Alexandra Pelosi wants you to know that her new HBO documentary "Pelosi in the House" is not a love letter to the outgoing speaker of the House — who happens to be her mother — as she made clear from the start of our "Salon Talks" conversation. In fact, as Alexandra told me, her mother was not happy with some of the clips in the film. Given that Alexandra had open access unavailable to most other filmmakers and journalists, she was able to film the longtime speaker in her pajamas talking to both Republican and Democratic leaders as she tried to make deals.
The film vividly shares the backstory of how Nancy Pelosi was "born into politics," given that her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., served eight years in Congress and then 12 as mayor of Baltimore. In fact, Nancy Pelosi became the first daughter of a member of Congress to be elected to the House in her own right, breaking a glass ceiling years before she became the first female House speaker. "My mother would say public service is a noble calling," Alexandra told me.
The documentary captures remarkable footage surrounding Jan. 6, 2021, including a very calm Speaker Pelosi on the phone, urging the governor of Virginia and other officials to send National Guard troops to restore order. There's also never-before-seen footage of Pelosi returning to her office after the attack where we see her reacting to the theft and vandalism, and stories from her staff about hiding on the floor beneath their desks, hoping the Trump-supporting insurrectionists wouldn't find them.
So it was jaw-dropping to hear Alexandra say that she has spoken on the phone with Jan. 6 attackers who are currently incarcerated. "They call me and then we have these conversations and they say, 'Oh, I got swept up in the moment,'" Alexandra said. "One of them sent me two books on cults and said, 'If you read these books, you'll understand.'"
Alexandra also talked about the pain of being by the bedside of her father, Paul Pelosi, after an intruder targeting her mother attacked him with a hammer — pain made much worse by the outrageous lies of right-wing conspiracy theorists. Given what her parents have been through, it was not surprising to hear the filmmaker's advice to others: Don't go into public service — the price your family will pay is too high. Watch my "Salon Talks" with Alexandra Pelosi here or read a transcript of our conversation below.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
In your documentary you begin by filming your mother and saying, "I've spent my entire adult life two paces behind her," essentially following her. I think you've done 14 documentaries now. How different is it when the subject is your mother, but you're still trying to remain an observer?
OK, couple things we need to establish. I was never making a movie about Nancy Pelosi. There's never a microphone. A lot of it was filmed without her consent. She never gave me permission to film her. A lot of it's filmed on an iPhone. This is what you call vérité, so it's in the moment. It's just that over the course of many years, I saw interesting things happening and I turned my phone on.
It is a look back at decades. We're talking about decades. So I have to give you that historical context to say, we never sat down and said, "Hey, Mommy?" Yes, Xani?" "Let's make a movie together." She calls me Xani because my name's Alexandra. So if you want to call me Xani, that's OK too.
"Now that my mother has stepped down and my family is stepping out of all this, I'm worried."
But anyway, Mommy and Xani did not sit down on the couch and hug it out and decide that we were going to make a propaganda film about Nancy Pelosi. She saw it for the first time at the National Archives last Monday night. I programmed the screening to start at 6:30, when they had votes in the Congress, so she intentionally wouldn't be able to be there on time. Because I knew I did not want Nancy Pelosi's review. If you read the worst review you could ever read about any of my films, I promise you it will never be as bad as the review Nancy Pelosi would give me about a film made about her, OK? So just put that context in, about what we're doing here.
And what was her review?
I think she didn't understand some of my artistic choices. Like, "Why did you have to have me in my pajamas doing my laundry? Why did you have to record private conversations between me and the vice president, and put that on television? That's private." I think the boundaries between public and private were violated. She never signed a release. She never gave me permission. The fact this film even exists is a miracle. But if you think about it, the fact that HBO even agreed to put her on television without having a release from the main character is remarkable.
Anyway, I think that haters are going to hate and they're going to automatically say, "Nancy Pelosi's daughter made a film, therefore it must be propaganda for Nancy Pelosi." And I think they don't understand. I could never put it out until she stepped down. I had to wait until I didn't blow up her entire career. I wasn't interested in blowing up her career. I just wanted to give a little context of what it was like.
When I say the thing about "growing up two feet behind," is that I grew up two feet behind Nancy Pelosi, which means I got to see how everyone behaved in front of her face. And then I got to hear everything they said behind her back when she walked away. I live in New York City, I don't live in Washington. I'm not a creature of the Beltway. I live in my own happy little bubble, totally disconnected from the political-industrial complex. So this film is just sort of, you dip in, you dip out, you dip in, you dip out, over the course of decades.
