Austin Butler in 'Elvis'
Austin Butler in 'Elvis' Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

In an ever-expanding universe of musical biopics, it was only a matter of time before Elvis Presley’s story took its rightful place in the spotlight.

Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, ‘Elvis’ explores the story of the pop cultural icon through the prism of his complicated relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, which is played by Tom Hanks in the film.

Even as the film delves into the complex dynamic between the duo, spanning 20 years and capturing Presley’s rise to fame to his unprecedented stardom against the backdrop of an evolving cultural landscape, the idea of playing the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ would be a Herculean task for any seasoned actor, let alone a young star who had yet to carry a film of such magnitude on his nimble shoulders.

American singer Elvis Presley Image Credit: AP

Yet, Austin Butler knew from the beginning he was the right man for the job, delving into Presley’s life through meticulous research and training for months to fine-tune his mannerisms and signature moves. His ultimate stamp of approval came from Priscilla Presley herself, the woman who stood behind the icon through his meteoric rise and fall.

In a freewheeling chat, Butler talks about breathing life into ‘Elvis’.

How did you feel when Baz Luhrmann told you that you had won the role of Elvis?

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Australian film director Baz Luhrmann Image Credit: AP

I felt incredible. I’d been living with the idea for a while before that moment, and he and I had already been collaborating from about February to July when I got the part.

That’s quite a long audition...

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Austin Butler Image Credit: AP

Yeah about a five-month audition. By the time I did the screen test, we’d already been working together for four or five months. And then there was this week where I didn’t know if I was actually going to get to do it because, I thought, ‘Well now it’s the studio as well making these decisions....’

I had about a week where I really tried to come to grips with both versions. I thought ‘Okay, so if he calls me and says you didn’t get the part, then you got to be able to accept that even after all this work.’

Then I thought, if he says, ‘You did get the part,’ you’re going to have a lot of work ahead of you. And so when he told me, I had this surge of joy, and gratitude, and excitement, followed immediately by, now it’s time to get to work. .

Elvis Presley’s story can be told in any number of ways, but Baz chose to focus on the relationship between Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker, who also serves as the narrator. What did you think of Baz’s approach?

A still from 'Elvis'
A still from 'Elvis' Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

I think Baz is such an incredible filmmaker and storyteller. I have so much faith in him and I think the way that he has approached this is really brilliant and unconventional, a really exciting way of approaching such an extraordinary life.

It was a joy to get to watch and also to see how Baz’s process evolved over the course of shooting, and still now in the editing, and how the story has continually taken new forms and been honed as the process has gone on.

You mentioned you had your dialect coach, your movement coach, but as an actor, how do you find your way into a man who has been immortalised in pop culture for decades?

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Austin Butler Image Credit: AP

That was the big challenge from the get-go because, as you say, Elvis has been immortalised in that way. I often say he’s become either the wallpaper of society…

Meaning his image is ubiquitous, pretty much everywhere?

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American singer Elvis Presley Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Right, or he is held up to a superhuman.... Neither one of those things are very accessible as an actor, and neither one of them embodies the full complexity and nuance of a human being. And so, for me it was how do you find that?

It began with endless research and watching every documentary that I could find, watching anything I could find on YouTube, or audio recordings of interviews of his.

I listened to every single interview from the ‘50s to the ‘70s and read every book that I could get my hands on and really started to find these keys to his humanity. And find the things in myself that were remarkably similar and things that were seemingly different. It was such a joy to get to explore that.

A lot of actors will say that the costumes, hair and makeup help them find the character as well. How did those elements help you further refine your work once you got into them and onto the set — especially the great Catherine Martin’s designs?

A still from 'Elvis'
A still from 'Elvis' Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

CM is brilliant and one of the greatest costume designers we’ve ever had. And on top of that, such an amazing person. Getting to have so many hours of us trying things on and perfecting things… her attention to detail is unmatched.

Did you have a favourite costume?

Austin Butler in 'Elvis'
Austin Butler in 'Elvis' Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

I didn’t have just one favourite but I’ve got certain ones… I mean, it depends on my mood, but in the ‘50s scenes there are certain things that stand out in my mind. I mean, I’ve never worn so many laced shirts! I loved those. I loved the bolero jackets, the amazing cut of these bolero jackets.

