The man who would be King: Inside Austin Butler’s Elvis transformation

Elvis may have left the building, but Austin Butler already arrived.

Though he first found success as a teen on Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana and Nickelodeon’s Zoey 101, the charismatic 30-year-old is now poised to launch into the stratosphere with his portrayal of Elvis Presley in director Baz Luhrmann’s first feature in nearly a decade, Elvis.

When Butler was first announced as Luhrmann’s pick for the King, the notion of a blond, former child actor inhabiting the world of Elvis Presley seemed as strange a mash-up as a peanut butter and banana sandwich. But actor Austin Butler‘s performance is earning raves from critics and the Presley family alike. The early Oscar buzz is nice, but the latter opinions are what matter most to the actor. “I wanted to make Priscilla proud and do justice to her and her family,” he says, a note of awe and gratitude in his voice at the level of support he’s received from those who knew Presley best.

Interviewing Butler feels like an exercise in time travel. We meet at the wood-paneled Writers’ Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt, which feels like it only lacks a cloud of cigarette smoke to transport us back to 1955. Perched on a green leather sofa, Butler still exudes the soul of Elvis — hints of Presley’s twang sneak into his speech; a winking, boyish charm hides beneath his reserved nature.

He’s an exercise in contradictions — strikingly tall for a Hollywood leading man at 6’0″, handsome but with the poeticism of a Romantic and the grueling work ethic of a day laborer. Though a Southern California native, Butler seems about as likely to be a surfer bro as the perfectly coiffed Presley in Blue Hawaii, but he cites the beach as his restorative space — a way to reconnect with nature and home — in much the same way Presley spoke of Tennessee and Graceland. “If I spend a couple days by the beach and then I come back, I feel like I’m so revitalized and much more present,” he says.

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Today, in Hollywood, his natural blond hair has been restored, but it’s styled in a sleek pompadour, a more modern version of the rockabilly look Presley popularized. Dressed in a casual black sweater and jeans with a gold ring on his finger that he twists while he’s pondering the answer to a question, Butler carries the air of movie stars of a bygone era, his introspective, soft-spoken nature reminiscent of James Dean (Presley’s own idol, as it happens). He’s thoughtful but restless, his body in constant motion, as if Elvis’ paradoxical blend of jittery fluidity has yet to leave him.

From impersonators to Vegas wedding officiants, Elvis Presley has been imitated and parodied ad nauseum. Filmmakers have fictionalized him since the late 1970s, beginning with director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell’s 1979 TV movie, Elvis. He’s been the subject of documentaries, as well as the star of over 30 films himself. As Tom Hanks, who costars in Luhrmann’s film as Presley’s duplicitous manager Colonel Tom Parker, puts it to EW, “Elvis was a Hershey bar — he was as American as Coca-Cola.”

But Elvis seeks to do something that none of these other films have, using Presley as a prism to view American pop culture in a wider sense, while unpacking the performer’s thorny relationship with race and cultural appropriation. The end product is a startling portrait of a man eaten alive by fame (without ever veering into the bloated stereotype that often haunts depictions of his later Vegas years). Much of the film’s success with this approach is due to Butler, who imbues Presley with a humanity, soulfulness, and sex appeal that lends Elvis a potent electric charge.

Faced with the daunting prospect of portraying Elvis across three decades, Butler set out to strip away everything that had come before. “My big goal right from the beginning was not becoming a caricature of him,” he says. “There are so many people out there who have their own Elvis voice, and you realize that most of those are caricature — the way that they curl their lip, or they deepen their voice deeper than his voice ever was. For me, it was just trying to find out who he was as a man, to humanize him and connect to him on that level.”

By now, the story of how Luhrmann chose Butler has already started to codify into legend. As Luhrmann puts it, Butler “found” him, sending a tape of himself performing “Unchained Melody.” (An enthusiastic recommendation from Denzel Washington, who had just worked with Butler on Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh, didn’t hurt either.) But what was it about that tape that convinced Luhrmann Butler was the guy?

The tape features Butler in his bathrobe, belting out “Unchained Melody” with a striking intensity that made the director wonder if Butler was performing or having a breakdown. (The actor says he recast the lyrics in his head as if he were singing them to his late mother.) “There’s nothing more precious or important to me than to curate an actor,” Luhrmann says. “That tape felt like… We live in a world where people are always posting stuff on the internet, and the stuff that really gets your attention is a moment of reality. It’s real, and that’s what got my attention.”

Hanks remembers watching Butler’s audition tape four times in a row. “There was no question — I didn’t need to watch anybody’s else’s version,” he says.