Should we expect litigation from Nancy Pelosi against you and HBO? Is that in the future?
She would not. She likes me enough that she wouldn't sue me. But I'm just trying to make the point that if you think about corporate America, television, industrial, political — think of all the people that work for Nancy Pelosi, and they all have voodoo dolls with my face on it that they're poking every night right now. Nobody said, "Hey, I got an idea. Why don't you just film some crappy video with barely any audio when she's turned around and you can't even see what she's saying, and put that on HBO and make a film?" I mean, you have to think about all the players involved in getting something like this made. Plus, I spent four and a half years editing this film.
Whether you like my films or not — and you can hate my films, I don't care. I've made some good ones, I've made some bad ones, I get that. But you have to understand that I actually have to do this for a living. This is my 14th HBO film, and I do this for a living. So I have some credibility as an actual working documentary filmmaker. I think that people don't understand that I have another film right now that I'm making for HBO. Because if you go and make propaganda, you're never going to get hired again, because you're going to destroy your credibility. I just want to make that clear.
At no time, let the record reflect, did I accuse Alexandra Pelosi of making a propaganda film about her mom.
OK, but if you go on TV, if you go on the internet — and I don't recommend you ever go on the internet because all it is, is toxic waste and verbal diarrhea — but if you do, besides all the insane Pizzagate-style things you'll see, you will see what they did the day the film came out. The right-wing haters just decided they hate Nancy Pelosi so much that without seeing the film, they went right to Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB and all that, and just wrote these terrible reviews so that I would have like a 20 percent rating, which is fine. I consider it a compliment that I even got that much attention to get so many bad reviews. I expected that.
But it just proves that we are so in our own bubbles. You're going to go on MSNBC and they're going to say this is such a historic, beautiful piece of art. And you're going to go on the internet and they're going to say, "This is propaganda." You cannot make a film about a political person in 2022 without it being adored by one side, if you agree with the politics of that person. Even if it's a crappy movie, by the way. I don't know if this movie's any good. I don't know, and I don't really care.
What I am amused by is how, before anyone actually saw it with their own two eyes, before it even played on HBO, it had been completely destroyed on the internet by people who hate Nancy Pelosi. And I'm thinking that, ironically, Nancy Pelosi would probably agree with what they call it, "Nancy Pelosi propaganda." She'd probably say, "I didn't like this film either, because I didn't like the fact she filmed me walking around the house in my pajamas all the time. Or having private conversations that were not supposed to be recorded." Do you see what I'm saying? They have more in common with her than they even know.
You say in the film that when you asked your mom about what it's like to be the target of the right for years, she literally laughed it off. Are you saying that at no time was your mother upset about the attacks on her? Or by the millions of dollars they spent on ads attacking her?
For decades, I mean since she first ran for leadership, in every district across America, they started running ads demonizing her, making her the target. Fine, it goes with the territory. She signed up for this. That's what you sign up for. Anyone that's running for public life, on either side of the aisle, if you are running, you are making yourself a target. Steve Scalise knows that better than anyone, right?
So we take that and we say, "OKI, that's what she signed up for, and that's what — she eats nails for breakfast." She'll say, "This is not for the faint of heart." She has made peace with that. Fast forward at least 20 years of them doing this, and the only time I saw her really upset and fazed by any of it was when we were sitting in the ER after they came for her but they got my dad instead.
All this hate that you put out into the universe, all this bad karma you're putting out there, it didn't ever really bother her. She just ignored it because she's a strong-willed woman. That's fine. But in the end, all that hate trickled down to the unwell people in society. And those are the ones who break into your house and attack your husband in the middle of the night, even though he has nothing to do with any of this.
I think that week in the ICU was tough for her. I do think that she has so much more faith in humanity than I ever had, and that I ever will. She never thought anyone would actually carry through with it. Now, of course, she has a huge security detail, so she can sleep at night just fine. The rest of us are the ones that are a little bit, shall we say, nervous.
When you talk about the attack on your dad, Paul, is there a line between Donald Trump's lies about the election and the radicalization of so many people? Why did this attack happen now? Why not years ago? She's been a target of the GOP for decades. But what happened in this post-Jan. 6 world?
