To some folks, The Reagans isn't just another TV miniseries, it's a politically polarized polemic! All this controversy began when the New York Times ran its Oct. 21 article about the James Brolin/Judy Davis film, starting the whirlwind of public and political pressure that ultimately led to CBS declining to air it. (Instead, it'll debut on Showtime next year.) TV Guide Online interviewed Davis the day that Times story broke, and the 48-year-old Aussie actress spoke very candidly about her role as Nancy Reagan. But while she is empathetic toward her character, Davis does little to calm Ronald Reagan's supporters, who fear a liberal slant on the Republican former president's story.
TV Guide Online: Did you have any hesitation about accepting the role of Nancy Reagan?
Davis: I did. I'm not American, I'm Australian. Which, in a sense, was an advantage, in that I came to Nancy Reagan with perhaps less baggage than an American actually might. Reagan was not my president. On the other hand... because of the way it will be perceived politically, I felt an additional strain. I did not want to be involved in anything that was intending to be a malicious attack. That has proved not, in any way, to be the intention of the film.
TVGO: What interested you about playing Mrs. Reagan?
Davis: It's a big challenge to try and come to some sort of understanding of this particular woman, who had such an extraordinary life and was so powerful and, in some ways, so maligned. And survived it all. I found her difficult to understand. Difficult because she became adept at protecting her image and controlling what she communicated. I didn't find many interviews, for example, where she revealed much other than what she intended to reveal.
TVGO: Must've been harder to play than Judy Garland, whose every emotion is laid bare.
Davis: Yes. By nature, I'm probably more similar to Garland. Nancy Reagan was a very very different sort of woman. That's a great challenge for an actress... Physically, James Brolin looks incredibly like Reagan. He got his mannerisms down. It was exciting to watch that. And it made it very easy to act with him, too. It was very easy to imagine it was Reagan and to become extremely defensive of him. (Laughs)
TVGO: Is this a Nancy and Ronnie love story?
Davis: I should speak from Nancy's point of view. She had devoted her life to her husband. From the time they married, he had been her first priority. I don't think Nancy would disagree with that. Even now, she's caring for him when he's so ill. She has used the term "the long goodbye." It's a very, very difficult thing for her to be going through. So the devotion, I think, cannot be disputed.
TVGO: What could be more controversial is the portrayal of how that wifely devotion affected their children.
Davis: Yes, although again, Nancy has written she was probably not the greatest mother.
TVGO: In the movie, how much is Nancy shown influencing her husband's opinions and decisions? It is easy to portray Nancy as a Lady Macbeth figure.
Davis: The degree to which she influenced key policy decisions is up for debate. I think what isn't debated is that she had influence over certain members of [President Reagan's] staff. I came to think that Nancy was extremely ruthless when it came to protecting him. She felt she had to take on the job of screening people she felt were not working in Reagan's interest. If she felt somebody was an enemy, she would work to have that person removed.
TVGO: Having studied and portrayed her, is there empathy for this former first lady?
Davis: Yeah. At the end of the film, I did feel an empathy. Early on in [the Reagan] administration, she came under such shocking attack from the press. She was vulnerable in a way that he wasn't.
TVGO: Because he was beloved by so many?
Davis: Yes. And he had been shot. And he was the president. It's easier to go for the woman... a very glamorous wife who wants to spend big money renovating and refurbishing the White House, and wearing a beautiful dress for every occasion. So that all contributed to that whole "Queen Nancy" attack. I think she left herself wide open.
TVGO: You've said you didn't want a strident portrait, but the filmmakers and actors are liberals. That can't help but have an effect on the film?
Davis: I'd prefer to see a film about Reagan made by a bunch of liberals than see a film made about George W. Bush by a gang of apologists.