Elvis & Nixon turns the most requested photograph in the national archives – showing an iconic handshake between the King of Rock and Roll and the President of the United States – into a hilariously weird film that highlights the lighter side of two very powerful men.
But for Jerry Schilling – Elvis’s best friend and an executive producer on the film – agreeing to poke fun at the King was no easy decision. “I was reluctant in the beginning to be involved in a comedy portraying my friend because he has such an iconic image,” Schilling tells PEOPLE.
The film is based on a real-life meeting between Elvis and Richard Nixon on December 21, 1970. It all starts when Elvis (played by Michael Shannon) becomes disgusted by news images of the Vietnam War protests and the drug fueled, hippie counterculture, and decides America needs his help. So on a whim, he flies to Washington D.C. and hand delivers a 7-page letter to the White House, asking for an audience with Nixon (played by Kevin Spacey). At the meeting, Elvis hopes the president will make him “an agent at large,” so that he can go undercover for the FBI.
With a plot this bizarre, Schilling was wary of turning Elvis into a walking punch line. Ultimately, after years of revisions and careful rewrites, he decided to become an executive producer on the film. “I realized the filmmakers really had a great admiration for Elvis,” he explains. “Nobody was trying to put down either Nixon or Elvis. They were not making fun of them, they were having fun with them.”
But that’s not to say Schilling was completely on board with every plot point. Some moments in the film, like a scene depicted in the trailer, in which Elvis sneaks a pistol past the Secret Service, were exaggerated. “Obviously it’s a comedy and it’s a little more over the top than the way Elvis really was,” Schilling says. “I mean we would have never gotten into the Oval Office if he was sneaking in guns in his boots and stuff like that.”
For the most part, Schilling did his best to make sure that even the “over the top” moments had some basis in reality. For instance, in the film Elvis does a cringe worthy karate showcase for a bewildered Nixon in the Oval Office. While the martial arts exhibition didn’t really happen that day, Schilling says it’s not totally out of character.
“I remember we were in Memphis at Graceland one time and the mayor came up to the house and Elvis and I did karate demonstrations for the mayor,” Schilling says with a laugh.
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Even some of the more ridiculous scenes Schilling fought to have removed ended up being more truthful than he imagined. In another moment previewed in the trailer, Elvis plays a hand slapping game with Nixon to test his reaction. “There’s this scene with the slapping of the hands … I had a major problem with that. I mean I thought that was way over the top,” Schilling says.
The scene, which Schilling says was improvised by Shannon, ended up staying in the film despite his objections. “Then the trailer came out and an executive at Elvis Presley Enterprises, who happens to be Elvis’s cousin Regina, called me,” Schilling remembers. “The first thing she said about the teaser was, ‘You know what I love, that slapping of the hands thing. We used to do that as a family all the time. That’s my favorite scene.’ ”
In addition to some of his eccentric behavior, audiences might be surprised by Elvis’s conservative leanings in the film. Despite being an icon of 1950s counterculture, the Elvis in Elvis & Nixon seems to have a disdain for the liberal youth.
Asked to explain that apparent contradiction, Schilling says, “He knew what to say and he said the right things to get what he needed. But it’s not like he was being phony either. He had some conservative tendencies but he also had strong liberal tendencies.”
For instance, “He was a huge fan of Martin Luther King Jr. and was devastated when he was assassinated in our hometown. He could recite his “I Have a Dream” speech word for word in King’s voice. So Elvis was a bit of all things.”
As for what exactly Elvis wanted to get out of that meeting with the president, Schilling says there’s a pretty simple answer: he wanted a special badge. In the movie, Elvis asks for a badge that would make him “a federal agent at large.” While Schilling admits the King was hoping to add to his collection of local badges, given to him by fans in various sheriff departments across the country, he notes another, more practical application for the shield.
“The official badges that he had gave him the right to carry concealed weapons domestically,” Schilling explains. “But Elvis had a couple of very serious death threats at the time, and he wanted a federal badge so that he could carry concealed weapons abroad.”
Elvis & Nixon is now playing in theaters. See the trailer above.