Social media spreads this toxicity. It makes people angry. They spread complete misinformation. And I want to call them conspiracy theories, but that's sort of writing them off as cute little things, like Pizzagate. My movie came out and I'm not on Twitter, I'm not on any social media whatsoever, I'm going to ignore it. No one in my family's on it. My sister Christine is on it. My husband, my kids, we boycott all social media. So my son comes in and he goes, "Hey, mom, my friends are showing me these things. It says Nancy Pelosi's a pedophile."
"I believe that public service is a sacrifice. My mother would say public service is a noble calling."
The connection between, "I don't like this movie," which you probably haven't even seen, to "Nancy Pelosi's a pedophile." That's one tweet. You got there in one tweet." It used to be that you had to make an argument, and you'd have to say, "Here's how I got from here to here." Now it's just as simple as people just inventing insane, toxic — I don't even want to call it misinformation, there's no words for what these things are. They're just very dangerous and very toxic. They spread to people who don't know any better.
How is your father doing?
He has good days and bad days. I think the hardest thing for him right now is trying to make peace with the fact that OK, you're an 82-year-old man, you get attacked in your home in the middle of the night. Sad, unfortunate, tragic. But what the people said after, on the internet, Elon Musk and all these crazy conspiracy theories of things... The defendant was in court last week. This is all going to play out in court. They had a body cam, they had a 911 call. They had a confession from the man who broke into the house with a hammer and attacked my father. He used the name "Donald Trump" in his confession.
I think my father is a decent person. He thought humans were decent. I think he's having a hard time at 82 years old making peace with, "Really, this is what political dialogue has become?" We're talking about insane fictions because there are actual facts. There are actual transcripts of 911 calls and body cams. This is all stuff we can document. But I understand that this insane, crazy right-wing hate machine has just decided to make jokes about everything.
Every person in America, no matter who you vote for, no matter who you are, you should lose sleep at night by the fact that this is what democracy has become. I mean, it's like a Third World country. Jan. 6 was Third World country material. Then we have people breaking into people's houses, attacking them because they don't like the wife's politics and then saying, "I have a hit list of other people I'm going for." Everybody should be scared of this.
Even if you hate Nancy Pelosi — and I get that Nancy Pelosi hate, I get it, because if I watched Fox News, I would hate Nancy Pelosi too. I totally get it. It's being fed to you. If you had a steady diet of Nancy Pelosi hate you would want to break into her house and attack her husband with a hammer. I get that.
We never thought, "Hey, those people are going to break windows, storm into the Capitol, and poo in the speaker's office."
Now that my mother has stepped down and my family is stepping out of all this, I'm worried. I have teenage sons, I'm worried about the future of democracy and how that looks like. This is what it's come to. My sons walk into the kitchen today and they're like, "Oh look, this guy who wanted to hang Nancy Pelosi from a lamppost got convicted." Now we're starting the Proud Boys trials and every day it's a new, "We were coming to hang Nancy Pelosi." We have to read that on our phones every day. That's from the mainstream media. I worry about the future. Any decent human being that wants to run for public office, I'm worried for them and their families. I pity anyone who would subject themselves or their families to this.
I appreciate that you share the human side of this. Your family, your mom, these are human beings. There's a real-world consequence to this. We're at almost the anniversary of Jan. 6, which plays a big role in your documentary. When you were there with your mom on Jan. 6, was there a time where you or she were actually fearful for your own safety?
When we looked out the window, we saw normal people. We didn't see the makeshift gallows where they planning to hang Mike Pence. We saw normal people. When we were driving from my mother's home to the Capitol that day, we looked out the window. We live in the world, we saw people. They had Trump flags. We never thought, "Hey, those people are going to break windows, storm into the Capitol, and poo in the speaker's office." Like no, we never thought that.
It's hard for people that didn't walk into the Capitol after this was all over, and see how they broke everything. They shattered mirrors, they broke every glass in the kitchen, they broke everything. So I think it's hard for people to understand, especially with the Republican rebranding: "Oh, they were just tourists. They deserved to be in the Capitol." It's hard to understand.
When we looked out the window, my 16-year-old son was the one who kept saying, "What if they stormed the Capitol?" He called it, he saw it. But I was looking and I thought, "Well, there's just some people with Trump flags. That's their First Amendment right." I never thought they were going to come and make all these staff members who are surrounding us right now hide under a desk for hours in fear.
