Austin Butler: long live the new King!
In the biopic Elvis, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, he delivers a stunning performance, full of energy and slicked-back glibness. Meeting with Austin Butler, interpreter of the rock’n’roll star, and new Hollywood hope.
Two days ago, you premiered Elvis at Cannes. How did you live this experience?
It was probably the most magical night of my life. I kept pinching myself wondering if I was dreaming. It was the first time I had seen the film. I spent the last three years working in this role. I put my whole life into it. To discover it in Cannes, alongside my father, is something surreal. There, in front of the big screen, I managed not to see myself in character. Like I was watching someone else’s movie.
Priscilla Presley said her husband would recognize himself in you, if he were still alive. How did you feel when you heard that?
When Baz Luhrmann read his text, I broke down in tears. I couldn’t have asked for a better compliment. She knew Elvis better than anyone. Hearing him talk about the pride he would have felt made me really happy. I spent so much time with Elvis, he became like my best friend. It means a lot.
You dreamed of playing Elvis long before you got the role…
A month before the start of the Baz Luhrmann project, I was told twice that I was predestined for this role. The first time was at Christmas. I was in the car and started singing Christmas Blue. Hearing my voice, my friend said, “But you should play Elvis. I laughed because the eventuality seemed unlikely to me. Weeks later, I was playing the piano at home and my friend came back: “I’m serious. You really have to find a solution to embody it. Why not write a screenplay? Again, I ruled that out. Then, a few days later, I received a call from Baz. The stars had aligned.
What did you know of the King’s history before playing his role? Were you a fan?
I admired him a lot. My grandmother went to school in 1956 and she grew up with the young rebels. I didn’t know much about his life, but I was in love with his music. In particular, the one from the 50s. I had also seen his films, like King Creole and Jailhouse Rock.
Are there parallels between your lives?
At one time, he was a very shy kid. Until the 1970s, he had stage fright, and yet he gave magnetic performances. This perspective allowed me to calm my own fears. I was terrified, I felt immense pressure to play him. He was also very witty and had real depth. I think we meditated on the same things.
How did you get out of simple imitation?
The idea was to unravel the icon and explore its depth. I have read every book and watched every documentary imaginable. I am grateful to Elvis fans, because they have compiled huge archives. There are websites where you can find all the interviews he has given. I listened to each one of them, thousands of times. I have analyzed how his voice has changed over the years. I also listened to his entire catalog of music. Afterwards, I focused on different elements: his eyes, his voice, his spiritual journey. With my coach Polly Bennett, we sometimes lingered on a second or two of her performance. We had to absorb all this information and trust each other. This is the trickier side.
This movie thrusts you into the spotlight. How do you live it?
I’m grateful it’s that version of the projectors. Most people have been very nice to me. I know there are downsides to fame: meanness and sometimes snap judgments. The trap is to condition your self-confidence on external reactions. To feel good only if your performance is praised. I want to keep my feet on the ground and a strong self-esteem. At one point in his life, Elvis couldn’t even be alone in a room. He must have been surrounded and had the TV on.
How was your collaboration with Tom Hanks?
He is adorable and very funny. He’s one of my childhood heroes. I grew up watching his movies. So I was afraid of not being in the collaboration and of remaining stuck in my admiration. When we met, he immediately broke the wall. He gave me a huge hug, and after that we were able to have real conversations. He gave me advice similar to that of Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio: “It’s a marathon. Keep a long-term perspective. Keep your feet on the ground and be grateful.” He also told me that he read texts every day that had nothing to do with his character. He must have felt that I had put my life on hold for two years for Elvis.
What was the process to find the right voice and physicality?
I have listened to and watched Elvis millions of times. What are his knees doing? What are his feet doing? How does his body fit? And I repeated the same process over and over again. Sometimes it was just a matter of listening to his music and feeling the energy that came out of it. I felt that energy when we shot the gospel scene in the tent. I was in Nashville with Baz and we recorded the audio in a small church surrounded by 300 incredible gospel singers. I was in tears hearing them sing. I connected to this feeling to let the movement happen afterwards. Otherwise, it’s just bodily. Same for music. I listened to a word in a song, and I repeated it all day while walking on the beach, for example. I said it out loud like a liturgy.
After fully embracing the character, did you find it hard to let go of him at the end of filming?
After my last scene, I went back to my dressing room and collapsed. I had an existential crisis. Suddenly, I had no goal and I had to find a new goal. I no longer knew who I was. I got up and couldn’t walk. I felt like I had a knife in my stomach. I didn’t get sick during filming, but all of a sudden my body gave out. I ended up in the hospital for a week. Then I continued with the filming of Masters of the air, a series on the Second World War produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. I found myself in a boot camp in London, surrounded by lots of other guys. I focused on my relationship with them, I enjoyed London too and played guitar a lot.
You’ve shot for Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Baz Luhrmann and soon Denis Villeneuve for Dune 2. What’s next?
I dream of making a film with Paul Thomas Anderson!
Author: Michael Zippo
Sources: VanityFair, IO Donna
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