This story about Austin Butler and “Elvis” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
In many ways, the central song in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” is “Suspicious Minds,” the thrilling 1969 single that was Elvis Presley’s first No. 1 record in seven years. The key lines of that song, which Luhrmann uses as something of a leitmotif in the final stretches of the film, are “We’re caught in a trap, we can’t get out,” which are partly a declaration of the singer’s love but also a cry of despair from a man whose fame has put him on a pathway to excess and premature death.
And nine months after the film premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and three weeks after it received eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture, “Elvis” star and Best Actor nominee Austin Butler walked into a restaurant at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and immediately found himself in a trap of his (and Luhrmann’s) making. First, he was stopped by a father asking for a photo of Butler with his young son — who is, dad said, a huge fan of the movie. Butler grinned, bent down to greet the kid and posed for a couple of shots. As soon as that was done, he was approached by fans from Ireland, then a couple from London, then some from closer to home. He only needed to traverse about 20 feet to get to the table where we were supposed to be talking, but by the time he got there he’d probably posed for a photo for every one of those 20 feet.
But when the 31-year-old former child actor from Orange County, California slid into the booth, he was sporting a big grin. “I’m feeling very, very good,” Butler said at the end of a long day at the Oscar Nominees Luncheon. He nodded toward the selfie gauntlet he’d just run. “That’s something I’ve been getting in certain places, and I’m trying to get more used to it.”
He shrugged. “These are surreal days.”
THINGS HAVE BEEN HEADING TOWARD SURREAL for Butler since Cannes, when “Elvis” drew largely positive reviews that focused on how a nearly unknown former teen actor nailed the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s moves and even did a creditable job singing his early classics. Suddenly, the guy who’d beaten out a quartet of bigger stars for the role — Ansel Elgort, Harry Styles, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Miles Teller were reportedly the other names on the shortlist — had become a star of his own, a sex symbol and a sure-fire Oscar nominee.
“It’s really been a whirlwind,” Butler said softly. “A rollercoaster. I mean, really high highs…” He trailed off. “And then lows.”
The biggest low does not come as a surprise. “For me, it was losing Lisa Marie,” he said, referring to the death of Elvis’ only child at the age of 54, only three days after she attended the Golden Globes to support the film. “That was unimaginable, so shocking that I didn’t really believe it was true. And it just sort of shifted my perspective about things, you know?
“But also, I look at this film as a way of sort of carrying her legacy and her father’s legacy in a way that she was proud of. And so I feel honored to be a part of her life and for all the moments that I was lucky enough to spend with her.”
Those moments began after a screening of “Elvis” at the singer’s longtime Memphis home, Graceland. “I was walking down this hallway outside the screening room, and she turned around at the end of the hallway and we made eye contact,” he said. “We both teared up just seeing each other, and then she embraced me and said, ‘I want to talk to you privately.’ She took me into another room and we just sat there and talked and talked and talked, and then later that night she took me up to Elvis’ bedroom and we spent more hours together talking.
“I had been experiencing so much love for her through her dad, even if it was just in my imagination, and then suddenly we were together. And we each had our own losses in our lives, voids that we started to fill for each other. It was truly special.”
That immersion in all things Elvis, to the point of developing love for a woman he didn’t know because he was playing her father, was part of what persuaded Luhrmann that Butler was the right choice. “He really lived Elvis 24/7 for two years,” Luhrmann said. “He didn’t win the role, he just came and never left. And when he came, he was already down Elvis road.”
BEFORE “ELVIS,” Butler had been acting since his early teen years, first on TV shows like “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide,” later on “Hannah Montana” and “Zoey 101,” among others. “I was a very introverted child,” he said. “I loved to play the guitar, but I wouldn’t play for anybody, and I didn’t like hanging around other kids very much. I was very isolated until I found acting, when I started to open up all these bits of myself that I had repressed and wouldn’t show to the world.”
After a few years, he began to take the profession more seriously: “I would seek out (acting) coaches. Who does Leo work with? Who does Sam Rockwell work with? I found voice coaches and dialect coaches, and just started trying to figure out how to get better.”
For his “Elvis” audition he sent Luhrmann a tape of himself playing and singing the 1950s hit “Unchained Melody.” When he chose it, he had no idea that it was the song whose 1977 performance by an ailing, exhausted Elvis would end the film.
