Austin Butler chats with STACK about taking on the daunting role of Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling new feature, Elvis.

Much has been written about Austin Butler’s portrayal of The King since the Cannes premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, but there’s only one opinion that matters to the actor – the resounding thumbs up from Elvis Presley’s widow, Priscilla Presley.

“That was the most moving thing to learn, and it really just made my heart soar because ultimately that’s the review that matters to me – if his family is happy, if Priscilla, who knew him arguably better than anybody else, feels positive,” says Butler, who recently met with Priscilla at New York’s glamorous Met Gala. “I don’t want to speak for her, but if she had this certain positive experience watching it and said really kind things, that’s all that I can hope for, you know?”

After attending a private screening with director Baz Luhrmann, Priscilla took to Facebook to write, “Austin Butler, who played Elvis, is outstanding… he knew he had big shoes to fill.”

“I feel such a relief,” Butler tells STACK. “Because I just want to make her proud and to make his family proud, and I want to do them justice and do him justice. And that goes for everybody who loves him around the world; I want all of them to feel his essence and feel like we did him justice.”

With Australia’s own Olivia DeJonge portraying Priscilla in Elvis, Butler was immediately enchanted with the actress.

“She’s such an intelligent and empathetic person and so smart. And she approached playing Priscilla with such grace, strength and wisdom; she really embodied that in Priscilla in such a beautiful way. And she was such a great scene partner and friend to me during that entire process. I’m hugely grateful to her,” he says.

Playing The King has certainly had surprising effects on Butler – who shares an uncanny resemblance to Elvis in the film – and now he finds that he can’t stop talking like Elvis, using his distinctive Southern drawl.

“At this point, I keep asking people, ‘Is this my voice?’” he says. “Certain things trigger it. When you live with something for two years, and you do nothing else, I think you can’t help it. It becomes a fibre of your being.”

As expected from Luhrmann, Elvis is not a generic biopic, the director choosing instead to focus on the relationship between Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker, portrayed by Tom Hanks, who also serves as the film’s narrator.

Butler was impressed by the filmmaker’s unique approach. “I think Baz is such an incredible filmmaker and storyteller, and an amazing human being on top of all that. I have so much faith in him and I think the way that he approached this is really brilliant and unconventional – a really exciting way of approaching such an extraordinary life.

Baz Lurhmann and Austin Butler on the set

“Also, to see how Baz’s process evolved over the course of shooting and editing, and how the story has continually taken new forms and been honed as the process has gone on,” he adds.

Working with a dialect coach and a movement coach, Butler took a deep dive into the man who has been immortalised in pop culture for decades.

“He has been held up to a superhuman, godlike status. Neither one of those things are very accessible as an actor, and neither one of them embodies the full complexity and nuance of a human being. And so, for me, it was how do you find that? It began with endless research and watching every documentary that I could find, watching anything I could find on YouTube, or audio recordings of his interviews.

“I listened to every single interview from the `50s to the `70s and read every book that I could get my hands on, and really started to find these keys to his humanity. And find the things in myself that were remarkably similar and things that were seemingly different, and bits of myself that perhaps maybe I’d turned the volume down on that I could then turn the volume up on. It was a joy to get to explore that,” says the former child star who was raised on teen TV shows, progressing to an adult career where he is best known for roles as Manson Family member Tex Watson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Will in fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles.

Working opposite Tom Hanks was a treat for Butler. “You don’t get a better collaborator than him. He’s not only been a hero of mine for so many years, and I’ve admired him so much as an actor, he’s also one of those people who’s been such a part of all of our lives, whether we watched Forrest Gump, or Big, or Cast Away, or Philadelphia, or any one of his films.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker

“He’s a master of his craft, and on top of that is warm and welcoming and kind and funny and generous – he made everybody on set feel at home. He’s such a professional and shows up with a humility that allows you to collaborate truly. I learned so much from him and he’s really a wonderful man and wonderful actor.”

When Butler first learned of Luhrmann’s plans to make Elvis, he asked the filmmaker if he might audition for the role by submitting a video of himself playing the piano and singing the popular song Unchained Melody, which Presley had covered in 1977, and which now appears on the film’s soundtrack.

Elvis

Although Harry Styles, Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort were all reportedly in the mix to play Elvis, Butler saw off the competition by spending five months developing the character, and even periodically workshopping it with Luhrmann. And needless to say, he was elated when the director called him with the news that he had won the role.

“When he told me, I had this surge of joy, and gratitude, and excitement. Followed immediately by, now it’s time to get to work,” he recalls.

Butler’s extraordinary performance is surely proof that all his hard work paid off.

Elvis is in cinemas now – check out STACK‘s review

Elvis Presley at JB Hi-Fi.