That's what I think is interesting about the whole Jan. 6 postmortem, the idea that it was regular normal people and a switch went off and they just triggered. Who was instigating that? That's what I think is interesting coming out of these trials and out of the committee. Where do they get these ideas? I think a lot of these people got swept up in the cult, in the moment.
I get calls from jail. I'm a documentary filmmaker, so I get calls. I don't know if some of this has been reported, that I get calls from these people. I talk to them and I ask them about this stuff. The Jan, 6 insurrectionists who are in jail call me, and they say, "Oh, I got swept up in the moment." One of them sent me two books on cults and said, "If you read these books, you'll understand. I just got swept up in the moment." So there's this whole idea about what people do in crowds, and how they get carried away and then they go home and they're really embarrassed and ashamed. They go in front of a judge and they say, "I don't know how this happened to me. I'm a nice person. It was just this one weird thing that happened that afternoon." People got swept up, but somebody was stirring the pot.
So you're telling me that the Jan. 6th defendants, some of them in prison now, get your number. How did they get your number?
Oh, I'm reachable.
They literally called you.
You found me, didn't you?
I went through a publicist at HBO. Are they going through your publicist at HBO, who says "Oh, you want to speak to Alexandra Pelosi? We can set up some time on Zoom"? So you take their call, and you talk to them because you're a documentarian?
To me, all of life is like a documentary. All my films are sort of half my real life, half something I'm filming on purpose. It's all very organic and vérité. I made a film called "Meet the Donors," which was having conversations with the billionaires that fund our elections. I went as my mother's guest to a lot of these parties, and then I filmed it and put it on HBO. Now I'm persona non grata in many homes because I was filming without permission, without location releases and putting it on television.
I'm never allowed back at the Soros' household. I promise you that. They don't appreciate filming in their house and then going on TV without permission. But I think of it all as material. My whole life is material. Nora Ephron said, "Everything's a copy." So I think of it all as that everything I film could end up in a documentary film. So don't invite me to your house if you don't want me to film you, and you don't want to see it on HBO.
These conversations with Jan. 6th defendants are civil and fine? Are you just trying to figure out why they did these things? Are they trying to persuade you it was right? I'm really curious about this.
It is a very interesting evolution because two years have passed now since Jan. 6. And I think a lot of the main defendants, some are just leaning in. When they were showing the Jan. 6 committee hearings in prison, they were cheering. The crowds would cheer. I got to hear it in the background while they were on. I got calls from inmates saying, "See, listen to how they're proud of what they did. They're applauding and it's a very big deal to them." Till the end.
But the ones that were calling me were the ones that weren't so proud and didn't want to spend the rest of their lives in jail. The ones that are saying, "This isn't who I am. I don't know how I ended up here." It's very complicated.
When you mention the First Amendment and people protesting, in the film you do document a bit of protest. I think it was against the Iraq war, outside your mom's house. Do peaceful protests sway elected officials? Do members of Congress go, "I saw these protests and you know what? I think this is serious, and maybe we should reconsider our position." Does it have an impact on their stands on policy?
No. No public official's going to say, "There's some people sleeping outside my house right now. I think they have a really good point. I think I'm going to change my position because there's some people sleeping outside of my house, protesting my position on something." I would encourage all activists that want to change the world not to go to people's homes. Because that just makes them turn. It makes them not like you even more. Now at the office, sure, go to the Capitol. Don't break the windows, and swarm into the Capitol and poop in the Speaker's office, but go outside and state your piece. That's in the Constitution. That's your First Amendment right. I'd encourage that. I would say to anyone on any side of the aisle, don't ever go to the person's home because I think you lose them when you show up on their doorstep. The families did not sign up for this.
I've had a billion conversations about this over the course of all these years. Thirty-five years that my mother's been in Congress, and no one has ever said to me, "Yeah, these people are protesting outside my house. I really like it. And I think I'm really going to start to listen to them."
Now the one you're referring to was the CodePink protest during the Iraq war. Even though Nancy Pelosi voted against the Iraq war, the CodePink group of anti-war protesters decided to sleep in front of her house, because they didn't like the war. Now my objection — speaking only for me, because I do not speak for the Pelosi family. I do not speak for Nancy Pelosi. Nobody in my family would want me speaking for them. Nobody in my family even agrees with me, probably. I'm just saying, as the youngest of five, as the documentary filmmaker, I'm telling you: If you want to protest the Iraq war in front of somebody's house, God bless you, sister. You go do that. But you know where you do it? You go do it in Washington, D.C., because that's where Nancy Pelosi is.
