Denzel Washington Convinced Baz Luhrmann to Cast Austin Butler in ‘Elvis’

The director had high praise for Butler's performance: "What he's managed to do is not do an impersonation, but to live Elvis."
Denzel Washington arrives at the 94th Annual Oscars Nominees Luncheon held at the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles, CA on Monday, ​March 7, 2022. (Photo By Sthanlee B. Mirador/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Denzel Washington
Sipa USA via AP

When Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” was first announced, the role of Elvis Presley quickly became one of the most coveted parts in Hollywood. Seemingly every young actor wanted a chance to play The King, with the likes of Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, and Harry Styles all vying for the role at various points.

With so much competition, how did relative newcomer Austin Butler land the gig? As it turns out, he got some help from one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

In a new interview with EW, Luhrmann opened up about the process of casting Butler as “Elvis,” including a nudge he received from Denzel Washington, who appeared with Butler in a 2018 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”

“[Austin Butler] found me,” Luhrmann said. “I received this videotape of this young man in a flood of tears playing ‘Unchained Melody,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, what is that? How is that happening?'”

While Luhrmann was already intrigued by Butler, it took a call from a two-time Oscar winner to seal the deal.

“And then I got a call from Denzel Washington, who gave me a cold call,” he said. “I did not know Denzel. And he said, ‘I’ve just worked with this guy on stage. I’ve never seen a work ethic like it.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, I must see him.'”

Luhrmann did see him, ultimately casting Butler as the rock-and-roll legend. And once he got the part, Butler had his work cut out for him. Luhrmann’s sprawling movie covers Elvis’ entire life, dividing it into three distinct chapters.

“His life fits beautifully into three acts,” Luhrmann said. “There’s Elvis the punk, if you like, the original punk rocker, the rebel. Then there’s Elvis the movie man, and that’s when he is pop and family-friendly. And then there’s ’70s Elvis, which is epic.”

Now that the film is complete, the director could not be happier with Butler’s performance. He went on to praise the actor for his ability to put his own humanizing spin on the much-mythologized cultural icon.

“Honestly, I put him through the ringer, but he lived Elvis,” Luhrmann said. “What he’s managed to do is not do an impersonation, but to live Elvis, to the extent that he’s humanized him.”

“Elvis” will be released Friday, June 24 in theaters. 

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