Once he’d won the role through an extensive process involving scene workshopping and lengthy improvisation sessions, Butler threw himself into a rigorous year-and-a-half period of preparation, extended by a pandemic delay in shooting. His hair was already dyed black from having recently portrayed Manson family member Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but with that surface similarity out of the way, Butler set about trying to unpack who Elvis Presley really was.

“The thing that woke me up every day at three in the morning was, ‘I don’t want to be doing an impersonation of him,'” the actor says. “That’s tricky, because I wanted to sound identical to him and I wanted to look identical to him, but I had to release myself from certain things. Ultimately, my face is different. I had this false expectation in the beginning that I could make my face identical to his. Ultimately, I realized that doesn’t serve the story — or me — at all. It’s about his spirit. It’s about merging our two souls.”

Originally, the plan was to shoot Elvis in chronological order, giving Butler time to steadily put on weight as he moved through the decades of the singer’s life. But COVID-19 delays made that impractical, and Butler had to mentally prepare to jump between wildly different eras of Elvis’ life on any given day.

To help him find his way, Butler collected touchstones: There was a photograph from the 1950s of a lion in a cage at the Memphis zoo. (“I saw Elvis in those eyes,” he muses.) Then there were performance elements — the voice, the swagger, the way he danced and moved on stage. Butler studied every piece of Presley footage he could find, from the legend’s 31 Hollywood features to extensive interviews and footage compiled by fans on YouTube. He would listen to tapes of Presley’s voice as he was falling asleep, and take long beach walks while on location in Australia, playing recordings back and trying to replicate the sounds.

Butler tackled everything from tap dancing (to nail Presley’s signature move of perching on his toes) to swing, in order to get the musicality of the era into his body language. “Little things, like the way he would shake his leg, was very tiring,” he says. “Your muscles get quite fatigued, and you have to build up stamina with those things. My body still feels it.”

He worked with the film’s movement coach, Polly Bennett, to locate Elvis in his body. “We’d find these moments that could somehow express his humanity,” Butler says. “You want it to be identical, but it’s got to feel like it’s never happened before.”

Olivia DeJonge, who plays Presley’s first love and wife, Priscilla, remembers watching Butler give a performance of “Hound Dog” that she describes as uncanny. “I’d watched him practice every little tiny movement, every single twitch of the foot, flick of the wrist,” she recalls. “Watching that was insane — he dedicated so much of his time and his body and mind to the role.”

So much so, in fact, that Butler was hospitalized immediately after filming wrapped, bedridden for a week with a virus that simulates the symptoms of appendicitis. He describes it as an inevitable crash that came once the adrenaline of making the film was gone. “It was all-consuming,” he explains. “Then my body just said, ‘All right, I need to rest.'”

Butler doesn’t want to make too much of the toll that playing Presley took on him, dismissing it as similar to what he’s heard from many others about reaching the end of a massive project. He’s reluctant to center himself in the conversation at all, preferring to praise his costars and director or get into the nitty-gritty of the process of becoming Elvis.

On the surface, the two men are miles apart. Presley was a Southern truck driver who saw music as a saving grace and way to provide for his family, while Anaheim-born Butler caught the acting bug at the age of 13 after his brother was scouted at the Orange County Fairgrounds and started going on auditions. But there’s no denying that Butler has personal resonances with Presley, including a similar devotion to a departed mother.

“That was one of the first keys that connected me to him on a very human level rather than the idea of Elvis,” says Butler, whose mother died of cancer in 2014. “Learning how close he was with his mom, because my mom was my best friend, I could connect to him on that level of grief.”

In one scene from the movie, Elvis mourns, sitting in his mother’s closet, smelling her clothes and pressing his face into them. “Those are the days when it blurs the line between reality and…” Butler trails off, too emotional to finish the thought.

The actor also empathized with stories of Presley’s profound shyness and nerves onstage, something Butler shares as a performer. “I’d never consider myself a person who likes to be the center of attention,” he says. “When I was approaching this, I thought ‘Am I going to just crumble when I’m up on stage? Am I going to get too shy?’ Then, I started learning those things about Elvis — how, when he was a kid, he would ask everybody in the room to turn around, and he’d turn out the lights and play the guitar. That was something I could rest in.”

Elvis finds a structure in the co-dependent relationship between Presley and Colonel Parker, so Butler exchanged letters in character with Hanks. When he first arrived in Australia to film, Hanks sent Butler a vintage typewriter (the Oscar winner has a well-documented fondness for writing instruments). “It came with this letter from Colonel Tom Parker that Tom had written,” says Butler. “And it was so invaluable to me because I was seeing the mind of this man, so I sent one back as Elvis.”

