After his turn as menacing Manson cultist Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Austin Butler was rising fast with Hollywood casting directors. The Broadway community took note of his performance opposite Denzel Washington in the 2018 “The Iceman Cometh.”
But no one was prepared for his star power that broke out of Baz Luhrmann’s musical biopic “Elvis” (Warner Bros.). Before the movie opened last June, Luhrmann and others were nervous about the younger-audience interest in the King of Rock ‘n Roll, who died in 1977. As it turned out, young moviegoers helped boost the movie to over $286 million worldwide — thanks to Butler.
The California-born actor’s “Elvis” origin myth is well-established: the obsessive prep before Butler landed the role over Harry Styles and Miles Teller, sending a video of himself crying over the loss of his mother (to cancer, in 2014) as he sang “Unchained Melody,” learning how to croon as Young Elvis, collapsing when the movie was over.
Now he’s on many Oscar pundits’ shortlists for the Best Actor Oscar, and just collected his first Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, Drama. We sat down over Zoom to dig a little deeper. And, more than once, Butler still says “I” when talking about Elvis Presley.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Anne Thompson: In Cannes, what was going through your head after that 12-minute ovation? Maybe the movie was going to be a hit, maybe it was going to work out after all?
Austin Butler: That was my first time seeing the film, so it was a magical night for me. My dad was there in his tuxedo; he had never been outside the country before. Cannes was one of those places that I’d seen in images, it has that magical cinematic history. I had heard horror stories of people booing films at Cannes. That was always this terror. Having not seen the film, I was very nervous. But it was part way through act one where I took this big sigh of relief. I grabbed Baz on the arm and I had tears in my eyes. It was cool to get to see what we worked so hard for so long, suddenly, on the screen.
You went through years of immersion into the world of Elvis Presley. Going back to your days as a successful young actor in television, where did this work ethic come from?
When I found acting, I realized it wasn’t something that some people are just born with, this ability to just tap into truth and bare their soul. I was a shy person, so a lot of acting in the beginning was therapeutic. For me it was a way that I could let things out that I was too shy to do as myself, and so it was liberating.
Ira Glass talks about the thing that gets you into whatever art that you love — that is your taste. [Between] your skill and your taste there’s usually a gap whenever you start, and most people quit before they close that gap. I always kept that mentality: “How do you get better?” One of my least-favorite feelings in the world is when you are acting and it doesn’t feel truthful. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. There’s been times where I go home and I’m in the car that night and and you know that you didn’t get it. You didn’t feel like you hit truth and it’s such a terrible feeling. I’m always searching for, “How do you get more honesty?” With Elvis, I felt this incredible privilege and a heavy responsibility at the same time. Some of the work ethic is wrapped up in terror.
You made a decision to go into the theater. Why?
Well, theater isn’t ingrained in the lifestyle when you’re in LA. I did a TV show when I was 20 in New York [“The Carrie Diaries”] and I fell in love with theater. I’d go to 14 plays in two weeks; I was just enamored by it. Actors that I really admired at a young age — thinking of Marlon Brando starting in theater, or Al Pacino — I always knew that there was something in the fact that you’re only as good as you are that night. You get to go back and try it again the next night and dig deeper. [I thought], “I’m terrified of theater. I’m scared to go out there in front of people and not have a second take. But I know that I’ll learn something in that process.”
“The Iceman Cometh” was pivotal to getting to do “Elvis.” Denzel Washington cold-called Luhrmann to praise your work ethic. Why did he do that?
He didn’t tell me he was going to do that. I called his agent afterward and thanked him when I heard that he called, and we still haven’t spoken. I don’t even know exactly what he said to Baz. I know that during the process of us making that play together, he saw how hard I was working and started to take me under his wing.
We had this little game where we tried to show up before each other to the theater. We’d show up like an hour early, then two hours early. One day I was there four hours early because I had a meeting and he thought he got there before me. I came down to the stage and I was already dressed. He goes, “Oh man, I thought I’d beat you” and then he said, “Hey, come over here, I got an idea for you.” I just sat on the stage, he was on a chair and I was kneeling down next to him, just the two of us in this empty theater. He started talking about Eugene O’Neill and how you can ride the rhythm of the text in the way that you do with Shakespeare and it was just like, suddenly getting acting advice from Denzel Washington. Those are times I’ll cherish forever.
Explain why you wanted this part so badly.
On a personal level, I knew it was going to demand of me things that I would have to pull out of myself. I would inherently become different by the time I finished. Even performing that type of liberation that Elvis had when he was on stage, I would have to tap into something in myself that that I’ve always been too shy to review. I knew that it was going to change me and that excited me. I’m always fascinated by the internal life of people, especially somebody who is so exposed to the public. Once I started to go down that rabbit hole of learning about Elvis’s personal life, it was the details of learning about how sensitive and spiritual he was, that he was constantly searching for something deeper. He was a guy that had seemingly everything, but yet felt alone and in an empty room by himself. It was that dynamic, the complex nature of humanity that was summed up in him, that I found endlessly fascinating.
During the pandemic, there was a six-month hiatus. You opted to stay in Australia and you actually moved in with Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin?
When Tom [Hanks] and Rita [Wilson] got COVID, it was this scary mystery that we didn’t know. Once we knew that he was healthy and good, then we could start thinking about the film again. They called force majeure on the film and we didn’t know if it was going to be made: They technically didn’t have to pay anybody. They said, “We’re gonna fly you back to LA for the foreseeable future, we don’t know how long this is gonna last. And it could be a year, it could be three months, we don’t know.”
