John F. Kennedy in 1960, a hard-fought race so close that it may well have been decided on some dubious results in Illinois and in JFK running mate Lyndon B. Johnson’s Texas. Nixon, who had trouble adapting to campaigning in the emerging television age, comes off as sympathetic and even heroic for choosing not to contest the outcome.
It’s a different Nixon than the one Spacey became acquainted with as he studied for the role in “Elvis & Nixon.” To prepare, the actor spent hours listening online to the obscenityladen White House tapes that revealed Nixon’s knowledge of the Watergate break-in, which led to his resignation.
“He was remarkably grumpy,” Spacey noted as he channeled the 37th president’s rumbling cadences. “The level of paranoia — ‘They are out there trying to get in, trying to get us.’ He was a man who felt entrapped. A man who felt unhappy. The thing that was really most surprising was his use of language. ... I think that was more shocking than a missing 18-minute gap.”
Spacey also examined his screen test for Ron Howard when the director was casting his 2008 feature “Frost/Nixon.” (Nixon was played by Frank Langella.)
“Ron Howard really needed to see if the actors tested could do Nixon,” he said.
“I thought I was talking too slow and thought it was too much of an imitation. I learned quite a lot watching again.”
Spacey’s portrayal in “Elvis & Nixon” is based more on the president’s essence — a public man who didn’t like dealing with the public.
“It’s often said he went into the wrong profession for the kind of person he was,” Spacey said. “You look at private photos of him sitting in the White House, he was kind of uncomfortable being in his own body.”
Spacey’s interest in politics goes back to his teenage