Interview: Jonathan Hyde on Frost/Nixon
It’s 1977, three years after the Watergate Scandal ended in the President’s resignation, and Richard Nixon agrees to an all-access-interview with the well-known British chat show host David Frost, an international socialite who risks everything in a career-defining opportunity of a lifetime.
Brought down by one of the biggest political scandals in American history, Nixon seeks absolution. Frost is pushing for a confession. Both want to control the story but only one can emerge the victor.
For the latest adaptation of the 2006 play Frost/Nixon, a dramatisation of the most-watched political interview of all time, distinguished actor Jonathan Hyde returns to Sheffield Theatres as the disgraced Nixon.
We caught up with Jonathan ahead of the play’s debut this month for a conversation about how the story is arguably more relevant today than it’s ever been.
The play is a dramatization of the post-Watergate interviews with Richard Nixon and David Frost. Before entering the project, were you aware of the scandal’s depth and complexity?
It was a big story and I lived through it so was very aware of both Nixon and the Watergate scandal. I’m Australian and was conscripted for the Vietnam War, but I didn’t go because I was totally opposed to it – a monstrous error of the French Imperial Powers and indeed the US, as it has now been proved. I remember Watergate quite strongly. Interestingly, what Nixon’s scandal did was to really open the can on the whole of presidential politics; it was fascinating to realise that there’s probably not a single president apart from Jimmy Carter who hasn’t waged war in one way or another.
The media played a key role in exposing the depth of the Watergate scandal but some chose not to publish information that was provided to them and others disputed what we now know to be fact. There are obvious correlations to how the media behaves today, particularly in the US…
Yes, it’s very contemporary and relevant. Just look at what we’ve got going on worldwide at the moment. Scary shit.
The term ‘liberal media’ is used as an automatic putdown now, which is weird. It’s like if you’re a liberal you’re somehow skewing events, looking for errors regardless of being balanced and fair, which of course isn’t the case; they’re just telling stories that need to be told. There are greater insights now into government mismanagement and lack of proper governance worldwide, and that’s partly to do with the strength of the liberal media.
Of course, there’s also the constant controversy around Trump which makes it relevant.
Yes, thanks to Trump and the mess that he’s created. Interestingly, obstruction of justice got Nixon as an impeachable offence, leading to him being the only US President to resign from office. Similarly, that’s what they’re looking for within the Trump Russian inquiry. He tried to get James Comey, the previous head of the FBI, to not investigate what was happening. This is reprehensible behaviour and I think extremely impeachable.
An unlikeable lead character can, in some instances, be difficult to navigate. What attracted you to this role?
Well, he’s quite funny; the humour is savage and is no less funny for being that. It has an edge to it. It’s a human comedy in a way, exposing all the idiocies and flaws that make him human. There’s a contradiction with him, too, as some of the things he did were visionary and far-reaching. He opened the door to China, encouraged massively the nuclear reduction treaties with the Russians, enacted all sorts of environmental legislation – these are all positive elements of Nixon. But then there’s the other stuff – you listen to some of the tapes and you just think, ‘oh, god’. He was very anti-Semitic and racist for a start…
Did you have a preconceived personal opinion on Richard Nixon beforehand and did this role change your perspective on him at all?
Hopefully, I got a little deeper, portraying that he was emotionally quite vulnerable and volatile. The public face we saw, that weird toothy smile, it’s nothing like the man I heard on the tapes. He was very intelligent and believed the president had the right to say no to things, including releasing the tapes and he fought tooth and nail for those beliefs.
Do you think that fight was influenced by his military background?
He fought in the Second World War, in the Pacific, just like Kennedy, but he didn’t portray it as glamorous. He wasn’t the elitist east-coast snob, the liberal elite – he loathed those people. They were handed everything on a platter and he had to work his way up from a very humble beginning. I presume he hated them because ultimately they made him feel insecure.
What specifically did you do to prepare for the role?
I looked at a lot of the archive materials. It’s all there: the interviews, the resignation speech, the speech to the staff as he was leaving the White House; it’s all documented and there on tape. I had seen the original play in London and I saw the film too.
Do audiences need to have any prior knowledge of Watergate or Nixon to be able to understand the narrative?
It’s all explained, there’s narration throughout which is really fascinating and very crucial. The narration links the stories, provides context and introduces the scenes. People have to listen but it’s all there. I think it’s good, no, great drama. If you like politics, which I’m fascinated by, you’ll love it. But equally, it’s about a real battle of the wills, all sorts of assumptions, rugs being pulled out from under people all the time. You never really know who’s going to win.
Frost/Nixon runs 22nd February – 17th March at The Crucible. Head to sheffieldtheatres.co.uk for tickets.