How Austin Butler Resurrected Elvis

Culture
How did the 30-year-old beat countless other young actors to play Elvis? Why, with a little bit of luck—and an unprompted endorsement from his hero Denzel Washington.

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There are an estimated 400,000 Elvis Presley impersonators worldwide who devote themselves to shimmying into rhinestone jumpsuits and slicking their hair back and swiveling their hips. Who, night after night, croon “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender,” and pronounce you man and wife and put on their best Southern drawl to thank you, thank you very much. There is perhaps no other person in human history who has been imitated and idolized as much as Elvis. In the face of the King’s omnipresence, how can a performer who is met with the task of portraying Elvis make it feel…real? After all, even footage of the actual man can feel uncanny, as if he, too, is yet another impersonator playing up the tropes.

Now, Austin Butler is taking on the challenge of trying to resurrect him for the Baz Luhrmann biopic Elvis. If Elvis was a polite, handsome, and talented young interloper in the world of music, then Butler is a polite, handsome, and talented young interloper in the world of Elvis interpreters. For starters, the 30-year-old actor looks as if he’s been transported to our interview—at a convivial Los Angeles restaurant where the owners treat him like family—on a ray of California sunshine. He’s tall, with a face meant to be ripped out of a magazine and taped up in a locker: blue-green eyes, a lock of sandy blond hair that falls over his forehead, lips so pillowy they might as well be memory foam. When he smiles, it is the most earnest smile you’ve ever seen in your life. And if you are within Austin Butler’s vicinity, there is, statistically speaking, a 98 percent chance he is smiling right at you. Even when he’s saying things like: “You can lose touch with who you actually are. And I definitely had that when I finished Elvis—not knowing who I was.”

His friends say he really is that unflaggingly upbeat. On the set of the upcoming Apple TV+ drama, Masters of the Air, in which Butler plays a World War II fighter pilot, there was one guy who would do a warm imitation of him, punctuating everything with “Beautiful! Excellent!” 

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To be fair, everything is beautiful and excellent for Butler. He went from a shy kid growing up in Orange County, California, to an optimistic teenage journeyman, grinding out Disney and Nickelodeon projects while hoping to make the leap into something more serious. Little by little, it started to happen. Maybe you first caught him as a pouty denim–clad swain alongside Selena Gomez and Luka Sabbat in Jim Jarmusch’s zombie flick The Dead Don’t Die. (He ends up mauled by zombies.) Or as crazed Manson follower Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s epic Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. (He ends up mauled by Brad Pitt.)

Butler is now poised to have his big breakthrough, all while trying to get back to himself after living as Elvis for the better part of three years. As he waits for the movie’s release in June (as of now, he still hasn’t seen it), he’s spending his time boxing and being out in nature and reading Raymond Carver short stories. He’s rediscovering his love for Los Angeles. “L.A. can be a coal mining town. You know, where everybody works in the coal mine. Everybody talks about the coal mine,” he says with a laugh. His easy mannerisms and teen idol good looks can obscure something else too: an extreme intensity and steely, in-the-weeds dedication when it comes to his work.

His journey embodying Elvis began with an emotional video he sent Luhrmann of himself performing “Unchained Melody” while wearing a bathrobe. The video stopped Luhrmann in his tracks, rendering him equal parts confused and intrigued. “Was it an audition? Or was he having a breakdown?” Luhrmann told me. Either way, the director brought Butler in and put him through his paces. Butler reciprocated with a commitment so intense that Luhrmann sometimes didn’t realize when he was in character. “I asked one of my assistants [about Butler’s accent], and the guy said, ‘Well, he’s not Southern. He’s from Anaheim,’ ” Luhrmann said. “I don’t think, until recently, I actually came to understand how Austin actually sounded.” His native speaking voice may still be a mystery: Butler greets me in a husky Elvis tone that gradually fades and reemerges throughout the course of our conversation. When he orders an oat latte, the pronunciation is pure Presley—a long, drawn-out o to start, punctuated by a laconic taaay—as if the King himself had returned and requested an alt milk to wash down a peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich.

