In November, Austin Butler was in Cincinnati on the set of Jeff Nichols’ film, “The Bikeriders.” He was shooting a scene with co-stars Tom Hardy and Michael Shannon that involved Shannon delivering a two-page monologue. Butler found himself lost in the moment, watching his fellow actor. “Jeff called cut and Mike walks away,” Butler recalls. “And Tom turns to me goes, ‘It doesn’t get any better than that.’”
Butler says Hardy was referencing Shannon’s performance, which he says, “wasn’t even watching an actor, it was watching a human being living in front of you.”
The 31-year-old actor could also be referring to the past year of his life, which found his career launched from roles in shows including “Zoey 101” and “The Carrie Diaries” into a bona-fide, world-famous movie star thanks to his turn in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” And not just any movie star, but the kind of old-school throwback to a Golden Age that is becoming rarer and rarer in Hollywood where his talent is as recognized as his star quality.
“I got to be honest, I just feel so fortunate,” Butler says of the whirlwind months since “Elvis” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a rapturous response in May before hitting theaters in June when it took in close to $300 million at the box office.
If there was any doubt of the love for the film and his performance, industry screenings and events are still packed full despite the film being available on HBO Max and other platforms.
Since then, Butler has won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe Award, been nominated for both a SAG Award and an Oscar, hosted the Christmas episode of “Saturday Night Live” and filmed a role in the hotly anticipated “Dune: Part Two.”
By now, Butler’s story of landing the life-changing role of Elvis Presley is fairly established. How he pursued the part, working with movement, dialect and singing coaches just for the audition. How a major turning point occurred one late night when he was thinking about his mother, who, like Presley’s, died when he was in his 20s. In a bathrobe, Butler sat down at a piano and recorded himself singing “Unchained Melody” in honor of her. He had already sent one audition to Luhrmann but his agent urged him to send this one as well, and it was that video that caught the director’s eye. How a five-month process took place before he landed the role. And then how production was shut down right before filming due to the COVID pandemic, but Butler stayed in Australia to work on the role.
Also discussed at length have been his meticulous preparation for the part, as has his deep affection for Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, and daughter, Lisa Marie, who passed away just hours after Butler won the Golden Globe. Even today, weeks later, Butler still seems to be struggling to comprehend it.
“She had the greatest laugh,” Butler says. “The greatest, warmest and most honest laugh — she wasn’t putting it on. You felt terrific when you made her laugh.”
So Variety wanted to talk to Butler about some other topics — about how he’s handled rejection on the long road to “Elvis,” some of his favorite moments of the past year and one adorable canine co-star.
The audition process for “Elvis” lasted five months. Were there periods of time when you assumed it wasn’t happening, that they had gone with someone else?
From the start I knew Baz doesn’t just do auditions, he does workshops. So I knew it would be a process. I was able to keep my head down and concentrate on the work and try not to get too invested in thinking of it as my part.