And so it was with a raised eyebrow that news came that Nixon—whose liberal activism has taken her from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first campaign to current Hillary Clinton surrogate—would portray the late former first lady, whose conservative leanings included a blind eye to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the ’80s that many believe is partly responsible for the death of millions worldwide.
Killing Reagan, National Geographic’s newest installment in its Killing series, based on Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling novels, doesn’t touch on the AIDS crisis. But its telling of the events leading up to and just after John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan does humanize a steely wife whose devotion to her husband had its effects on policy, and whose concern for his health after the shooting influenced the leader the world got to see.
“I have my political views, and I certainly would never want to be part of a project that maligned those views,” Nixon tells The Daily Beast, when asked how she squared away humanizing a person whose politics she disagreed with. “I would never want to be a part of a show where I play Nancy Reagan that I feel like whitewashed the truth about the Reagans.”
She’s also not interested in being an agitprop.
“If I want to work a particular political issue, I’ll go make a speech about it, and everyone knows it’s a speech,” she says. “I don’t want to make propaganda, because propaganda’s not very interesting to watch most of the time.”
To that end, Killing Reagan, which premieres Sunday night, is not propaganda. It also should manage to skirt controversy.
When O’Reilly’s book, which the film is based on, was released, Reagan loyalists were up in arms over its implication that Reagan was never quite the same after surviving Hinckley’s attempt on his life. CBS stirred up such a huff when a miniseries it had in development insinuated a similar sentiment back in 2003 that it eventually decided to shuffle the project to Showtime to save face.
Nixon’s Nancy is the only character to hint at a weakened Ronnie in Killing Reagan—a quick “he’s changed!” to an advisor she worries is working her recovering husband too hard. But Nixon does think that a decrease in Reagan’s visibility after the shooting was largely Nancy’s doing: “She was like, ‘You did it your way and got shot. We’re doing it my way now.’”
Researching the series gave Nixon empathy for the former first lady that surprised her. “She made a lot of decisions I don’t approve of, but I also feel like life was really hard for her,” she says. Whereas her husband had a bit of a golden touch, finding success with many things he put his hand to, Nancy could never catch a break—something the film touches on with the first lady’s distress over the public’s perception that she is a “Dragon Lady.”
“It’s one of the reasons why she liked fancy things so much, because she was so exhausted,” Nixon says. “Working and working. I think she was looking for her reward. She was like a bird flying, flying, flying all the time and was like, ‘I just need a place to rest, and I would like it to be velvet-covered please.’”
And while Killing Reagan isn’t politicized at all, the former Sex and the City star says she doesn’t see any value in making a film in which they are portrayed as evil. “We need to take people with whom we disagree and try to understand them,” Nixon says.
We’re speaking over the summer, strangely enough the same week when it was announced that John Hinckley would be released from the mental institution he was sent to after the attempted assassination. (“Nancy would be furious,” Nixon says about the news. “I think it’s good she didn’t live to see it.”) It’s days after Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination to be the first female presidential candidate in history—but it’s months before Clinton’s opponent would take over the news cycle after a tape leaked in which he brags about sexual assault.
So when Nixon says, “I don’t like Trump,” as an intro to her next point, it’s without that recent context—but her point still holds merit.
“But I think we need to try to understand, if not try to understand him, understand the people that he appeals to, why he appeals to them,” she says. “Because we’re not talking about a fringe group. We’re talking about a significant portion of the American people. And they’re not crazy. They’re not necessarily, I don’t know, wrong. There’s some reality that they’re experiencing that I don’t see. But it’s become incumbent upon to try to see it.”
Nixon was 15 when she heard that Reagan had been shot and remembers the fear, paranoia, and compassion she felt immediately afterward. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t a fan of Reagan’s, or that her parents didn’t vote for him.
Actor Tim Matheson, who plays the late president in the film, shares a similar story. He hadn’t voted for Reagan in his first election, but remembers feeling a fondness for him after watching him stay the course following his recovery from the assassination attempt.
He wasn’t the only one either. As Killing Reagan chronicles, Reagan’s approvals spiked off the charts in the weeks after.
“After four years I voted for him!” Matheson tells me, flashing his Hollywood smile. “He was the only Republican I’ve ever voted for.”
It’s a familiar phenomenon for Nixon.
“The thing about it is: presidents are like movie stars,” she says. “We love them, we hate them. We scrutinize them, we trash them. We miss them when they’re gone, we hate them when they’re there. We love them when they’re an underdog and when they’re on top of the heap we want to tear them down. Like with movie stars, it’s really easy to forget that they’re just human beings.”
When something happens that reminds us of that humanity, it sends us into shock.
Nixon likens it to when Hillary Clinton teared up during a campaign stop eight years ago in New Hampshire. “All of a sudden her popularity surged, because people thought of her as hard and impenetrable,” she says. Killing Reagan show a similar political turnaround for Reagan, who, prior to the shooting, had dismal approval ratings and a horrible time getting policies passed.
Directly after completing filming of Killing Reagan in Atlanta in the spring, she flew to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she was being honored for her film work. The Pulse nightclub shootings had just happened. “I said, ‘It’s wonderful to come to this safe haven,’” she remembers. “Not only am I coming from that news cycle week, I’m coming from 1981. And to see how far we’ve come as a movement and as a people.
“And not just us,” she says, referring to the LGBT community. “We’re not in such a different place, but everybody around us and looking at us thinking about us and having opinions about us have come enormously far.”
It’s an optimism for the future that she was still high on when we chatted that summer afternoon, in the wake of the historic Democratic National Convention and its theme “Stronger Together.”
“As terrific as Hillary Clinton’s speech was and the moment was and the balloons, I thought what was really great was what they kept saying, that the presidency, a presidential administration, is not about one person,” she says. “Watching the Democrats one after another come out and speak, I felt like it was a team of all-stars. I felt like that’s what was so important. All these people were making these amazing speeches that echo each other. It’s like we got the Harlem Globetrotters.”
The other team—that’s the circus.
Editor’s Note: The Daily Beast is running an ad campaign for Killing Reagan. It has no bearing on the aforementioned piece.