The iconic photo of President Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley is one of the most requested photos from the National Archives, yet beyond this photo, few know the story of one of the most bizarre interactions to take place in the Oval Office. Bringing the details of that photo to life is the film Elvis & Nixon, directed by Liza Johnson. The film stars Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon, and we begin with Elvis in his private TV chamber in Graceland, showing his distaste for the corruption of his country. He picks up one of his many guns, shoots the television, and sets out for an official “Federal Agent-at-Large” badge from Nixon, cementing his role as the Nation’s official undercover narc. From there the film explores Presley’s strange antics and missteps on his way to get to Nixon, along with his posse in the Memphis Mafia, Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) and Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), who helped him along the way.
We spoke with Johnny Knoxville about becoming part of the Memphis Mafia for the film, his personal conversations with Schilling, and the unseen side of Elvis.
Prior to being in the film, how much did you know about this interaction between Elvis and Nixon?
I knew a little bit about it, but once I was offered the role, I really read up on it and it’s bizarre. We didn’t have to add any bells and whistles to the story because we just stayed true to what really happened because it was so crazy.
What surprised you most about this part of history?
So much was surprising. On a whim, Elvis decides to fly to D.C. and go to The White House. They all have weapons on them and, “Oh! I’m going to take a gun to the president.” And shows up expecting a narcotics badge [Laughs]. It’s insane just to think it happened, but it did. And just how he shows Nixon karate, what?
Growing up, how important was Elvis in your life?
Huge. I’m from Tennessee, so he was even bigger in Tennessee than he was everywhere else. Just a legendary, iconic historical figure. So I was really honored to be a part of this film.
And were you a Nixon fan?
[Laughs.] No, not so much. Were there any Nixon fans?
Yeah, no, not anymore.
Not a Nixon fan. But Kevin Spacey played a brilliant Nixon in the film. Just watching Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey go at it, I was part in character and part fan [laughs]. I felt really lucky to be there and be a part of it.
How was it working alongside both of them as these characters, how authentic did it feel in the moment?
I was 100 percent there. Michael Shannon has this wonderful intensity and dedication and he oozes energy and is phenomenal, I can’t say enough about his acting. And Kevin Spacey just totally would encompass Nixon. It was two heavyweights, two people who have mastered their craft go at it.
Elvis is so funny in this film and Elvis was this unintentionally funny guy. Do you think people think of him that way or will this film let people see a new side of him?
Well, in the ’70s, he really slipped into unintentionally funny. [Laughs.] I think people will see a different side of Elvis. You’ve never seen an Elvis like this on film before. Michael Shannon’s performance is outstanding and you just haven’t seen this before. And just with what happened, there are only one or two photos. There’s the famous one and then one or two others of what happened that day. But just the story behind it is so fascinating, you can’t believe somebody hasn’t made a movie about it yet.
And for you, getting into this mindset of someone in the Memphis Mafia, what did you do to prepare for this role?
I watched as much footage as I could and I read up a lot about him, and I sat down with Jerry Schilling to talk about what happened that day and what happened before and after those days. It was invaluable information I was getting and I couldn’t believe it was happening. So I thank Jerry Schilling for his kindness in sitting down with me. Because you could just ask him whatever you like and he was very open and honest in his replies and he was there for history.
Was there something he told you that for, whatever reason, wasn’t shown in the film?
Well, some of the things we talked about were on-the-record and some were off-the-record. He’s very candid with you so I can’t really say. But he was very helpful for me.
Being from Tennessee, have you been to Graceland?
I never have, I’ve never been to Graceland. That’s almost sacrilegious. I just got one of the Peter Guralnick books on Elvis [Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love] because I read the Sam Phillips book he wrote [Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll], which was brilliant. And now I’m reading those books, so of course, I would want to go to Graceland.
Do you feel like people will leave this movie feeling like they understand Elvis more or will they be even more mystified by him?
I think people are going to be mystified, they’ll be humored, and most of all they’ll be entertained. You learn some things you didn’t know about Elvis, and that’s great because so much is publicly known and there’s not a lot that you don’t know about Elvis. So when something comes along to show another shade of him, I think people will really respond to that.