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A music biopic is a tricky thing to master—for every Walk the Line, you get three others that veer into Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story territory. Luhrmann’s film covers the momentous scope of Elvis’s entire life, told through the lens of his relationship with his manager, the mysterious and controlling Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. Butler sought to match Elvis as precisely as possible. He read and watched and listened to everything he could. (“An American Trilogy” is probably his favorite song.) He learned to talk like Elvis and sing like Elvis and, with the help of a movement coach named Polly Bennett, how to move like Elvis did too.

Sometimes that involved unconventional methods, such as studying animals that resemble the King. Especially the way certain animals use their eyes. “He has catlike things, sort of like when a lion looks out at the prairie,” Butler explains, surveying the savanna of the restaurant. “There’s this quality of an alligator, when it comes up from underneath the water,” he adds, pretending to be an alligator coming up from underneath the water.

The young actor made a pilgrimage to Graceland and met Elvis’s ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, who embraced him and told him he had a lot of support. “She looked like an angel,” Butler says. “I walked down the hall with Baz afterwards with tears in my eyes.” Beyond all the technical preparation, he sought out other things that would allow him to access this larger-than-life figure on a personal level. “His mother passed away when he was 23, and my mom passed away when I was 23,” Butler says. “So when I learned that, it was one of those things where I got chills, and I just thought, Okay, I can connect to that.”

Luhrmann told me he saw connections between the actor and character in other ways. “Elvis was an intensely spiritual person,” the director said. “And I think Austin has a really spiritual quality to him. He has a very sensitive and big inner life. He’s very lovely on the outside, but you know there’s deep thinking going on, on the inside.”

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Filming was slated to begin in March 2020 in Australia, Luhrmann’s home and where he shoots most of his movies. But just a few days prior, Tom Hanks was infamously diagnosed and hospitalized with COVID-19. Production was shut down indefinitely. The producers were ready to whisk Butler home to Los Angeles, but he decided to stay put and hole up and use the break to dig even deeper into his character.

He basically turned his apartment into a detective scene, à la Charlie in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia unearthing a vast mail-room conspiracy. “Just images of Elvis everywhere, from every time period,” says Butler. “I think the film would have been very different if we had started shooting at that point, and I’m grateful I had the time to let myself marinate.”

Six months later, they were finally ready to go. The first performance scene that Butler had to film was Elvis’s big 1968 comeback special, which, appropriately enough, had a ton of pressure riding on it. Despite his nerves, Butler maintained that unrelenting positivity. “Look, I’ve worked with every kind of actor and every kind of performer. And I accept that they have freak-outs, that’s okay,” Luhrmann told me. “But Austin, he doesn’t freak out. He has the most polite panic of anyone I’ve ever met.”

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Butler settled in and managed to suppress his panic, but he was mystified about how someone could operate at that acute intensity for so many days and weeks in a row, let alone so many years of a career. He asked Hanks, ever the elder statesman, for advice on how he’s managed to keep his sanity over the decades. Hanks had a simple tip, Butler recalls: “ ‘Every day I try to read something that has nothing to do with the job that I’m doing.’ ”

This advice was a relief. “That gave me permission, because up till that point, I was only reading everything to do with Elvis. I was only listening to Elvis. It was Elvis’s influences and Elvis himself and nothing else,” he says.

Elvis will premiere at Cannes. Though the man was an all-American artist who managed to entrance the world, the only international performing Elvis ever managed to do was in Canada. “The sad bit about it is that Elvis never got to tour the world,” Butler says. ​​“That is a thing that I think a lot of people don’t quite realize. And that was a big thing that he really wanted to do.” (The rumored reason why he never went overseas was because Colonel Tom Parker was an undocumented immigrant who feared not being able to get back into the U.S.)

By the time the project wrapped in March 2021, Butler had given himself over to the role so much that his body revolted. “The next day I woke up at four in the morning with excruciating pain, and I was rushed to the hospital,” Butler says. He was diagnosed with a virus that simulates appendicitis and spent a week bedridden.

