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Warren Beatty on his unlikely friendship with Ronald Reagan

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Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images; Alexis DUCLOS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

When you look at Warren Beatty’s resume, you can’t help but notice that there are some long gaps between films. Some of that has to do with the star’s famously deliberate approach to his work. He’s not lazy, he’s just a chronic second-guesser. He can kick ideas around for decades before finally pulling the trigger (like he did with his latest film, Rules Don’t Apply, which opens on Nov. 23). Another reason for those long fallow stretches, though, is due to Beatty’s political activism. Since the 1960s, the actor has periodically taken a step back from moviemaking to support politicians like Bobby Kennedy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Gary Hart.

Beatty’s never been shy about his liberal-leaning positions on the issues (all of the presidential candidates above were Democrats). But that never stopped him from reaching across the aisle when it came to friendships. Take his personal connection with Ronald Reagan. Maybe it has something to do with Reagan’s shared acting background, but the two men managed to put their ideological differences aside and forge a close and cordial friendship over the years. In a recent sit-down interview with Entertainment Weekly Beatty recalled one incident with his conservative Republican pal that surprised him at the time — and continues to resonate in light of the recent election.

After Reagan began his first term in the Oval Office in 1981, he and First Lady Nancy Reagan invited Beatty to screen his latest film in the White House movie theater. It was an honor, of course. But a slightly awkward one. After all, under Reagan, the Cold War with the Soviet Union (which he branded “the Evil Empire”) would heat up and nearly reach the boiling point. And the film that Beatty was about to show him was none other than Reds — a sweeping and sympathetic three-plus-hour epic about the American Communist movement in the 1910s. Reagan was hardly the ideal audience for it.

“During intermission, we walked outside and he said to me, ‘I really don’t understand how anyone could be president today without being an actor.’ He wasn’t joking. He was talking about the performance of it.” After the second half, which recreates Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Reagan confessed to Beatty that he was kind of hoping that the movie might have a happier ending. Recalling this, Beatty laughs. “I was quite friendly with Ronald Reagan. I didn’t agree with him, but I liked him very much.”

Reds did turn out to have a happy ending, though. The film, which Beatty co-wrote, directed, produced, and starred in, was nominated for ten Oscars and won four, including Best Director for Beatty (it lost in the Best Picture race to Chariots of Fire). But despite its success, the film was next to impossible to get financed. Even for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars who was coming off two consecutive box-office hits. Says Beatty, “Heaven Can Wait made a ton of money. And Shampoo had been a big hit. I’m thinking: This is the time to make this movie that otherwise couldn’t get made. So I went to Paramount and said, ‘I’m going to make a three-and-a-half hour movie about a Communist who dies.’ And the head of the studio said, ‘Take $30 million, go to Mexico, make a movie for $1 million, keep $29 million for yourself. Just don’t make this movie!’ And I said, I’m sorry, but I’m going to make it.’ And they stepped up to the plate.”

For more from Beatty and his former costars reflecting on his six decades in Hollywood, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, or buy it here now – and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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