STACK chats with Austin Butler about taking on the role of The King in Baz Luhrmann’s highly anticipated biopic, Elvis.
With Harry Styles, Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort all reportedly in the mix to play The King, director Baz Luhrmann hopes that audiences will soon discover why he chose Austin Butler, following the trailer launch for his new musical biopic, Elvis.
Best known for his role as Manson Family member Tex Watson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, former child star Butler was raised on teen TV, appearing in various Disney and Nickelodeon after-school shows, where he achieved heartthrob status with his shaggy blonde hair and cupid-bow pout.
But with his hair now dyed jet black, it’s uncanny how much he resembles Elvis Presley – and also sounds just like him.
For Butler, 30, this was the role of a lifetime. “For me, I think fundamentally it was about getting to explore the humanity of somebody that has become the wallpaper of society in a way, and he’s such an icon who’s held up to such a superhuman status,” says the actor, who was cast almost four years ago.
Production was halted for six months in early 2020 after co-star Tom Hanks – cast as Elvis’s legendary manager and Mr. Fix-it, Colonel Tom Parker – tested positive for Covid-19, signaling the beginning of the worldwide pandemic.
“To get to explore that for years now and learn why Elvis was the way that he was and find the human within that icon, that was really just such a joy that I could do it for the rest of my life probably,” Butler continues. “But paired with the fact that I get to work with one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live, this is just the joy of my lifetime.”
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Val Kilmer, Michael Shannon, David Keith, Harvey Keitel, Tyler Hilton, Jack White and Don Johnson have all enjoyed the dubious pleasure of portraying The King in various TV and film projects, although Baz Luhrmann intends for Butler’s performance to be the definitive Elvis.
Explaining his inspiration to make Elvis, Luhrmann tells STACK, “There are musical icons in my life that were so important to me. As a young guy, I was an Elvis fan, but I don’t know that that fan-hood was in any way the reason I wanted to do Elvis. The truth is, that in this modern era, the life of Elvis Presley could not be a better canvas on which to explore America in the ‘50s, the ‘60s and the ‘70s.
“I mean it’s a mythical life that he lived, to 42 years. But that 42 years is three great lives put into a short period of time. And what’s extraordinary about it is that that life is culturally at the centre of the ‘50s and socially the ‘60s and actually the ‘70s. So that’s what drew me in – that and a guy called Colonel Tom Parker, who I always liked to say was never a Colonel, never Tom and never Parker,” he quips.
With so much archival footage of Elvis available, Butler’s job was made somewhat easier.
“First I just watched as much as I could, over and over again. I didn’t look at or read or hear anything that didn’t have to do with Elvis for a long period of time. And thankfully there’s so much incredible footage out there,” says Butler, who learned to perfect The King’s signature pelvic thrust – delighting Elvis’s young fans and at the same time sending their parents into a frenzy as the birth of “the teenager” emerged as a new cultural sub-class.
“But Elvis also moved very differently in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. And that’s just breaking it into three sections, then there are many variations between those decades. So it was ultimately just such a pleasure to get to take that time and study him,” says Butler, who was aided by movement coach Polly Bennett, who worked with Rami Malek on Bohemian Rhapsody.
“And rather than just look at the external of how he may have touched his face or how he moves his legs on stage, any physical thing that seems external, you ask the question, ‘Well why does he do that? What is really going on inside?’ And I found that, once you do that enough, it stops feeling external and then suddenly it feels like it’s a part of you.”
The weight of responsibility was not lost on Butler. “There were days where I felt like, it’s such an incredible responsibility, I feel not only a responsibility to Elvis and his life, but I feel a responsibility to Priscilla and Lisa Marie and his entire family – and all the people around the world who love him so dearly.
“When I first started, I really felt like when you’re a kid and you put on your father’s suit and the sleeves are much too long and the shoes are like boats on your feet. And, in the beginning, I thought this was impossible. How could I possibly do anything but feel like I am less than this superhuman individual? But, as time passed, I started to feel like I grew into it and then suddenly I felt his humanity more. And so we got incredibly meticulous with things.
“Baz also directs in such a way that we tried so much. So we had takes where it was just purely about getting it to be in the exact same way that he moved. And some we just threw it away, allowing just visceral life to come out,” he says.
Along with Tom Hanks’s Tom Parker and Butler’s Elvis, Luhrmann’s highly anticipated extravaganza also features homegrown talent Kodi Smit-McPhee, David Wenham, Luke Bracey, Richard Roxburgh and Dacre Montgomery, with Olivia DeJonge cast in the pivotal role of Priscilla Presley.
• Elvis is in cinemas on June 23