“My body just started shutting down the day after I finished Elvis.

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Countless stars have navigated the Disney and Nickelodeon pipelines on their way to long, meaningful careers. It starts with getting scouted—in Butler’s case, his stepbrother got noticed at the Orange County Fair and Austin tagged along with him to an audition, nabbing a background spot.

“I didn’t really have a passion for anything that included other people at that time,” he says. “I wouldn’t go play sports. I wouldn’t do things with other kids.” When he realized acting was something he could actually enjoy, he got a coach and gradually started booking more and more roles.

Soon, with the support of his parents, he left school to pursue acting full-time. “I never had a real prom,” he says. “But I had prom in a TV show. I tested out of high school when I was 15 and a half, but I kept writing essays because I was always afraid that I wouldn’t be able to communicate.” He applied similarly studious rigor to the industry. “I printed out the Pulp Fiction script when I was 12, and I’d read it to my mom in the car,” he says. “That was my dream from 12 years old. I said, ‘Quentin is the director I want to work with.’ ”

Vintage necklace, his own.

First, he had to appear in a revolving door of kid and young adult series (Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, The Carrie Diaries) in which he was mostly introduced walking through doorways while girls turned their heads and swooned. These parts still get him

recognized on the street occasionally, but it wasn’t exactly where his heart was at.

“I wanted to do a part like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or The Basketball Diaries,” he says. “I was watching Raging Bull, and those types of films, and going, ‘I don’t want to be just a guy who walks in slo-mo through a door.’ ”

So how did he finally extricate himself from teen-crush territory? Butler pauses to think about it. “Do you ever listen to Ira Glass?” he asks, referencing the popular public-radio personality. “There’s that one quote, where he talks about how there’s this gap between where your skill is and where your taste is.” You may want to make work that corresponds with your taste, but your capabilities aren’t quite there yet. Butler says he related to that, being firmly in the middle of that gap and mostly taking jobs to pay the bills.

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His dream at that time was to do a play in New York, which came true when he landed a part in a 2018 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. One of his costars was Denzel Washington. “There’s that thing where you meet your heroes, and you want to be their best friend,” Butler says. “I was like, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ So, I went into the quickest mentality of ‘I’m not going to try to be his friend, I’m just going to try to do work as well as I possibly can.’ ” Butler showed up at the table read for the play, having memorized the entire mammoth script. Then he would try to arrive at the theater earlier than Washington every single performance. Eventually, the legendary actor caught on to what was happening.

One day, Washington waved him over and said, “Hey, I got an idea for you,” Butler shares. “Then I sat down; it’s just Denzel and me in this empty theater. He started giving me acting advice and he really took me under his wing. He’d start telling me thoughts about the scene, and suddenly I’ve got Denzel almost as an acting coach.” And maybe even a life coach. “Denzel always goes back to gratitude,” Butler adds. “I look at that for longevity in any career. Having those moments where, at the best of times or the worst of times, you’re being grateful for what you actually have and having humility.”

Critics started to notice Butler too. Hilton Als, reviewing the play in The New Yorker, both opened and closed his review praising Butler and highlighting him as the standout among his more seasoned castmates. “Most performers want to be seen at any cost,” Als wrote, “but actors—at least, those as good as Butler—are both determined and relaxed in their ambition to do justice to the playwright’s text while contributing to the life of the story.”

The play put him on the map and vaulted him to the company of his other heroes—Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, directed by, yes, Quentin Tarantino. Butler remembers one night shoot, in which Tarantino ordered a crepe truck to the set at 3 a.m. “We were sitting there eating Nutella crepes, and Quentin goes, ‘How great is this?’ ” Butler recalls. “I think back to my 12-year-old self, being there with Quentin and eating a crepe at three in the morning on his set. And he goes, ‘You know what my goal is? My goal is to give everybody on this set such a good time that their next job sucks.’ ”

By the time that next job rolled around, Butler had someone huge in his corner. As Luhrmann tells it: “I get a phone call out of the blue from Denzel Washington, who I did not know. Denzel Washington just said, in the most incredibly emotional and direct way, ‘Look, I’ve just been onstage with this young actor. I’m telling you, his work ethic is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen anyone who devotes every single second of their lives to perfecting a role.’ ”

“I was so grateful for that,” Butler tells me. “He didn’t call me beforehand, he didn’t call me after. It was this generous thing that he just did.”