The Jan. 6 insurrectionists that are in jail, they call me, and then we have these conversations and they say, "Oh, I got swept up in the moment."
She's not at home in San Francisco. You're protesting her husband. All those anti-war protesters were protesting either an empty house, or a house with her husband in it. And they're saying, "I'm at a die-in over at Pelosi's house." Well good for you, sister. But if you really cared, you'd be in Washington where Nancy Pelosi is. And they knew that. They're there just for the show. I don't have any respect for anyone that protests an empty home, or the home of somebody's spouse, because that doesn't take any courage.
You want to have courage? Go to the Capitol in the dead of winter and stand out there. That I would have some respect for. But that's why you know that a lot of this is just theater. I remember the first time I went to pick up my mother at her office when there was a huge protest, back in the days of the car phone. I called her up, and this was when George H.W. Bush was president, and they were protesting the first Gulf War. So I call her from the car phone and I say, "You might want to come out another entrance because there are all these protesters out front." And she's like, "Nah."
She comes marching right out the front door of the Capitol, and there's all these people on stilts and waving their bras in the air. She walks straight through them, they don't even notice her. She gets in the car and she says, "They're not here for me. They're here for this." I turn and I look, and I'm like, "Oh, it's like a party. There's some cute girls. You come and burn your bra and it's a good time." But they didn't say a word to her when she walked through the crowd. So I wonder what would have happened if Nancy Pelosi had come home during that Iraq war protest, during George W.'S presidency. I wonder if they would even have said anything. I never saw the confrontation, because it didn't happen, they were protesting an empty house. If we're going to learn anything in this conversation today, I'm encouraging all people that want to save the world to go to where your subjects are, not to their empty homes.
I'm not asking to speak for your mother, but you just did a documentary about her and you are her daughter. What do you think would make her proud as a defining moment of her legacy?
Ha ha. You're talking to the off-message daughter. You've got to call my sister Christine for that answer, because she would be able to tell you about the Affordable Care Act. How many people are covered? I don't know the number off the top of my head. She'd be able to tell you about. how she just made gay marriage legal. That's very important. My sister would have a laundry list for you. I'm not trying to undermine the entire career of Nancy Pelosi by saying I don't know what those things are, I'm saying, as the youngest of five and as the one who had to sit in the ER with my father, I don't really believe in public service. I just don't believe that any of it amounts to anything. I'm much darker and much more cynical. Maybe that's just because of what my family's going through right now.
"I'm not sure your family wants to pay the price of running for office."
I'm not the person to ask about accomplishments. Because I believe that public service is a sacrifice. My mother would say public service is a noble calling. Her father was in Congress. She was in Congress. She believes public service is noble. It's like going into the priesthood or something. Her mother wanted her to become a nun, and she ran for Congress instead. Got it. Well, she had five kids first, so I don't think she could have qualified to be a nun. But you get my point.
And so for me, if anyone came to me for a heart-to-heart, like a dear friend, and said, "I've been thinking about running for public office," I would do everything in my soul to dissuade them. I would tell them that would not be a good idea for themselves and for their families. I just don't believe in it.
Until laws get written to regulate social media, and start to improve the dialogue where people actually have decent conversations, until that time, I would say everyone should just find another way to serve their communities by helping at nonprofits and NGOs and whatever else you can do to save the world. Because I'm not sure your family wants to pay the price of running for office.
In the film, you make a great point when George W. Bush praises your mom when she's speaker during the State of the Union and then flash forward to how Donald Trump manifests this shift in politics. And it's not just Trump, the base has gone mean, cruel, violent at times. Things have changed. I think that contrast between George W. Bush and Donald Trump, and how they reacted to your mother, sums it up really well.
But did you see John Boehner last week at my mother's portrait unveiling? He was crying like a little girl, and he was saying, "My daughters wanted me to say how much they admire you." I mean, there is life in the Republican Party out there, if they take their party back. There is a future for a normal, sane dialogue, if they take their party back. And you do need two strong sides in a democracy. If you ask me, you need more than two. But that's not the conversation we're having. There's some crazy out there that needs to be — a lot of education needs to go into the conversation, and they're not getting a lot of education. It's really an indictment fo our education system in America.
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