Austin Butler on playing Elvis Presley: “How do I let my soul meet his soul?”

Austin Butler is a Hollywood rock star in waiting. He tells NME why playing the most famous musician ever will put him over the top

The first time Austin Butler took to the stage as Elvis Presley was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of his life. “I was walking out in the famous black leather outfit and I was terrified,” says Butler, who exudes the kind of laidback California cool that makes it hard to imagine he’s ever been nervous. “I’d done so much work, but in that moment I thought, ‘If this doesn’t go well the whole film could fall apart and my career’s over. It’s make or break.’”

Hundreds of extras were waiting for him to perform and excite them into a screaming frenzy. The scene was a recreation of Elvis’ 1968 special, his ‘comeback’ show after seven years away from the live stage focusing on making movies. It was one of the defining moments of Elvis’ career, a show that proved he was still the most exciting performer on the planet. Standing on the edge of set, looking out at the bright lights and expectant audience, Butler took a huge breath. “Then I realised, this is a moment that was make or break for Elvis too. Everything was on the line for him.” If this show didn’t go right for Elvis, his career was over.

“I remember this thing he once said: ‘I have this fear that I’m going to go out there and they’re going to through rocks at me.’ Then he’d go out there and after one or two songs the nerves went away.” Butler strutted out and launched into his first song, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. The audience screamed in genuine thrill. “Elvis was right.”

Austin Butler has become well practised at embracing terrifying experiences. Playing Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s epic biopic has launched Butler, 30, into the spotlight, the star of one of the biggest films of 2022. It’s a huge, incredibly challenging role to play. Luhrmann’s film follows Elvis from his teenage years – as a newcomer who shook up the music industry and terrified the establishment – to a global sensation who couldn’t quite understand his own success, to a troubled man who died at just 42. Butler plays them all.

It’s a role that’s consumed the actor’s life for almost three years, through an intense audition process that saw him beat a crowded field to the role of a lifetime, to a shoot that put him toe-to-toe with Oscar winner Tom Hanks, who plays Colonel Tom Parker, the man who discovered Elvis and ruthlessly exploited him. Butler calls becoming Presley his “obsession”. “I cannot quantify the amount of hours I spent on every aspect of this,” he says, with an enormous smile.

When Baz Luhrmann, the Oscar nominated director of Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby, decided that his first film in almost 10 years would tell the story of Elvis Presley’s incredible life, he began a hunt for the perfect actor who could encompass everything about Elvis.

It would need someone who could dazzle audiences in the film’s astonishing concert scenes, but also convey the private pain and insecurity inside Elvis. It wouldn’t be enough to simply look or sound like him. He needed someone who could become him. In early 2019, Luhrmann cast his net wide, auditioning Hollywood stars and newcomers alike. At the time, Butler was fresh off a supporting role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, alongside Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.

He was far from a newcomer to acting. Butler had already had a long and successful career as a child actor, appearing in a large number of shows across Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel throughout the 2000s, including Hannah Montana and Wizards Of Waverly Place, then transitioning to teen shows like The Carrie Diaries and Arrow.

He was now quietly and diligently making the move into adult roles, working to prove himself alongside the best in the business. In 2018, he won rave reviews for his Broadway debut in The Iceman Cometh, opposite Denzel Washington. His career was progressing well but he knew that winning a role like Elvis was a long shot.

“I sent in this tape of me singing ‘Unchained Melody’,” says Butler. Where many actors might be tempted to record a barnstorming show to demonstrate they could match the superstar performer, Butler recorded a stripped back performance, just him and a piano. Luhrmann had found his guy. Not that Butler knew that yet.

“Baz doesn’t audition in a conventional way. He doesn’t do many things in a conventional way,” he laughs. “I flew to New York and spoke to Baz for about three hours. He asked me to come back the next day and read the script with him. So I came in and read some scenes, then he asked me to come back the next day and sing a couple of songs. We did that day after day for about five months and I didn’t know if I had the job yet.”

Those five months of work proved to be invaluable when Butler finally learned he had the part, in July 2019. “We already had all those months of exploring this together and asking all the questions about what we thought was possible. And I had all that time to ask myself the question of whether it was possible.” Butler threw himself into preparation, but it was actually a journey that started decades before.

Butler grew up in Anaheim, California, which is where he was first introduced to Elvis. “My grandmother loved Elvis,” he remembers. “I remember she would always have Elvis films on in the house. Both my grandmothers loved Elvis, in fact. The other one would have a lot of his ’50s music playing, because that was when she was in high school.” Elvis was part of the soundtrack of his earliest days, but he hadn’t given much thought to the man behind the icon. “I didn’t know much about his personal life. I didn’t know much about how he grew up. I wanted to find out everything I could.”

Today, Butler looks very different from Elvis. His hair, which was dyed a deep brown and slicked back for filming, is back to its natural blond, scruffily held in place with sunglasses on top of his head. He looks tanned and relaxed. But in his voice there is still a trace of Elvis’ Mississippi twang, his vowels long and his speaking pace unhurried. It’s a mark of how deeply he embedded himself in the process.

Even when shooting was paused during the pandemic, Butler remained on location in Australia and continued exploring who Elvis was, watching every interview he could, reading every book, and minutely examining every track. Playing any real-life person is tricky but there’s something especially tough about Elvis. He’s one of the most impersonated celebrities in history. There are so many Elvis impersonators in the world there’s even a world record for the most Elvis impersonators in one building (895, set in 2014, since you ask). Butler needed to learn how to be Elvis without looking like he was just another impersonator.

“We’re talking about finding the depth of a human being. I had to break it into pieces,” he says. “I would spend hours of the day just working on finding his voice. That was finding how his voice changed over years – it changed a lot from where the film starts, in ‘54/55, to ‘77. His spirituality changes. His relationships. The way he moves. I would have to break each one of those things down.”

He dug and dug, always looking to unearth more secrets about his subject. “I’d hear a vocal mannerism and become obsessed with it. I’d listen to it 1,000 times and record it and work until I sounded the same.” He even learned karate, because Elvis learned karate. “I was all about ‘how do I become identical and not just a copy. How do I let his soul meet my soul?’”

Audiences will see the results of Butler’s immense commitment when Elvis arrives in cinemas on June 24. For Butler, it will be the culmination of three of the most challenging and rewarding years of his life. “It just is truly the most immense privilege,” says Butler of the experience.

“Getting to collaborate with Baz and Tom and Olivia [DeJonge, who plays Priscilla, Elvis’ wife] and… be part of Elvis’ legacy, it’s so special. Being at this place in my career where I’m able to work with other artists, actors and directors that I’ve admired for so long and get to make stories that really excite me, I just truly feel blessed.”

And if he has any nerves about his big moment, he doesn’t show them. Because that’s not what Elvis would do. He’d just get out there and give the people a show, get them all shook up.

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