Unable to rehearse together in person due to COVID-19 restrictions, the two kept writing letters back and forth. “Those were based on real letters that I saw,” adds Hanks, “loaded with a common language of affection for each other. There’s so much stuff that is not the dictatorial trope you would expect between a manager [and a client]. There was bona-fide true affection, and dare we say it, love.”

The last — and perhaps most essential — piece of the puzzle for Butler was finding Elvis’ spirituality, the ways in which his religion and love of gospel music shaped his songs, his movement, and his entire life. Luhrmann and Butler traveled to a church in Nashville together to record the vocal tracks for the film’s gospel numbers with local singers.

Butler stresses Presley’s spirituality as his path to Elvis’ soul. “People ask me about ‘ways in,’ and it was never about the external,” the actor explains. “It was always about the music moving him. Being in that gospel church was a pivotal moment for me. Everybody just started wailing. I was standing in the middle of it, chills down my body, tears down my face, stomping my feet. That was the moment where I felt my soul stirring.

“It bypasses your intellect and goes right into your soul,” he continues, “and you can’t help but move to that music.”

With all of that extensive research and physical preparation under his bejeweled belt, it was time to make a movie.

But Luhrmann didn’t ease Butler into it. The first scene they shot was Presley’s iconic 1968 comeback TV special, in which Elvis, decked out in a full-body black leather ensemble, tore through a medley of hits before bringing down the house with a performance of his socially aware “If I Can Dream” while sporting a white suit (Presley’s NBC special was taped only weeks after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, which came on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis earlier that same year). Many consider it the most pivotal moment of Presley’s career — so, you know, no pressure.

Luhrmann admits that beginning with the ’68 Comeback Special was intentional. The director describes Butler as a roiling mass of energy. “He was killing himself,” says Luhrmann. “I know that sounds dramatic, but I was frightened he would break.” In an attempt to diffuse some of that intensity, Luhrmann decided to film this sequence first, rather than leave it looming over Butler’s head. “We just said, ‘Let’s do it, and it’ll blow out all the energy. Let’s take the risk, not warm into this, and go hit it straight between the eyes,'” the Aussie remembers. “Let’s do the most difficult moment first.”

Butler, unaware that Luhrmann had done this on purpose, says the abject fear he felt having to start with that scene actually proved useful. “I was so scared and felt like everything was out on the line,” he recalls. “And then I realized that everything was on the line for Elvis, too.

“I had this complete out-of-body experience,” he continues. “I’m looking down and I’m seeing my body in the leather and I’m seeing the exact guitar and exact stage. I’m hearing the audience scream in the same way. I’m feeling the same fear and pouring it into the song in the same way. That transcended what I expected that moment would be.”

This feeling wasn’t exclusive to Butler either. Both Hanks (who wasn’t on the call sheet for the day, but showed up just to watch, as did some of the producers) and Luhrmann recall a breathless alchemy on set for that scene. “We felt like we had witnessed Elvis,” says the director. “We were in a time machine, and we were there.”

Luhrmann says Butler was Elvis Presley the entire shoot, but Butler demurs at that suggestion, explaining that it was more an attempt to maintain a certain headspace. “I wasn’t asking people to call me Elvis or anything,” he says. “I was just constantly working at humanizing him. So much of that is the fascination with how he is when he is in his bedroom by himself or when he first wakes up in the morning or when he is eating breakfast. It was trying to find any keys that would lead to that place.”

Part of that also stems from Luhrmann’s approach to filming, which included setting up what Butler dubbed the “dojo,” a private soundstage where he could play music, dance, and slip into his costumes to find his footing. “I lived in that world the whole time,” elaborates Butler. “That’s the environment Baz creates. Even off-set, everything flows in the same aesthetic.”

Both Butler and Hanks liken Luhrmann’s directorial sensibility to that of a jazz musician: a fluidity and freedom that’s different from the more methodical approaches of many filmmakers. “It was shooting a fever dream by way of an opera,” quips Hanks.

“In order to play jazz, you have to know music theory,” adds Butler. “You have to know the scales on that guitar inside and out, but at the end of the day, you’re improvising. That’s how Baz is, because he works so hard at preparation. When it comes time to actually film, I’ll have been preparing a scene for a year, and suddenly, the day of, the entire scene changes.”

While all of Butler’s collaborators clearly love him something tender, there is one subject that keeps coming up — his work ethic. It’s easy to see why when he talks about the hours and months he spent preparing for this role, and it’s evident in the ways he pauses before answering a question, wanting to make sure he’s giving an eloquent and well-considered response.

