On the day of Austin Butler’s final screen test for “Elvis,” director Baz Luhrmann threw everything at him.
Butler had spent five months preparing for this moment, working on the role with Luhrmann, doing hair and makeup tests, rehearsing the songs. Against all odds, Butler had become the unlikely favorite to land the role over more established names like Harry Styles, Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort. But it wasn’t official yet.
And during the screen test, Luhrmann flipped the script. Some of the scenes Butler had prepared went out the window. In others, Luhrmann provided him with lines behind the camera. The minute of “Suspicious Minds” Butler was scheduled to play in a Presley jumpsuit stretched to six.
“I came home and really thought, ‘I don’t think I got it. It felt like my hands were tied behind my back,’” Butler said in a recent interview.
A week later in Los Angeles, the 30-year-old actor’s phone rang. Luhrmann was calling from Australia.
“I look at the phone and I’m like, ‘OK, it’s time,'” Butler says. “I picked up the phone and he was very dramatic and downcast. He said, ‘Austin, I just wanted to be the first one to call you and say…Are you ready to fly, Mr. Presley?'”
When “Elvis” hits theaters on Friday, he’ll resurrect one of America’s most iconic musical figures in the biggest, most dazzling film to ever attempt to capture the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. And it will propel Butler, an Orange County, Calif., Orange County native best known to this day for playing Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood,” to a much bigger stage. big.
“It all feels a bit like this wonderful dream,” Butler said the day after the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. “I have to take a few moments to breathe deeply and say, ‘This is real life.'”
What’s real and what’s fake in the much-imitated Elvis over-the-top country hasn’t always been easy to discern. “Elvis,” which Luhrmann co-scripted, doesn’t take a standard biographical view of Presley, but tells his story through Presley’s infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a former carnival barker who guided Presley to stardom, but exploited and manipulated him until Presley’s death in 1977. Parker tells the story, adding dimension about the nature of show business and performance.
“Baz at the very first meeting said, ‘Look, this is a story of two people. There would never have been an Elvis without Colonel Tom Parker and, in his mind, there would never have been a Colonel Tom. Parker without Elvis,” Hanks says. “As soon as he said that, I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be new territory, and worthy of the baz-maximalist-confetti-strewn style of cinema.'”
And, like “The Great Gatsby” and “Moulin Rouge,” “Elvis” is indeed an outlandish, Baz-style maximalist outburst. As you’d expect, it goes through pivotal moments in the life of the Mississippi-born Memphis singer and a jukebox of songs. But “Elvis” also offers a younger, rebellious portrayal of Presley as a product of black gospel music, a hip-shaking sex symbol in eyeliner and a progressive-minded maverick whose the tightly controlled career reflected the cultural battles of yesterday and today. Butler’s is an electric Elvis, not a campy nostalgia act, with more Bowie in it than you might think.
“I’m not here to tell the world that Elvis is a great person. I’ll tell you what he is to me,” Luhrmann says. “Everyone has their Elvis.”
“My job is usually to take things that are considered boring, old-fashioned, or irrelevant, strip them of rust, and recode them,” says Luhrmann, creator of modern-day “Romeo + Juliet.” “Not to change them, just to retranslate them so that their value is present again.”
Presley’s value to contemporary audiences, while surpassing most of his contemporaries, has faded somewhat. For many, it represents the appropriation of black music. Some relatively recent productions – the Broadway musical “All Shook Up” in 2005, the Cirque du Soleil show Viva Elvis in Las Vegas – have failed to catch on.
All of this meant that Butler had a lot on his shoulders. For him, it was essential to find ways to make Presley more human than superhuman. A resonant connection for the actor was learning that Presley’s mother died when he was 23, the same age Butler was when he lost his mother. And like Presley, an initially shy performer, Butler grew up shy.
“I could then say, ‘When I’m scared and I feel like all the pressure is on me and I’m terrified of falling on my face, he felt those things,'” Butler said. “So I could say, ‘It’s normal to feel fear. That’s how you channel it. “”
“Elvis” is most moving in its second half, in the film’s Vegas section, when Presley often reached artistic heights on stage during his 1969-76 tour at the International Hotel, but was increasingly trapped by Parker (who refused to tour Presley internationally) and drug use. Priscilla Presley, who enthusiastically supported the film, is played by Olivia DeJonge.
“A lot of the characters in this movie are larger than life and authentically larger than life,” says DeJonge. “With Priscilla, I wanted to make sure she felt grounded and more like Elvis’ breath so that whenever he was with her he was relaxed.”
Before “Elvis” began filming in Memphis, Hanks had dinner with Priscilla Presley, who went on to describe her ex-husband as “an artist as unique as Picasso and as popular as Charlie Chaplin who didn’t really feel like himself. and at home than when he was singing.”
While a meaner role represents a rare departure for Hanks – who tested positive for coronavirus while filming the film in Australia, an indelible moment of the early pandemic – “Elvis” is also typical of the actor in this that he struggles with American history and exists as a stand-alone actor. drama. “Elvis” will primarily compete with franchise installments in theaters this summer.
“The franchise concept is now so much a part of the entertainment industry complex that for me, I just don’t think it’s a whole lot of fun,” Hanks says. “Everyone knows I’ve been doing this for a really long time, so I think they’re going to have so much confidence that they’re going to shoot me all three acts, and then they’ll decide if it was worth seeing or not.”
Reviews were largely positive for “Elvis,” but they were glowing for Butler. (In the film, he sings some songs while Presley’s voice is used in others.) The actor estimates he devoted two years of his life to the film, obsessively researching Presley and gradually transforming himself. in him. Butler went through daily routines wondering how Presley did them. By the end of the film, Butler struggled to let go.
“Suddenly it was me brushing my teeth, now it’s me doing these mundane things. It was a real existential crisis when I was done,” Butler says. “The next morning I woke up and I couldn’t walk. I thought my appendix had burst. It was the most excruciating pain in my stomach, so they took me to the emergency room. It’s crazy how your body can hold out for the duration of doing something.”
The first big scene Butler shot, on the second day of production, was Presley recording his memorable comeback special. The scene put a leather-clad butler in isolation on stage, with little to rely on beside his own ability to thrill a crowd. His nerves almost overwhelmed him.
“But this terror of my whole career, like rolling on this movie, that’s exactly how Elvis felt,” Butler said. “His music career was on the line. It was decisive for him. So I could rest in that. Then I went out there and it was like having an out of body experience.”