Hollywood thinks he might be the next big thing. With the risky “Elvis” riding on his performance, the magnetic actor needed to make a splash. Words Brooks Barnes
“Are you read to fly?” The question comes early in “Elvis”, Baz Luhrmann’s latest cinematic fever dream. It is the mid-1950s, and Tom Parker — ersatz colonel, wannabe talent manager, borderline psychopath — is sitting beside a shy nobody named Elvis Presley. They have just boarded a Ferris wheel at a country fair in Mississippi, and the bulbous Parker wants to know if his seatmate will pursue stardom at any cost.
“Yes, sir — I’m ready,” Elvis drawls in response, “ready to fly.” With a devil’s bargain struck, the ride starts to spin.
Lately, a version of the same scene, or at least the same discussion, has been playing out in real life, with Austin Butler, who plays the title role in “Elvis”, as the shy nobody about to take off.
In 2019, when Butler got the part, beating out Harry Styles and Ansel Elgort, Hollywood arched a collective eyebrow. The big-budget “Elvis” called for a singing, hip-swivelling, icon-channelling dynamo, and Butler was unproven, with most of his experience coming from low-budget teen television shows. Then filming for “Elvis” began in Australia (after a long pandemic delay), and whispers from the set began to spread across moviedom: this lanky, deep-voiced Butler guy might be the real deal.
When Warner Bros. began to show “Elvis” to industry insiders, many attendees left with pinwheels in their eyes, likening Butler, 30, to an early career Brad Pitt. As an emotional Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’ daughter, blurted out after one such screening, “If Austin Butler doesn’t win an Academy Award, I’m going to eat my foot.”
In other words, Hollywood has decided that Butler sits on the edge of stardom, perhaps even superstardom. Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio and Denzel Washington have been offering Butler advice and lobbying behind the scenes on his behalf. Denis Villeneuve recently cast Butler as the villain in “Dune: Part Two”. (He has started intensive knife-fighting training for that role.) Butler will also play a lead in “Masters of the Air”, an upcoming war saga from Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
“That ready-to-fly moment is happening for Austin, and I know because we went to the Met Gala together,” Luhrmann said. “As soon as we got on the red carpet, there was keening from fans. Not just screaming. Keening. I’ve only heard that sound once before. I was with a young actor whose name was Leo.” He was referring to a pre-“Titanic” DiCaprio, then quivering hearts in Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” (1996). The question is whether Butler is ready for an otherworldly ascendance, should it actually happen — and whether he wants it at all.
When we met in early May in Beverly Hills, California, Butler was running late, in part because a TMZ videographer had ambushed him. He had been returning to his Jeep Wrangler after a Starbucks run.
“I’m trying to learn how to navigate a new lack of privacy,” he said. “It can be really uncomfortable.” Until recently, the paparazzi has been more interested in the women in his life: Butler was in a nine-year relationship with actress Vanessa Hudgens that ended in 2020, and he is now dating model Kaia Gerber.
He pensively (nervously?) scratched the blond scruff on his chin. “I was an anxious child and very shy, to the point that, if we were at a restaurant, I would whisper to my mom what I wanted to order, and she would have to order it for me,” Butler said. “And I am still very shy.”
Butler showed me a small “27” tattoo on his left wrist. It was his mother’s lucky number, he explained. She died of cancer in 2014, when he was 23. “She was my best friend,” he said. “She called 27 her God number. Whenever she saw it, she felt that God was looking out for her.”
We were tucked in a banquette at the Beverly Wilshire, a luxury hotel where Elvis lived in the 1960s, when he was churning out catchpenny musical comedies for MGM and Paramount. Butler, who is six feet tall, had turned up in a loose-knit sweater, baggy black trousers and boots. Despite his professed shyness, it was obvious that he possesses a magnetism that is unique to the biggest movie stars. Everything seems to tilt when they walk in the room, and you often feel a deep, instant connection that is entirely a mirage.
For example, Butler spoke about filming a challenging scene in “Elvis”. It is mostly Butler’s singing voice that you hear in the flamboyant bio-musical, and a re-enactment of the king’s 1968 television comeback special required Butler to perform “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” while staring into the eyes of adoring fans. “My palms were sweating ahead of time, and I was feeling shaky — because this was a make-or-break moment in Elvis’ career, and it felt like it was a make-or-break moment in my own,” he said. “But then the cameras started rolling.”
Butler leaned close, activated his blue eyes and continued. “I could see that I was exciting these other human beings at the edge of the stage,” he said. “It was like I could see into their souls. Suddenly, it became this energetic exchange. And it became larger than any one individual.”
I picked up a napkin and fanned myself. “How old were you when you realised you could do that to people,” I asked, having melted into a puddle of puppy love.
Butler offered a bashful giggle.
Charm and looks, of course, will only get you so far in Hollywood, to say nothing of talent. Just look at Taylor Kitsch, a one-time “it” actor who rose fast (“Friday Night Lights”) and fell faster (“Battleship”, “John Carter”). Alex Pettyfer, Zac Efron, Garrett Hedlund and Armie Hammer all had a shot at Brad Pitt-dom; for various reasons, none pulled it off. Hollywood has spent a decade trying to make Miles Teller happen, most recently as wingman to Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick”. (As with Elgort and Styles, Teller auditioned for “Elvis” but lost out.)
The upshot: Butler still must navigate a long, slippery film industry road before joining the likes of Michael B Jordan, Robert Pattinson and Timothée Chalamet in the real-deal cultural firmament.
“Fame itself doesn’t interest me,” Butler said. “But I do want to be able to work with great artists and tell stories that I want to tell. A certain level of stardom gives you that freedom, I guess, despite the drawbacks, but do you take the good with the bad?” He was starting to get tongue-tied.
