers. But three has always been interesting. It’s the best way to tell a joke, the rule of three.
SHANNON: That’s right.
So working with Kevin Spacey, he’s great, he’s also very good at imitations as well. I wondered if he ever did a Spacey Elvis at all or if you switched it up?
SHANNON: No, No. I mean if the shoot was 6 months long we would have dissolved into those type shenanigans but he was only there for five days. He shot his whole part in five days. We had to be pretty focused.
How long were you on the project?
SHANNON: I wound up being there about 5 weeks. It was quick.
And how much prep did you get prior?
SHANNON: Well, not a lot because it kind of fell in the middle of this crazy year where I was going one movie to another. So I had just finished a movie a couple of weeks before I started shooting this one. So basically my Christmas break was spent with Elvis. I watched him. My kids unwrapped their presents and I went and watched Elvis.
Did you have a particular costume that you really liked or keep anything by chance?
SHANNON: I didn’t hold on to any of it. I was kind of like when I was done I was done. From time to time people ask me to do the voice or whatever. I kind of really didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to hold on to it. It’s over.
When you were watching a bunch of his old films were there any in particular that you really liked?
SHANNON: King Creole is an amazing movie. It’s a beautiful movie and it’s an indication really of something Jerry and I talked about. Elvis took acting very seriously and wanted to have a much more serious acting career than he had. He loved making that movie because he got to work with the great director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and apparently said when they wrapped the film, “thank you Mr. Curtiz now I know what a director does.” I love Jailhouse Rock. But I can’t get through Viva Las Vegas. I’ve tried like 20 times to watch that whole movie and it drives me crazy. There’s great set pieces in it but the movie itself it just doesn’t make any sense to me.
The other one that I have actually seen is It Happened at The World’s Fair, it’s in Seattle. There is just a funny little thing in it Kurt Russell as a boy is in it kicks Elvis in the shin and it was one of his first child roles.
SHANNON: Interesting, yeah, because then he played him…
Like, five times.
I also wanted to ask about two upcoming films. You are going back to Cannes with Jeff Nichols and Loving. Is there anything you can tell us about that, the character you play in that?
SHANNON: I play a photographer for Life Magazine called Grey Villet, he was an amazing photographer, took some iconic photos for Life Magazine and he did a photo essay on the Loving’s (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), who are the main couple in the film. It’s a cameo for sure, I just kind of show up and do that.
You’ve gotta keep your Nichols’ streak going. That makes five for five?
SHANNON: Yeah we try to keep the streak up, but if for some reason that falls apart and I’m not in the edit that’s ok, too. But so far, we’ve got five.
I really loved A Single Man, and was awaiting to hear what Tom Ford would do next. What’s your involvement in Nocturnal Animals?
SHANNON: Man, I was just on cloud nine making that movie. It’s an amazing script. It’s kind of set in two different worlds in LA, kind of vapid art scene of LA and then it goes back and forth between there and Texas. The part that is in Texas is in a book. Amy Adams is reading a book that her ex-husband wrote. And it goes back and forth between her life and the book. I play a detective in the book, which is actually a book called Tony and Susan by Austin Wright.
And definitely not a cameo there?
SHANNON: Yeah, there’s no way I can be edited out of that one.
Elvis & Nixon is currently in theaters.