I [booked] that plane flight and started packing my bags, and then I said, ‘”If I go back, the rest of life is going to flood in. I’ve built up so much momentum. Perhaps this is a time that I can just cut out the rest of the world and just dig deeper.” It turned out to be this amazing time where it became less about trying to do anything perfectly. I had a lot of time in the pre-production process of feeling like I was trying to be a good student for everybody. I had my karate instructor and my singing coaches, dialect coaches, my incredible movement coach Polly. I do have that mentality of wanting to be an ‘A’ student. It was a time where I could release that and ask myself every day, “What do I feel like I need to work on? Where do I feel like I can surrender?”
I would set up a camera one day and I would just do an interview as Elvis. It was just my time to play and walk down the beach, recite, listening to Elvis, and speaking out loud. I have all these tapes. I had this whole compilation of his laughter. And I would just play it. It sounds so crazy. I walked down the beach in Australia when it was completely empty, just laughing as Elvis for hours. It was any little thing like that, that allowed me to just play.
How did they make the decision that you would sing the young Elvis?
Baz knew early on that he couldn’t use [Elvis’ original] audio recording in the film because it was recorded on acetate and it was mono. Baz thought maybe they’ll find somebody who sounds like Elvis that we can have sing that part. I didn’t really sing in front of anybody before. I’d sing in front of my mother or close friends, but nobody else really. That was a process for me as well, just getting in the recording studio. My first recording studio I ever was in was singing “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel” at RCA where Elvis recorded over 270 songs. It’s Chet Atkins’ old studio. It was a trial by fire in the beginning and seeing, “Can my voice do it?” Early on, that’s when we made that decision.
His mother was also a pivotal figure; her early loss was something you could relate to.
His relationship with his mother was so central. I’ve talked about my relationship with my mom and that correlation and that mutual loss, what that type of grief does to you, how it changes you, what that support of your mother feels like, that unconditional connection that you have. That idea of Elvis being psychologically enmeshed at a lethal level.
Why did he give up so much agency to Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks)?
There were times when the strings, for business reasons, were being pulled — like, the songwriters that Colonel would approve him working with. There were other times where Parker tried to control it more and I was just telling him to get out of the room. We just want to be there with the musicians and make music and especially around the time when you have Elvis going to Stax [Records]. In the late ’60s, early ’70s, the stuff that Elvis was creating is some of the greatest music ever made.
During the ’60s, one of the heartbreaking things is when Elvis came back from the army, and he does “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country,” which I thought were great films, he doesn’t really sing in those films — way fewer songs that he sings in other films. They bombed at the box office. That became this hook the Colonel had inside of Elvis: “People don’t want to see you in movies where you don’t sing.” Then he started thinking, “I’m not going to have a career as an actor if I don’t do that. I’ve got to appease the people.” That’s the sort of manipulation that is so much more complex than just pure evil, because I don’t think that Colonel was trying to sabotage Elvis. I think, for the most part, he felt like he was doing what was best for him — and for them.
Well, the Las Vegas part was a question mark.
Vegas is where it starts getting really tricky, when you start out with that golden lion caught in the gilded cage. That part is where you start to go: “Was there intentional malice for the sake of the Colonel?” Yeah, that gets really tricky.
Did Elvis lose touch with his real self, finally? And did he find his real voice again?
The self is always a hard thing to identify. Elvis talked about how it’s hard to live up to an image. He says that in one interview in 1972. The image of Elvis Presley is one thing, and the human being is another. I’ve talked to [his daughter] Lisa Marie about her memories of being upstairs with him, when he was just Dad in his pajamas, and he would sit down and watch TV with her. Then he put on his robes and come downstairs as Elvis Presley. I think it was a confusing life. And the noise was heavy. There were many times where he was trying to search for who he really was. Some of that music that he made at the end of his life, [like] watching him sing “Unchained Melody,” when he can hardly speak and then he’s able to sing that, there’s moments. That’s the confusing thing about individuality. Just even me, thinking of “Who is Austin?” There are times where I feel like I may lose touch with myself and then suddenly, you have a moment where you feel that true presence.
You lost yourself there for a while at the end. You had to go to the hospital after shooting was over.
With “Elvis,” I definitely had an existential crisis when I finished. I didn’t do anything that was grounded in Austin for that time. I didn’t talk to my family or my friends or anybody. I would talk to them every couple months or something, but I really did lose touch with me. But I also learned things about myself — that’s a beautiful gift. It’s a confusing part about being an actor.
It took you a while to ditch the accent. Is Elvis still living inside of you?
There wasn’t a conversation for three years, or a film or a book or anything that I ingested or talked or thought about, that wasn’t related to Elvis. He got woven into the fiber of my being in a way, and it feels like a great gift to me that I have little bits of him in my DNA now.
There’s no question, even though Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was good for you, that “Elvis” has shifted you to another place where you’re getting inundated with the best offers.
Yeah, I’m very fortunate.
So you pick this ’60s Jeff Nichols motorcycle movie, “The Bikeriders,” starring Tom Hardy and Jodie Comer?
I leave on a red eye tonight and I’m finishing filming over the next two weeks. It’s been just the greatest time. I’ve been a huge fan of Tom’s since I saw “Bronson.” He’s been at the top of my list of people I want to work with. It takes us through the ’60s as those motorcycle clubs go from being clubs where they would race motorcycles, and they started changing after Vietnam, where they started to become more like organized crime and Hells Angels, and it becomes a little bit more violent. Tom’s character is like a older brother, like a father figure, to me. Jodie plays my wife.
In “Dune: Part Two” you play Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen?
He’s the nephew of the Baron played by Stellan Skarsgard. And he’s the brother of the beast who is Dave Bautista’s character.
So he’s a bad guy.
Yeah, one could say this.