BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA -- With politics in the air, it was oddly appropriate that a late President, Ronald Reagan, became a subject of conversation during two panels at the Television Critics Association 2016 Summer TV Press Tour on Saturday.
The National Geographic Channel is presenting "Killing Reagan," the fourth TV-movie the network has filmed from books co-written by Fox News host (and former Portland TV anchor) Bill O'Reilly. The previous three, "Killing Lincoln," "Killing Kennedy" and "Killing Jesus," are the three most-watched programs in National Geographic Channel history.
Since Reagan survived, "Killing Reagan," which premieres Oct. 16, looks at events surrounding John Hinckley, Jr.'s attempted assassination of the president. On March 30, 1981, Hinckley shot Reagan, White House press secretary James Brady, U.S. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and Washington D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty. Though all survived the shootings, the wounds to Brady's head left him paralyzed.
The attack on Reagan and the others is in the news now with the recent ruling that Hinckley, who said he shot Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster, will be released from the mental hospital where he's spent the past several decades.
The subject of Hinckley's release came up early in the panel for "Killing Reagan," which included director Rod Lurie; screenwriter Eric Simonson; Tim Matheson, who plays Reagan; Cynthia Nixon, who plays Nancy Reagan; and Kyle S. More, who plays Hinckley.
Asked if the news of Hinckley's release makes any difference to the "Killing Reagan" narrative, Lurie said, "I don't think it makes any difference to the story we've told. It better not, since the movie is done and delivered."
The Hinckley release news does, Lurie said, make "Killing Reagan" "extraordinarily timely." He joked about "the power of Bill O'Reilly," who maybe "pulled strings" to get Hinckley out.
Of Hinckley, Lurie said, "He's not coming to the premiere, I'll tell you that."
Another journalist mentioned that the "Killing Reagan" book had been criticized for historical inaccuracies and speculation, including a suggestion that the assassination attempt played a role in Reagan suffering a decline in his mental faculties.
"So, yeah, we know about the criticism," said screenwriter Simonson. "Before I started writing the script, I was very diligent, and I read about, I would say, at least 25 different biographies and accounts of this event. You know, we deal with the assassination attempt in a very limited way. It takes place about six months surrounding the assassination, before the assassination, and then after the assassination (attempt.)"
In addition, Simonson credited researchers "who were at my disposal at all times, and I can say that whatever we put in the movie has been approved by them and has been cross-checked by them so that, you know, whatever you see, we were very conscientious and very concerned that we give the story the way that it happened."
Asked how she prepared to play Nancy Reagan, Cynthia Nixon said she read several books, and found an understanding of Nancy Reagan's psychology.
"There were things that I learned about Nancy's life ... and her childhood that made sense to me, actually about both of the Reagans and their childhoods and the way they chose to deal with it.
"Our picture of Nancy Reagan, which isn't inaccurate, is very controlled and very controlling," Nixon said. "I think, if you look at the insecurity of her early years and how she felt unloved and unlovable, it's why she tried so hard to do everything right and get A-pluses in everything and, you know, have not a hair out of place. And, you know, that's something that I can relate to, and I think that we can all relate to, you know, feeling insecure about things."
Tim Matheson found a key to his performance in Reagan's habit of joking with people. "The aspect of him that I really took to was, he was almost like an Irish comic part of the time," Matheson said. "He would always have a joke. He was always entertaining people. He was always using that as sort of an icebreaker and a deflection, too, to keep people away. Those things kept coming up in all of the different materials. So it really helped me. And he also always talked about Nancy in a certain way so that it just grounded and centered everything for me in what we were doing, and it was a tremendous asset. I think the biggest trap for me would be to try and sound like him, because I probably would have ended up sounding like Johnny Carson doing Reagan -- which wasn't bad, actually."
Asked if O'Reilly played a role in the production, Lurie told a story of what happened when O'Reilly visited the set, in Georgia.
"It was really interesting when he came because we shot this in Georgia," Lurie said, "and so we were shooting that famous scene where Al Haig says, 'I'm in control here.' And so that means that we had a pressroom filled with 40 or 50 extras. They were all from Georgia. And so Bill just sauntered in there, all six foot ten of him, whatever he is, and it was as if a combination of the Beatles and God had walked into the room. I mean, they absolutely adored him. And for the first time, I was able to understand with my own eyes the incredible, sort of, power that 'power' is the wrong word the incredible, sort of, influence that he has and how so many people, you know, really, really do love him. Fox is not my, you know, news broadcast of choice so to speak, but I understand. I'm beginning to understand what he's a very magnetic guy. He's full of charisma, and I will say that whenever I spent time with him in person or on the phone, I felt I was in his show, you know. He is exactly that person. He is not faking it."
Nick Nolte has an opinions about Ronald Reagan, too: The cable channel Epix is also getting busy in the scripted drama area, launching a half-hour scripted dramedy called "Graves," which premieres Oct. 16. Nick Nolte stars as a former two-term Republican president who, two decades after holding office, decides to atone for what his administration wrought.
In the panel for "Graves," a journalist suggested that Graves, the former president Nolte plays, has been compared to Reagan.
Joshua Michael Stern, creator of the show, said, "Well, I think that the character of Graves was really a composite, which is what you were feeling on some level. He was a little bit Reagan. He was a lot LBJ in the sense that he sort of was a strong- arm southwestern President."
Stern said he wanted to establish the Graves character as "someone who was divisive, so for part of the public, he was beloved" and "he was sort of despised by the other half of the electorate, and without any partisanship applied to it, so I think what you sense in it was a composite, which was its intention."
Then Nolte, speaking in his signature raspy voice, shared some thoughts of his own about the character -- and the real-life former president.
"You know, you've gotta look at your own life and say how old are you, and do you have any regrets or not. I'm 75. I got a lot of regrets. So it doesn't matter whether it's president or not president or Republican or Democrat. It's a man that is aching. He knows he's going to die, and he's looking back at his life, and some of the things he did earlier, he regrets...There isn't a president that doesn't. But they don't do anything about it because they're in the public eye. We take license to be the satire and go into it. You know, I didn't use Reagan because I didn't think Reagan was a good president. He was a bad actor."
Stay tuned for more reports from the 2016 Summer TV Press Tour.
-- Kristi Turnquist
Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.
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