Kevin Spacey enters ‘Race for the White House’ at CNN

Kevin Spacey in New York on Feb. 24, 2016.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Kevin Spacey has spent so much time around the American presidency that he should have his own Secret Service code name.

The actor recently completed his fourth season playing President Frank Underwood on the Netflix political drama “House of Cards,” which begins streaming March 4.

He also wrapped up his first big-screen presidential role in “Elvis & Nixon,” inspired by the strange 1970 Oval Office meeting between the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley, and the imperial president. Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street are releasing the feature this spring.

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And off-camera, Spacey is known to pal around with former White House occupant Bill Clinton, who is apparently a fan of the actor’s spot-on impression of him. “He loves it,” said Spacey, sipping a large cup of coffee recently as he prepared for a long day of press interviews at a hotel in Manhattan’s NoMad district. “When we toured Africa together — he used to get up and pretend he was hoarse and say [as Clinton], ‘My voice is gone, my friend Kevin is going to give the speech.’ So I’d get up and start giving his speech, and he’d go, ‘Sit down, you’re doing too good. I’m going to do it.’”


Clinton, Nixon and even Underwood figure into Spacey’s new CNN original series, “Race for the White House,” which premieres March 6 (7 p.m. Pacific time). Each week, the show will look at a compelling presidential campaign from the past using some combination of reenactments, archival news footage and interviews with historians, experts and participants.

The races were selected for their historical significance and, perhaps coincidentally, have a high quotient of dirty tricks and bare-knuckle tactics. They range from the 1828 rematch between Andrew Jackson and incumbent John Quincy Adams, which led to the rise of the Democratic Party, to the generational power shift that came with baby-boomer Clinton’s victory over World War II hero George H.W. Bush in 1992.

“These races give you a pretty great swath of time,” said Spacey, who narrates the series as well as serving as co-executive producer. “They show that whether someone’s ideas travel very slowly or very quickly, there is a lot that hasn’t changed in terms of how politics works.”

Dirty politics

While people complain about the deterioration of discourse in the current political environment, “Race for the White House” shows how ugly it was back in the day too.

Supporters of Adams leaked letters to the press that showed Jackson was bad at spelling (just like 2016 Republican contender Marco Rubio is doing to his tweeting rival Donald Trump). They called the general a bigamist and a brutal killer who executed his own men on the battlefield. Jackson’s camp accused Adams of being a pimp, claiming he once procured female company for the Russian czar.

Such campaign handiwork would make Frank Underwood proud. The intrigue, music and even the credits for “Race for the White House” are bound to remind viewers of “House of Cards,” and that’s just fine with CNN.

“We wanted it to feel like a political thriller,” said Amy Entelis, executive vice president of talent and development for CNN. “We didn’t want to make it a history lesson.”

Entelis looked at a number of election-themed ideas for an original series to run in a year when CNN is providing saturation coverage of the presidential campaign. Most of them were looks at the 2016 race from an insider’s perspective, which she believed might be overkill.

Then along came the pitch for “Race for the White House.” Spacey, a fan of Tom Hanks’ CNN series “The Seventies,” came attached to the project with Dana Brunetti, his partner at Trigger Street Productions and the British TV company Raw.

“It might have been one of the fastest greenlights we’ve given to anything,” Entelis said.

The premiere episode recounts Nixon’s loss to 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 obscenity-laden 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 — ‘the god damned [expletive deleted]’ — 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.)

The reason I wouldn’t think of running is because I like to get things done.

— Kevin Spacey

“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 years in the San Fernando Valley. He stuffed envelopes for Jimmy Carter’s successful 1976 campaign and worked on John Anderson’s independent White House bid in 1980.

Run for office?

He became friends with Clinton — his favorite president, he says — back when the Democrat was governor of Arkansas. The actor was also in the ballroom the night Hillary Clinton, the 2016 front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, celebrated her election to the U.S. Senate.

His connection to Washington has been further solidified by Frank Underwood. The Smithsonian recently added a portrait of Spacey in character as Underwood painted by British artist Jonathan Yeo.

That blurring of art and reality — no doubt aided by the use of real-life TV journalists who eagerly appear as themselves on “House of Cards” — has admittedly become bizarre for Spacey. He’s been told there are “a great number of people in China” who believe he is the real president of the United States.

As comfortable as Spacey looks behind an Oval Office desk, he’s never been seriously approached about running for any public office, nor would he consider it. Like many Americans, he’s angry about political gridlock.

“The reason I wouldn’t think of running is because I like to get things done,” he said. “I like to have goals, and I like to achieve them, and I think I’d be very frustrated by the situation as it exists now. It doesn’t mean I don’t admire those in public service. I’d be enormously frustrated by not being able to get everything done that I wanted to get done. I might take on tactics of a Frank Underwood.”