“Agent Elvis,” the hand-drawn adult animated Netflix series from Sony Pictures Animation and co-executive produced by Fletcher Moules (“Entergalactic”), re-imagines Elvis Presley as a super cool spy in a wild, gory, drugged-out alternate reality. It crosses “Archer” with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” putting the King square in the crosshairs of everyone from the Manson Family and Howard Hughes to Richard Nixon and Timothy Leary — all while retaining recognizable signposts from Presley’s life, from concert specials to his hatred of Robert Goulet.
There’s also an array of hilarious cameos, including Stanley Kubrick shooting a staged moon landing — guess who ends up in the space suit? — and a young George Lucas getting inspiration for the lightsaber from Hughes’ radioactive urine stream weapon. “Agent Elvis” is so meta that Baz Luhrmann even voices the director of Presley’s final film “Change of Habit.”
In fact, the Quentin Tarantino-like vibe was a key part of the pitch when creators Priscilla Presley (Elvis’ ex-wife) and rock singer John Eddie first approached Sony in 2014. Little did they know that the director was simultaneously embarking on his “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” revenge fantasy to slaughter the Manson Family. As it turned out, Manson and his cult are the centerpiece of the premiere episode (“Full Tilt”), in which they target Elvis as he prepares for his ’68 “Comeback Special.” Eddie, who served as showrunner with Mike Arnold (“Archer”) specifically chose that pivotal moment as the launching pad for the series because that’s when they thought Elvis was at his coolest.
“So we were kind of like neck and neck [with Tarantino],” Eddie told IndieWire. “Who would come out first in that Charlie Manson of it all? You know, Elvis really was on Manson’s kill list, and so it felt like a natural jumping-off point.” The catalyst for the series, though, was the bizarre meeting between Elvis and President Nixon in 1970, where the rock star offered his services as a Federal Agent to combat illegal drug culture. That encounter found its way into Episode 5 (“Maximum Density”), where Elvis tries to intercept a secret file from the White House. Naturally, this Elvis regrets meeting Nixon after witnessing his nasty racism.
They were able to tap into other bizarre aspects of Elvis’ life, too, such as his obsession with martial arts and his pet chimpanzee, Scatter, here portrayed as a coked-up, Hunter S. Thompson-like sidekick (voiced by Tom Kenny). But the writers were careful about their use of historical revisionism. “At one point we were debating whether or not Manson should die,” said Eddie. “And we were like, no, because he has to stay alive to become the counterculture demon. So our history tries to stay true to real history, with our crazy alternate history working behind the scenes.”
Although Elvis initially resists being recruited into the covert spy organization TCB by snarky agent CeCe Ryder (Kaitlin Olson), he relents when offered a jet pack by the Nick Fury-like Commander (Don Cheadle). Also joining Elvis in his crime-fighting antics is good ol’ boy sidekick Bobby Ray (Johnny Knoxville), who’s handy with cars and planes. “The story had to focus on how it was all gonna play out as Elvis is slowly learning [how to be a spy],” Arnold said. “What happened to him, without him remembering, dates back to when he was in the military. At the same time, growing the mystery of [the big threat] and who’s behind it.”
Priscilla, who voices herself, was on board from the outset with the absurd comedy, having appeared in “The Naked Gun,” and sharing that Elvis was a fan of Monty Python and Mel Brooks movies. “The writers really pushed things to the edge, and I think it was really brave for her to let them maybe go farther than she particularly would’ve wanted to herself,” added Eddie.
Fortunately, Matthew McConaughey, who was always their first choice to voice Elvis, was not a hard get. “How do we make this cool?” Eddie said. “We wanted the look of the show to be cool, and we wanted all the energy to feel cool with that singular character. And Matthew was such a wonderful fit. We were so fortunate to have him because he has this effortless swagger. And he found the music in Elvis’ voice that he brought to every line. He worked very hard at that and really nailed it.”
The initial character designs were handled by famed graphic artist/animator Robert Valley (the “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” short), and the animation was done by acclaimed 2D studio Titmouse (“Big Mouth”). The show pops with saturated colors and the graphic, noir-like language of the period (’68-’73), and Valley’s signature geometric style was the driving force. “He even said that Elvis was the hardest character he’s ever designed,” Arnold said. “Because if you turn one angle or you get one thing a little bit off, it throws everything off. Elvis was such a beautiful man and was so hard to capture. We actually ended up having to do a 3D model of Robert’s designs to really get the Elvis character.”
Titmouse not only provided a comic book-influenced cool factor with the martial arts fight sequences (studying Elvis’ dance movies from his concerts) but also honed in on every environment and background prop. “Certainly the season finale was the hardest because we’re going to so many places,” Eddie said. “We’re in outer space, we’re in a volcano [with Elvis fighting Robert Goulet], and all around Hawaii, and flying around on jet packs. And when you’re animating an episode like that, you have to bring a lot of different things.”
As far as a potential Season 2, the showrunners are excited about the possibility of turning Elvis loose in the ’80s: “We’ve already started out mapping Season 2 and we want to see it go where people haven’t seen Elvis before, where he’s gotta figure out how to stay in the shadows and try to keep the reality of it there.”