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“My family said I didn’t sound like me anymore,” Butler says. He emerged from Elvis changed in a myriad of ways. His voice, for starters. Over the course of filming, his relationship of nine years with fellow former teen star Vanessa Hudgens also ended. “Life is full of changes, and you’ve got to find a way to constantly be evolving and growing,” he non–answers, politely, when I bring it up.

After Butler recovered from his post-Elvis medical emergency, he immediately flew to London to begin working on Masters of the Air. Following a mandatory quarantine, he and his castmates were put through a mock boot camp run by Dale Dye, a military veteran who has offered this service on projects such as Platoon and Band of Brothers. And yet, Butler still couldn’t shake Elvis off. Even as a brand-new character, he felt as if he were channeling the King. “I was like, ‘This is what Elvis felt when he was put into the Army,’ ” Butler says. “You know, performing, and the glamour of it and hearing screaming fans, and then suddenly you’re just dressed like everybody else in those fatigues.” Director Cary Fukunaga noticed too: “I was aware when he showed up, he was still very much Elvis.”

During his 10 months in London for Masters of the Air, Butler fell in love with the city, so much that he’s considering moving there. He would spend his free time riding his bike and visiting museums and the Reference Point library, poring over rare art and poetry books. Sunday nights were devoted to cooking dinner and playing cards with a group of friends at famed River Cafe chef Ruthie Rogers’s home. “I just feel like everybody made me feel very welcome,” Butler says. “There was a lot of kindness there.”

Since returning to Los Angeles, he’s been enjoying a rare spell of downtime between projects. Of course, this is only the beginning for him. He is rumored to have been cast in Dune: Part Two as the villainous Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (played by a codpiece-wearing Sting in the 1984 original). When it comes to the future of his career, he wants to continue going deeper and darker. Paul Thomas Anderson is one director he’s dying to work with. Alejandro Iñárritu is another. “The way that Leo has done it has been really, really impactful on me,” Butler says.

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Luhrmann, who cast a young Leonardo DiCaprio in 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, actually drew a comparison between the two actors. Just recently, Butler and Luhrmann met up with Leo after a Lakers game. “I think Leonardo was recognizing what Austin’s about to go through,” Luhrmann told me. “The difference for Austin, and this is fortunate, is that Austin is very young looking, but he’s 30.”

Butler mostly stays off the internet. He’s been photographed recently with the model Kaia Gerber, and their relationship is already an object of intense speculation. “I go, ‘If I don’t see the picture, then it doesn’t really exist to me.’ I don’t want to be really negative, but there’s hardly any job I despise more than paparazzi,” he says, in the same sunny tone of voice that most people would use to compliment someone’s shirt. He is similarly positive when I try to get him to open up about his relationship with Gerber. “I don’t think there’s anything I want to share about that,” he says. “But thank you for providing the space.”

Butler is still recording music for the film, so he’s not quite done with Elvis yet. He’s happy to have a bit more time with him. “It’s comforting to me now, when I get in the car. I’ll just go, ‘What do I want to listen to?’ Usually I just end up popping on Elvis,” he says. “I’ve never loved somebody I’ve never met more than Elvis.”

Gabriella Paiella is a GQ staff writer.


PRODUCTION CREDITS:
Photographs by Eric Ray Davidson
Styled by Jon Tietz
Grooming by Jamie Taylor at the Wall Group for Leonor Greyl and Augustinus Bader 
Tailoring by Susie’s Custom Designs, Inc 
Prop styling by Audrey Taylor 
Produced by Seduko Productions

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