Warner Bros. has pulled out all the marketing stops to make sure “Elvis” succeeds, and producer Gail Berman, who pushed for a decade to get the film made, took it to the Cannes Film Festival for a blinged-out global premiere.
But similar movies — ones aimed at older, more cultured ticket buyers that have nothing to do with superheroes — have been struggling at the box office, in part because of the lingering coronavirus pandemic. Streaming services have also soared in popularity.
“Elvis”, which cost at least $200 million to make and market, was risky for other reasons. Hanks, for instance, gives a performance with the potential to polarise audiences. He plays against type as the villainous Colonel Parker, donning a fat suit and speaking with a pronounced Dutch accent. When the first “Elvis” trailer dropped in February, the online snark gallery had a field day, with one commenter deeming Hanks’ accent “hog bonkers” and another likening it to “Henry Kissinger pretending to be from New Orleans”. (The real Parker was born in the Netherlands but claimed to be from West Virginia.)
And it must be asked: as the subject of a blockbuster, isn’t Elvis a bit ... musty? People over the age of 60 may remember him as more than a golden oldie. But younger generations? At this point, 45 years after his death, he is, quite literally, wallpaper. His musical brilliance and the vastness of his songbook have gotten lost in a sea of pudgy impersonators and tacky collectibles on eBay.
All of which heightens the pressure on Butler.
“I want everybody to love the film, obviously, but the pressure I have really felt is doing justice to Elvis,” Butler said. “Humanising him. Adding to his legacy and maybe, hopefully, even reclaiming some of his legacy.” The positive response from Lisa Marie Presley “brought me to tears,” Butler said. Her mother, Priscilla, has also praised his performance, writing “WOW!!!” on Facebook after an advance screening. (The Presleys had no role in the making of the film.)
Luhrmann had never heard of Butler when the “Elvis” casting process began. To prove he could sing, Butler made a video recording. “At first, I tried ‘Love Me Tender’ just sitting in my bedroom,” Butler said, “but when I watched it back, my heart just sank. It wasn’t alive. It felt like going to a wax museum. I was trying to do these mannerisms, and it didn’t feel like spontaneous life happening.”
He brooded for a day or two. “Then I had a horrible nightmare,” he said. “I dreamed that my mom was alive. But she was dying all over again. And when I woke up, I just felt so totally, horribly heartbroken. My grief was overwhelming. And then all of a sudden, it clicked that Elvis, who also lost his mother when he was only 23, might have had moments that were similar to this one. He might have even woken up from the same dream.”
Still in his bathrobe, Butler sat down at his piano and recorded himself singing “Unchained Melody”, which he had also been practising. “But instead of singing to a romantic partner,” he said, “I sang it to my mom.”
He sent the single-take recording to Luhrmann. Within days, Butler, who lives in Los Angeles, had been summoned to the director’s home in New York. “From the moment he walked in, he was soulful, spiritual, kind — just brilliant,” Luhrmann said.
Butler still didn’t quite have the part. That changed after Luhrmann asked him to perform renditions of Elvis hits like “Suspicious Minds”, “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Heartbreak Hotel”. They read lines from the script, too. “He was also doing such a perfect Southern accent,” Luhrmann said. “I remember asking one of my guys, ‘Where in Texas does he come from?’ And I was told, ‘Oh, no — he’s from Anaheim.’”
Butler, who still speaks with an Elvis twang, grew up near Disneyland. His father, David, works in commercial real estate, and his mother, Lori, ran a day care from their home. While his older sister, Ashley, was a popular cheerleader, Butler was a homebody, teaching himself to play guitar and piano; skateboarding on a makeshift ramp in the backyard; and obsessing over James Dean and Marlon Brando flicks. “He just had such an incredible, animalistic spontaneity, and I was enraptured and fascinated,” Butler said of Dean.
Butler started taking acting lessons when he was in his early teens. “I remember printing out the ‘Pulp Fiction’ script when I was 12 and reading it to my mom as she drove me to class,” he said, laughing.
By 20, Butler had put together a decent children’s television résumé (“Zoey 101”, “Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure”) and was headed towards young-adult roles (“The Carrie Diaries”, “Arrow”).
By 24, he’d been in a couple of indie films. “But it was a very slow burn,” he said.
His break came in 2018, when his performance in the Broadway revival of “The Iceman Cometh” caught the attention of critics — and the production’s star, Washington, who urged the William Morris Agency (recently renamed Endeavor) to get behind Butler. Around the same time, Butler landed a small but notable role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood”. He played the Charles Manson follower Tex Watson.
Washington also helped persuade Luhrmann to take a chance on Butler.
“Denzel Washington called me — I had never met him, didn’t know him at all — and he said, ‘Look, I know you are seeing this young man Austin Butler, and I wanted to tell you that I have just been onstage with him, and I have never seen an actor with a work ethic like him,’” Luhrmann said. Washington declined to comment.
Butler lived up to Washington’s description, Berman, the producer, said. The actor obsessively researched Elvis, in part by poring through the Graceland archives; worked with a movement coach to learn how to properly swivel his hips (the secret is actually in the knees); listened to the entire Elvis song catalogue in chronological order; and covered his apartment walls with Elvis images, quotes and a meticulous chronology of his life. (To relax, he took solo walks on a beach, learned French and took up pottery.)
“There were times when I was afraid,” Butler said. “‘Can I even do this? Am I going to fall flat on my face? Be discovered as a fraud?’ But then I started to kind of get comfortable with the fear, to the point that I could say, ‘I see you, fear, and you’re not going to stop me.’”
© The New York Times
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 112 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Cover star”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.