Among the millions of photos on sale via the National Archives, one of the most popular is of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon together at the White House as perhaps the oddest couple in pop culture history. As portrayed in the new film Elvis & Nixon, on Dec. 20, 1970, The King, after days of pestering White House staffers, was ushered into the Oval Office, where the president presented him with an honorary narcotics-agent badge. With the Amazon Studios film’s April 14 debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, Michael Shannon, 41, who plays Presley opposite Kevin Spacey‘s Nixon, reveals how he got inside the mind of music royalty.
Billboard: Did you have to shake everything you knew about Elvis, the most impersonated pop star ever, to play him?
I hadn’t grown up a huge fan, so I started from scratch. I was guided through the whole process by [Presley’s childhood friend] Jerry Schilling, played in the movie by Alex Pettyfer. He said to focus on the psychology and not worry about impersonation — though I did spend hours listening to Elvis talk.
Was there a danger in veering into parody?
Not really. A lot of what I based it on was conversational: the way he dealt with his friends, not him as this larger-than-life person.
What’s the basis of Jerry and Elvis’ bromance?
Elvis was capable of immense loneliness, even when he was surrounded by people. He was very much focused on his roots, who he was before he became famous and the people he grew up with. So Jerry was a sanctuary, a safe place.
He was consumed with spirituality, metaphysics, and read books like “Siddhartha” and “The Prophet.” I think he wanted to make sure that he was doing what he was supposed to be doing.
Do you think his desire to become an undercover agent was driven by his jealousy of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones?
I think he went back and forth in that. In the movie, he thought the Beatles were doing something fishy. It’s hard to know…I don’t think he actually had any ill feelings toward any other musicians. I think he admired the Beatles.
In the film, Presley is a wily negotiator, getting his way with Nixon and his own team.
He was an incredibly persuasive human being; maybe negotiating with [his manager] Colonel Tom Parker was an aspect of that. People like to think drugs ruined his life, but Jerry’s take is that Elvis died of heartbreak. There were a lot of things he was kept from doing by Parker.
He took acting seriously and wanted to do better films. I still can’t get through Viva Las Vegas, but he was great in King Creole. It was something he ran into time and time again: He wasn’t taken seriously.
To what extent was his wish to be a narc agent a case of arrested development?
I don’t think that was necessarily a game. He had huge respect for law enforcement. And that’s the key word: respect. I think he wanted to be respected more than anything. It’s odd that you can be in that position and still have insecurities. But that’s what is beautiful about Elvis and Nixon together: two very powerful men, both filled with insecurities.
This article originally appeared in the April 30 issue of Billboard.