“It was just a song that was resonating to me,” said Butler, whose mother had died in 2014. “As I was trying to figure out what to send Baz, I had a nightmare that my mom was dying again. I woke up and all the grief was right there on the surface — and for whatever reason, ‘Unchained Melody’ came to me. I’d always taken for granted that it was a romantic song that you sing to your partner, but for me, in that moment, I thought I could sing those exact same words to my mother.”
As soon as Luhrmann announced that Butler had landed the role, the director heard from Denzel Washington, who had worked with Butler on a Broadway production of “The Iceman Cometh.” “He said, ‘You’re going to experience a work ethic like no other,’” Luhrmann said. “I thought he was just being supportive and nice, but Austin’s work ethic really is on another level.”
Butler remained immersed in Elvis for years, including through COVID delays — and eventually, it led to a performance that stunned a skeptical Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ former wife. “I was worried, because I know how crazy Baz can be,” said Priscilla, who insisted on seeing the film with Elvis’ longtime friend Jerry Schilling at a private screening before she would decide whether to support it by going to Cannes. “We sat there watching the movie and watching Austin, and when it was done we couldn’t talk. And finally Jerry turned to me and said, ‘Well, I guess we’re going to Cannes, aren’t we?’”
After a while, she emailed Luhrmann and raved about the film and the performance. “She said, ‘He was great, but how could he have known about the loneliness that only came out in private moments?’” Luhrmann said.
SO HOW DID HE KNOW? “It was a lot of little keys,” Butler said. “I might read one sentence in a book that sparked my imagination a certain way to where I could imagine what, what he was feeling in a certain moment. Or stories that people would tell me of moments with him. Or I’d see a clip in a documentary where you suddenly see a wash of sadness come over his face after a moment of joy. Things like that would be keys into his humanity.”
He hesitated. “Certain things start by being external, and then you ask why and you keep digging deeper and deeper. Sometimes you don’t even know if it’s the right answer, but it sparks something in your soul. And so for me it was finding these things that were actually very similar to my own spirit or pains that we had both experienced. That’s what empathy really is, right? Finding the ways that you can embrace the parts of yourself that are like that person.”
And now, after the years of preparation and the movie and the awards season that will end on March 12 at the Dolby Theatre, how does Butler decompress and leave Elvis behind? Or can he ever leave Elvis? “I think it’s a process,” he said. “When we wrapped the film, that was quite challenging because I enjoyed it so much. I had a bit of an existential crisis when I finished, and real grief. I missed him. So it’s been nice for this eight or nine months of getting to relive things and put myself back in that place.”
Even now, he said, he likes having some pieces of Elvis hanging around. And no, he’s not talking about his voice, which people love to point out still sounds Presley-esque. “That’s so funny to me that I don’t even know what to say about it,” he said with a bemused look. “If I was trying to sound like Elvis, I would sound very different.”
Still, Elvis is there. “Something like being onstage was a terrifying thing to me as Austin,” he said. “But when I was able to live within Elvis, it gave me a way to channel that fear. And I also get social anxiety — being in large groups is not my most comfortable place. So having a way of tapping into his energy helps, and that might be the reason it gets brought up again and again. I’m usually in an environment where I’m having to tap into him. It’s almost like tools on a tool belt — I’ve got bits of Elvis that unconsciously make me feel comfortable. He’s always with me.”
If that’s the case, Butler has recently taken Elvis on a ride to the desert planet of Arrakis for Denis Villeneuve’s second “Dune” movie, in which he plays the seductive but villainous Feyd-Rautha, the same role played by Sting in David Lynch’s ill-fated 1984 adaptation. And he’s in Jeff Nichols’ upcoming “The Bikeriders,” in which he stars with Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon and Jodie Comer in a story of a Midwestern motorcycle club. “Just getting to watch Michael Shannon act was enough,” he said.
“Elvis,” though, has changed what he’s looking for in his career. “There were so many years that I was unemployed for long periods of time, so I’m so fortunate just to be working,” he said. “But now I’m in a place where I’m able to take a little bit more time. I’m just trying to be patient and find something that when you find out about it, you just can’t help but do it. I’m looking for something that’s terrifying, something that’s really a challenge that I can throw all of myself into.
“The process around the way that we made “Elvis” inspires me for how I want to work in the future. Just taking a long time to prepare for something so you can live in the world for as long as possible. I really enjoyed that process and I want to get to do that again.”