Elvis has entered the building. Austin Butler, who transforms into the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll for Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular new biopic, stands up to his full height – 6ft, the same as Presley – to show me the blatantly suggestive hand gesture that the singer made two minutes into his unforgettable performance of Hound Dog live on US national television in June 1956.
Presley had already given his band a heart attack by stopping dead 90 seconds into the song, then lurching into a slow-fast-slow version that they’d never played before. On YouTube, you can see footage of the musicians striving to follow his every move, the TV audience at his mercy – and loving it. Butler found himself watching the clip over and over again as he prepared to play the singer in Elvis.
“It took me a thousand times before I actually saw it, but he does this thing where he comes forward, and he does this motion on his leg,” says Butler. “It looks like he’s grabbing his, you know, genitals in that way. And then you see the smirk on his face, he knows what he’s doing. He’s titillating them.
Austin is putting it as politely as he can: Presley’s speech patterns and humble Southern manners have left their impression on the 30-year-old from Orange County, California, who spent two years being Elvis for the movie. In London, fresh from multiple standing ovations at the Cannes Film Festival, Butler declares himself rilly happy in a deep rumble. He’s still got the scruffy quiff, too, though it’s blond now (the singer was a dirty blond himself under the black velvet hair dye) and no longer teased into place with grease.
We’ve been talking about how it’s possible, in an era when parents worry about their children being a click away from pornography, to convey the perceived moral “threat” that Presley presented to 1950s America. It was those early TV performances that so traumatised an older generation that they tried everything to short circuit the sexual charge of the 21-year-old, insisting on filming him only above the waist, putting him in a tuxedo singing to a real hound dog, anything to stop this “white trash” wrecking ball from making their daughters scream. It didn’t work.
Butler’s performance – dynamic and unpredictable, pouting, hip-thrusting and smouldering with inner life – is what makes the film. In a role that spans more than two decades of Presley’s career, Luhrmann needed an actor capable of portraying not only his raw charisma and youthful innocence, but also the depth of the torment and unhappiness of his final years, after Priscilla had divorced him.
To capture Presley’s physicality, Butler worked with Polly Bennett, the movement coach who helped the cast of The Crown slip into their royal characters by identifying each one with an animal (Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles was a tortoise; Emma Corrin settled on a pampered domestic cat for Diana). “With Elvis, sometimes he’s almost like a lion, looking out on the prairie, where he can be sleeping for many hours, so relaxed, and then strike,” Butler says. “But there’s also... we called it crocodile- or alligator-eyes, where he comes out from under the water.” He looks up from beneath his brows, his head still: “the eyes have so much happening”.
In person, Butler looks loose and slim, watercolour blue eyes unobscured by gold-rimmed sunglasses, no sign of the rings and rhinestones beloved of the boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who changed the course of popular music forever. Disentangling his soul from Presley’s, though, was no easy matter. Butler recalls how, at the end of the last day of filming after a moment with the crew, “where you’re going, ‘great job everybody, we did it’, I went back to the trailer, and I just broke into tears. I had this sentence that was going over and over in my mind, ‘I don’t know who I am. I don’t know who I am.’ And that was scary.”
That night, he woke at 4am in agony. “It felt like I was being stabbed in the stomach,” Butler tells me. “I went to try to stand up and I couldn’t walk.” He was rushed to hospital, prepped for surgery for a burst appendix, and on an IV drip, when the CAT scan came back. “I had this virus that swells your lymph nodes and simulates the feeling of your appendix bursting. My body had just started shutting down, I hadn’t rested at all in those two years.”
He’s not exaggerating: “I woke up every day at about three or four in the morning with my heart pounding, like the feeling of when you’re going into battle. It was just the weight of the pressure and the responsibility.”
Butler is the sort of actor who throws everything into a role. Little known but for a career in teen TV shows, he came with a recommendation from Denzel Washington, who had starred with him in a Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. And anyone who saw Butler galloping across the Spahn movie ranch on horseback as the real-life Manson murderer Charles ‘Tex’ Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will have assumed they were watching a stunt double. “No, that was me,” he laughs. “I would ride for five hours a day, every day, for months beforehand.” The stunt coordinators on that film cautioned him to stick to “half speed” on the “really tricky” terrain. “And I go, ‘I’m not going half speed’, and I kicked the horse and we just raced. I remember [director of photography] Bob Richardson going, ‘[expletive] You can ride’.”
Luhrmann had been wanting to make Elvis for years, with a number of famous names in contention for the lead, among them the pop star Harry Styles. But Butler’s audition, for which he sang Unchained Melody, blew them all away. Presley had performed the song on stage less than four months before his death at the age of 42, at a time when he was overweight, lonely, addicted to prescription pills and broken on a wheel of relentless touring and exploitation of his talent.
Butler has talked about how he sang the song to his own mother, Lori, who died when he was 23, the same age Presley was when his mother Gladys died, while he was away in Germany after being drafted by the US army. Television interviews with Presley on his return to America present a wintry picture of internalised grief from which he never fully recovered. Reading about the singer’s relationship with his mother, Butler picked out a phrase that resonated for him: “They were ‘lethally enmeshed’.”