There’s that one where it’s the all-blue suit in the ‘50s, with the blue lace shirt, and I like that. And then in the ‘60s, I mean, one of the most empowering outfits to wear is the leather for the ‘68 Special. It just feels great when you’re wearing that.

And then the jumpsuits, you feel like a superhero, so those feel really great as well. It’s hard for me to choose just one.

Can you tell me about the relationships that Elvis has in the film and working with actors Helen Thomson and Richard Roxburgh as his parents, and Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla, and of course Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker?

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Tom Hanks in 'Elvis' Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

I was so privileged and honoured to have worked with these incredible actors. I could start with any one of them, but Olivia playing Priscilla, she’s such an intelligent and empathetic person and so smart. And she approached playing Priscilla with such grace, strength and wisdom.

Tom — you don’t get a better collaborator than him. Not only has he been a hero of mine for so many years, and I’ve admired him so much as an actor, he’s one of those people who’s been such a part of all of our lives, whether we watched ‘Forrest Gump’, or ‘Big’, or any one of his films.

A still from 'Elvis'
A still from 'Elvis' Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

He’s a master of craft. And on top of that, he is warm and welcoming and kind and funny and generous, and he made everybody on set feel at home.

And Helen, what a gift, getting to work with her. She comes from doing a lot of theatre, and you see that in her craft. She has such a command over her instrument and is able to have consistency of really intense emotions, and do it remarkably truthfully. There are certain actors who can turn on an emotion without feeling it. Watching her, you feel the emotion in your soul, it’s magic.

And then Richard, I love Richard. He’s playing Vernon, Elvis’s dad. Honestly he’s amazing because he can play in the depth of really heavy moments. And he’s another one who’s been doing it so long that he’s able to just tap into really heavy emotion with such authenticity and power. But then on the flip side of that, he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Which is a really valuable thing on a set when doing long hours and really heavy days....

Tell us a little bit about bringing these iconic performances to life...

Austin Butler in 'Elvis' Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

I really wanted to approach with an incredible amount of specificity. Whether we were doing, as Baz called them, trainspotting moments — which are these moments that people can watch and compare to something that Elvis actually did, so you want it to be as specific to what he did as possible — or you’re creating something like the moment where I’m performing at Russwood singing ‘Trouble.’ In those performances, we may not have footage of him doing it, but you want it to be as truthful to Elvis and as authentic as possible.

What was the difference in the preparation?

Austin Butler in 'Elvis'
Austin Butler in 'Elvis' Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

For moments like that, while we didn’t have actual footage, I would look at an endless amount of images or other moments where he was moving and essentially take them in. There’s a great photo of him from Vancouver when he was rolling around on the stage with a microphone, and so we took that moment for this portion of the song. And you take a different moment for a different portion, and you end up compiling or weaving this performance together that then feels almost like a trainspotting moment.

And how did you master the movements?

Austin Butler in 'Elvis'
Austin Butler in 'Elvis' Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

I worked with this amazing movement coach named Polly Bennett, and we worked from the inside out with it all. So, if he moves his hand in a certain way, we’d look at it and say, ‘Why? Why does he move his hand like that? What’s the feeling that’s carbonating inside of him that’s causing him to move in that way?’

You just break down each moment like that. And then when it comes time to actually film, you have to be able to now forget all that and have it feel like it’s happening for the very first time right now. And sometimes I failed at that, and sometimes we captured lightning in a bottle.

We hear Priscilla Presley loved the film. How does that feel?

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Olivia DeJonge and Priscilla Presley Image Credit: AFP

That was the most moving thing to learn. And it really just made my heart soar because ultimately that’s the review that matters to me. If his family is happy, if Priscilla, who knew him arguably better than anybody else, feels positive…

I don’t want to speak for her, but if she had this certain positive experience watching it and said really kind things, that’s all that I can hope for, you know?

I just feel such a relief, because I just want to make her proud and I want to make his family proud. I want all of them to feel his essence and feel like we did him justice. — With additional inputs from Bindu Rai, Entertainment Editor

Don’t miss it!

‘Elvis’ is out in UAE cinemas from June 24