Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi spoke to Biography about her HBO film that brings together all of the living U.S. presidents and vice presidents, senators, congresspeople, governors, celebrities and students in an unabridged reading of The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Our country was born on July 4, 1776 when the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence declaring the 13 American colonies a new nation: The United States of America.
Now, on its 241st birthday, HBO and documentarian Alexandra Pelosi — yes, she’s the daughter of Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives —are celebrating the occasion with The Words That Built America, a film that features all six living presidents, six vice presidents, as well as numerous senators, congresspeople, governors, and celebrities in an unabridged reading of the authentic words from the documents that created our democracy: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
The project received a truly bipartisan show of support and, according to Pelosi, those carefully crafted documents might be the one thing left in America that binds us together.
“There’s nothing American politicians today would ever agree on, except the Constitution,” Pelosi tells Biography. “It’s the one thing they line up for. Sometimes I feel like we’re heading towards a civil war. If you watch enough cable news, you get the impression that America is dividing itself in half, but the one thing that we have left is the Constitution.”
Many Americans have never read these three documents in their entirety. Now, with the high-power individuals that Pelosi has wrangled into participating, such as presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, she is hoping to change that because she believes that it is essential for people to know what the rules are, and everyone agrees that the Constitution is the playbook for America.
“I feel like it’s really important for people to pay attention to the actual map that the forefathers set out for us as to how the game is played,” Pelosi says. “Democracy’s fragile. You’ve got to give this country credit because we’ve kept it together all these years.”
Funnily, wrangling the presidents to read the Constitution wasn’t hard, especially since Pelosi allowed them to read the portion they wanted, but getting them to talk about the interpretation of what they read was a whole other thing, so the decision was made to have the film just be a word-by-word reading with the interpretation left open to the viewer.
“I couldn’t get anyone to read impeachment,” Pelosi says. “No president or vice president would read the word impeachment, and then nobody wanted to read Emoluments. So there were tricky parts, but everybody got to read what they wanted to read. For example, Donald Trump chose to read the section about the opening of the executive branch. Then we had to patch everything together in the edit room, but we didn’t assign what they read.”
Of the six presidents, six vice presidents and almost 50 senators, the only one who knew the Constitution by heart was Senator Ted Cruz (R, Texas) because as a member of his high school Constitution club, he traveled the state of Texas and recited the Constitution on Saturday nights.
The reading of the Declaration of Independence was assigned to celebrities, and those agreeing to participate include Kevin Bacon, Jack Black, Tucker Carlson, Common, Anderson Cooper, Bryan Cranston, Robert De Niro, Laura Dern, Robert Duvall, America Ferrera, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hannity, Neil Patrick Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Caitlyn Jenner, Dwayne Johnson, Toby Keith, Megyn Kelly, Kid Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Yo-Yo Ma, Peggy Noonan, Rosie O’Donnell, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Vince Vaughn, Kerry Washington, and Fareed Zakaria.
Again, Pelosi was surprised by who knew what. Vaughn turned out to be a bit of a scholar in this area, so much so, that Pelosi feels he could teach a college course.
“From all those funny movies, I don’t think of him as this Constitutional scholar,” says Pelosi, who felt like he gave her a master class. “He was schooling me in the intricate details of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, something that not even [Senator] Chuck Schumer [D, NY] could do, you know?”
Pelosi felt that overall the celebrities that turned up were a pretty informed group, but another one who especially impressed her was Samuel L. Jackson.
“He read the Declaration of Independence twice from beginning to end, just like poetry,” she says. “I don’t think he was even reading from the teleprompter. He really knew it.”
Cranston also is a learned actor when it comes to politics, according to Pelosi. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he starred in All the Way, both the HBO movie and Broadway play about President Lyndon Johnson.
“I went to Bryan Cranston’s house to have him read from the Declaration of Independence, and he had an insanely, intensely good knowledge of American history and American government,” she says. “You could say, he did the Johnson movie, so he had to study it. I don’t know if that’s why he knew so much, but he knew a lot.”
And, last but not least, the Bill of Rights is read by middle-school students from the United Nations International School.
And speaking of schools, HBO recognizes the educational value of the project, as well as the fact that the subject matter is essential to all Americans, so the premium channel is making The Words that Built America available to non-HBO subscribers, who will be able to view it in its entirety on HBO.com, the HBO YouTube channel, and through participating television and streaming partners’ platforms and free on-demand channels.
In addition, the film will be donated to the National Constitution Center for use in its ongoing educational programming.
“It’s more like a public service announcement,” Pelosi says. “It’s not really a documentary. There’s no editorializing. There’s no documentary to it, you know? We kept saying, when we were making it, it’s not a documentary. It’s a document. We’re just filming people as a document. That’s it.”
The one ray of hope that Pelosi found while filming the politicians is that the divide isn’t as great as the media portrays.
“It’s really hard to explain to people how much our elected officials have in common,” she says. “It kind of contradicts what I said earlier about how they fight about everything. They fight about everything on cable news, but when I was filming this, I saw a real camaraderie and friendship, and I don’t think people see that. The one thing that was really refreshing for me personally in doing this project is seeing how they’re all really well-intentioned people that don’t agree with each other on things.”
The Words that Built America premieres July 4 at 7pm ET/PT on HBO and is narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough (John Adams).