Elvis was born minutes after the stillbirth of his identical twin, Jesse. “He’s everything to [Gladys]. And Elvis had a void from the womb on – the first human contact he had was with his twin brother, and suddenly his other half is gone forever.”
Butler recalls his own existential crisis in the period after his mother’s death: “I’d just done a TV show that a lot of people liked, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. And I said, ‘Never again. I would rather not work as an actor than be in that world’. I didn’t work for eight or nine months, and you’re going, ‘What is my purpose? What fills my days?’”
Presley spent years making cheesy popcorn movies in Hollywood, from Blue Hawaii to Viva Las Vegas, thanks to one of the most widely detested figures in popular culture, his manager Colonel Tom Parker. Luhrmann took the risky decision to make the impresario, played with relish by Tom Hanks, an ever-present anti-hero in Elvis. He also keeps the dials turned up to 11. Was there ever a clash between Butler’s conception of Presley and Luhrmann’s?
“There were times where I may approach a scene one way and Baz would come up with another idea,” he says, but “I had so much trust that we could try anything.” Butler’s performance has been praised by Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla (played in the movie by Australian actress Olivia DeJonge), who first met the singer in Germany in 1959 at the age of 14. She later moved in with him at the Graceland mansion, outside Memphis, although they didn’t marry until 1967, when Priscilla was 21 and Presley 32. Butler went to meet her after he and Luhrmann drove 200 miles from Nashville, where they were recording in the studio in which Presley had cut more than 250 tracks, to Memphis, where he had spent his teenage years in poverty, working jobs to earn his own school lunch money. “It was so amazing, because this was his wife, and they spent so much of their life together. He loved her so much and she loves him to this day. It just gives you chills, you know. She gave me a hug and said, ‘You have a lot of support.’”
Priscilla encouraged Butler to visit Graceland, where he was allowed to spend time by himself. “She said, ‘I truly believe that’s where his spirit is.’ And you feel it in that house, the fact that he spent Christmas with his mom there, took baby Lisa Marie home there. It was really moving to me.”
Luhrmann takes pains to grow his Presley from the fertile musical soil of the South. The singer was raised alongside black families in the poorest part of Tupelo, attended gospel church services there, and later gravitated towards the clubs in Beale Street, Memphis, where so many of the great African-American rhythm and blues legends played.
Luhrmann peoples the film with Big Mama Thornton, who recorded the original Hound Dog, guitar maestro BB King and the gender-bending Little Richard; he even has the young Presley watching bluesman Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup singing That’s All Right, which he wrote and recorded in 1946, eight years before Presley covered the song. Crudup, who also composed the Presley standard My Baby Left Me, had struggled to make a living as a street singer, and was once found living in a packing crate.
Were the outsize rewards Presley got for singing his songs evidence of “cultural appropriation”? Butler acknowledges that “we don’t have Elvis without black music, without black culture, his style, his music, what he was inspired by. But I think there’s a difference between what he was doing and appropriation, because for him, it’s a lot more akin to Eminem, you know, it was the culture in which he grew up.” The idea that Elvis was racist, Butler says, is “one of those sad misunderstandings about him”.
I ask Butler if he’d ever felt the presence of Presley watching him while he was making the film. “Many times actually, a sort of metaphysical thing that’s hard to describe, but I had times where I would feel it, you know, or really transcendent moments on set where I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, when I’m on stage, and there’s all that responsibility and pressure and fear and everything gets to this fever pitch, there were moments where I was so terrified.”
He found comfort in the fact that “Elvis felt that way, that he talked about his stage fright all throughout his career, that he cared so much. And I realised it’s just coming from how much I care about this.”
Butler’s voice is naturally a lower baritone than Presley’s, but he performed most of the songs we see on screen – a feat that becomes even more remarkable when you know that opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa, when asked to name the greatest voice she’d ever heard, replied: “The young Elvis Presley, without any doubt.”
“Once I was out on stage and started feeling the rapport with the audience, and you look down and see the leather jumpsuit, or the white jumpsuit; these moments it went beyond what I thought that moment might be,” Butler says.
Those costumes mark the beats Luhrmann simply had to hit in his portrait: black leather for the 1968 comeback TV special (Butler owns the guitar Presley played in it); white for the extravagant Las Vegas stage show that opened in 1969, immortalising the image that spawned a million Elvis impersonators. For many, this period between 1968 and 1971 was the singer’s peak; decline set in after his divorce was finalised in 1973.
To this day, it brings tears to Butler’s eyes to think of Presley afraid to fall asleep in a room by himself, begging one of his backing singers to sit beside him, telling her stories about his mother, asking if she would come to his funeral.
“He said, ‘My great regret is I never made a classic film, because film is forever, and music is just forgotten.’ That hit hard, I just cried,” says Butler, “because he didn’t realise that he’s Elvis Presley.”
The Daily Telegraph