RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When Richard Nixon gave his first interview after Watergate, this is what he said.
President RICHARD NIXON: I brought myself down. I gave them a sword, and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I'd been in their position, I would have done the same thing.
MONTAGNE: Richard Nixon made that statement to British television interviewer David Frost during 28 hours of interviews conducted over 12 days in 1977. The story of how those historic interviews came about and how they played out is dramatized in the play "Frost/Nixon," opening on Broadway this Sunday.
Steve Inskeep talked to the man who plays David Frost, and the writer who recreated the interviews for the stage.
STEVE INSKEEP: Peter Morgan writes political dramas that he doesn't like to consider political. He wrote last year's hit film "The Last King of Scotland" about Uganda's dictator, Idi Amin. He wrote "The Queen" about Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen.
Now Sheen is playing the interviewer David Frost in the new play. Yet, the writer, Peter Morgan, says politics is not what drew him to these stories.
Mr. PETER MORGAN (Writer, "Frost/Nixon"): It's always disappointing. I expect to hear that it isn't politics. I'm drawn to these relationships. You know, I would not have written about Richard Nixon without David Frost. And I wouldn't have written about Tony Blair without the queen. I mean, it's the combination of elements. It's that sort of nitrogen and glycerin thing.
INSKEEP: So it's not politics that excites you, and I don't even hear you saying it's precisely character that excites you. It's the way that people relate to one another.
Mr. MORGAN: Yeah, relationships really interest me. And in this particular case there was a very dramatic context. The fact these two men were going into a sort of verbal head to head. It felt like a boxing match but where words were the weapons. And that was appealing in itself. But it was the combinations of their characters, how different Richard Nixon and David Frost are as individuals, as men. That's what made me so interested in writing about them.
INSKEEP: Mr. Sheen, was David Frost, as you studied him in real life, was he really in that different a situation from Richard Nixon when they prepared for this series of interviews in the 1970s?
Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN (Actor): Certainly both Frost and Nixon have a huge amount at stake, Frost in terms of his career and reputation, and obviously Nixon in the same way. But Frost also financially he ends up putting huge amounts of his own money into this - getting in to be set up. So they're in similar situations in so much as they both have to win this.
INSKEEP: Peter Morgan, you try to tell the story of how a particular series of television interviews came about. You tell it from the point of view of David Frost, from a number of the smaller characters in this drama, and from time to time, from the point of view of Richard Nixon, the man who is being interviewed. How close did you say to the historical record of what's known about how these interviews came about?
Mr. MORGAN: Okay. I'll try to answer that in two parts. The first is, when I went and met everybody connected with these interviews, I was just shocked. Nixon's team and Frost's team, they both had rooms which they were sort of watching, monitoring rooms. And nobody seemed to agree with anybody else, when, you know, because I met them all individually. And people's memories are so selective, I suppose, and that's what makes history such a joyful thing.
INSKEEP: You're saying this is an event that was partly on videotape and people still couldn't agree on what happened (unintelligible).
Mr. MORGAN: Absolutely, because what happens is you know better than anybody that, you know, we could be having this conversation and I could leave you alone in your editing room and you could completely transform it. Then, probably with time, you've rather forgotten whether I actually said what I said initially or I actually said what you had re-edited.
And that's what happened. You know, don't forget the Frost interviews that we all saw had been subjected to a prolonged editing process, and that creates whole new sets of meanings.
This brings me to the second part of the answer, which is the sort of the difference between truth and accuracy, and this is stuff that I get hauled up in jail for the whole time. And people say, is that what really happened between the queen and Tony Blair? Of course not. They'll never tell me if I ask them.
I know that they had three conversations that week, so I chose to fill those conversations with words that I made up. But those words weren't irresponsibly made up. Those words were made up based on the strength of countless interviews and actual common sense.
Similarly, with Frost and Nixon, you know, I can't speak to Richard Nixon. But I think it's safe to infer certain things. I reordered quite a lot of the interviews and, you know, when I was actually using verbatim stuff, quite a lot of that was taken from other sources, not all of it was taken from the Frost/Nixon interviews. So Nixon would sometimes say things that he actually said something completely different. He would certainly be giving answers. But I felt at all times, and I'm pretty rigorous of myself, that what I was doing was not irresponsible.
INSKEEP: Do you think, would you make the argument that you got closer to the truth with this play that takes liberties with the facts than the television program, where you have lots of close ups of Richard Nixon licking his lips and moving his eyes around and looking kind of pallid and shifty?
Mr. MORGAN: I don't know because I don't know what to measure it against. All I do know is that I went, you know, I have had conversations with people from the Nixon Library, the Nixon Foundation, and they were profoundly grateful to me for the fact that I've written Nixon the way I had. And I looked at what I've written and I think it's a pretty damning indictment.
Having said that - and to answer your initial question - I've also spent a lot of time in the company of rabid Nixon haters - liberal Americans who really were coming to this play hoping that we wouldn't get soft on the guy. And they seemed to be completely happy that I've delivered the brutal hatchet job.
So somewhere I think I must have done something right because I didn't come with an agenda and I wrote with an open mind. And I think I wrote with respect for both men, if not, you know, with judgment.
INSKEEP: I wonder if, as you create these plays which involve unsympathetic political characters, if you ever have that same fear, that same concern that you're going to take somebody who really is a deeply flawed human being and creates sympathy for them simply because you've put them onstage, put them in front of people.
Mr. MORGAN: I'm happy to accept that charge. It doesn't bother me at all. I mean, you know, I think anybody, there's no one beyond sympathy, no one, no human being exists that's beyond sympathy in one form or another.
Mr. SHEEN: And I think we totally delude ourselves if we ever think of anybody as being less than human. They may do cruel, awful things, but if we choose to see them as being monsters or not human, then we're not living in reality and we're totally deluding ourselves. And it doesn't help us at all as the society, or as a way of reading the world around us.
INSKEEP: Michael Sheen, thanks very much. Peter Morgan, thank you.
Mr. MORGAN: Pleasure.
INSKEEP: Mr. Morgan is the writer and Michael Sheen is an actor in "Frost/Nixon."
MONTAGNE: "Frost/Nixon" opens on Broadway this Sunday, and you can watch scenes from the stage production and the original 1977 interviews at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve's back on Monday. I'm Renee Montagne. And Deborah Amos, thanks for joining us.
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
Thanks. Pleasure to be here.