He credits his drive to his insecurities: Growing up, he never felt like he belonged until he discovered music and acting. His father introduced him to classic movies, watching a different one nightly, often on Turner Classic Movies. Butler became fascinated by iconic Method performances — James Dean in East of Eden, Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull — and wanted to work out how they did it.

“It was like watching magic,” he marvels. “As an actor, you really try to bare your soul, and that can be a hard thing to do in front of a camera. So I became obsessed with that idea of: How do you find truth like that? Why have we been telling stories around campfires since the dawn of time? Why is it that when I come out of a movie theater and I see a great film, the trees look more vibrant?”

When asked what advice he might’ve offered his young costar, Hanks insists he learned just as much, if not more, from Butler: “His sense of decorum and dedication,” he marvels. “I never saw the guy where he wasn’t going back for training, for choreography, for accent work, back into the studio to do more recording, or on a mock stage with a microphone — literally studying the actual performances Elvis gave and matching them beat by beat. I witnessed a guy who just put his life on hold because you can’t be fast about trying to become Elvis Presley. You can only do it bit by bit, day after day, until you arrive.”

Butler assures us he did take advice from Hanks. Ironically, it was the opposite lesson Hanks took from him: a reminder to not go so hard all the time. “He saw that I was all-consumed,” Butler says. “And his advice to me was, ‘Every day, even if it’s 10 minutes, read a little bit of a book that has nothing to do with the job. Replenish yourself and remind yourself of other things that are happening.’ That’s something I’ve tried to take on.”

It’s probably good advice for Butler to absorb, considering his disregard for his own person for the sake of his art. There’s the aforementioned hospitalization, and also a day where he admittedly tried to push himself too far.

He was filming one of the movie’s many musical numbers and was trying to replicate a move Presley had where he’d throw his guitar to background vocalist Charlie Hodge at the other end of the stage. When Butler attempted to execute the trick while wearing one of Presley’s distinctive capes for the first time, the guitar caught on the cape and smacked him in the face.

“I kept going with the song,'” he remembers. “I was seeing stars because I’d hit myself so hard, but I wanted to do another take. But Baz comes out and he goes, ‘You’re bleeding, and I think we need to stop.’ I had to get stitches in my face.”

The stitches didn’t leave a visible scar, but the experience of being Elvis has proven harder to leave behind. Butler confesses that he still hasn’t shaken off the presence of Elvis in his daily life. “It’s been a slow process, but you don’t quite know what to do with yourself after two years of doing nothing else but trying to get inside the mind of another person,” he reflects.

There’s also the proposition of fame. Elvis is a parable about the dark side of it, a tale of the downfall of a man who craved the love of the world far too much but couldn’t withstand the pressure that comes with it. The level of Elvis Presley’s stardom is on another plane entirely, but the film could launch Butler into the upper echelons of Hollywood’s A list (he’s already signed on to the highly anticipated Dune: Part II and the miniseries Masters of the Air, produced by Hanks’ Playtone), a fact of which he’s very aware.

“Part of his story is a cautionary tale of the ways in which fame can warp your feelings of reality, and that amount of attention making you not be able to be alone with yourself in a quiet room,” reflects Butler. “I’ve just been trying to stay as grounded and grateful as I can, because the whole thing is like a rollercoaster. There are a lot of great things that come from that level of attention, but I don’t ever want it to rule me, or to feel like that’s where my worth is.”

It’s evident that playing Elvis has left Butler all shook up, but the experience may ultimately be a grounding one. Despite the time spent playing him, Butler is not remotely tired of Presley, saying he regularly turns to the King’s music for a pick-me-up. Elvis has made him more comfortable in his own skin. “I used to never dance,” he says. “I’d be on the wall. But now, after asking [myself], ‘Why do you move to music?’ to feel what he was feeling, I can’t help but move to it.

“He’s now this really close friend that I can come back to, and I always get joy in his presence,” Butler says. “I’ll pop on his music or watch one of his films. It’ll always be a close part of my life.”

And perhaps Butler doesn’t need to be in any hurry to let Elvis go. Whether or not he believes it, Elvis Presley is Butler’s magic trick. That breathless sense of truth is etched in every second of his performance, aligning him with the likes of a Brando or De Niro for sheer chutzpah and commitment. Elvis establishes him as an actor with the chops to match his early heroes.

He can never go back to life before playing Elvis. But why would he want to?

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Michael P
Los Angeles based finance writer covering everything from crypto to the markets.

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