The day of Austin Butler’s last camera test for Elvisdirector Baz Luhrmann threw everything at him.
Butler had spent five months preparing for this moment, working on the part with Luhrmann, doing hair and makeup tests, rehearsing the songs. Against all odds, he had become the unlikely favorite for the role over more established performers like Harry Styles, Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort. But it wasn’t official yet.
And during the screen test, Luhrmann made a change to the script. Some of the scenes that Butler had prepared were scrapped. In others, Luhrmann gave dialogue from behind the camera. The minute of “Suspicious Minds” that Butler was to perform in an Elvis Presley suit was stretched to six.
“I came home and I really thought, ‘I don’t think I’ve made it. I 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 received a call. It was Luhrmann from Australia.
“I look at the phone and say, ‘OK, this is the time,’” Butler recalled. “I picked up the phone and he sounded very dramatic and downcast. He said, ‘Austin, he just wanted to be the first to call you and tell you…Are you ready to fly, Mr Presley?’”
When Elvis opens in theaters this Friday, it will resurrect one of the most iconic figures in American music in the biggest, most dazzling film ever to try to capture the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It will also cast Butler, an Orange County, California native previously known for playing Tex Watson on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) by Quentin Tarantino, to a much larger stage.
“It feels like a wonderful dream,” Butler said the morning after the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. “I have to take a moment to take a deep breath and say, ‘This is real life.'”
What is real and what is fictional in the hype land of the much-imitated Elvis has not always been easy to discern. Elviswhich Luhrmann co-wrote, does not present a standard biographical overview of Presley, but rather tells his story through his infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a former sideshow huckster who propelled Presley to stardom but exploited and manipulated him until the star’s death in 1977. Parker narrates the story, adding a dimension to the nature of show business.
“Baz at the first meeting said, ‘Look, this is a story about two people. There would never have been an Elvis without a Colonel Tom Parker and, in his own mind, there would never have been a Colonel Tom Parker without Elvis,” Hanks said. “As soon as he said that, I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be new ground, and worthy of Baz’s confetti-filled, maximalist cinematic style.'”
And the same what The Great Gatsby (“The Great Gatsby”) and Moulin Rouge” (“Love in red”), Elvis is certainly a flamboyant, maximalist Baz-esque blast that, while retracing pivotal moments in the life of the Mississippi-born Memphis singer and a jukebox of songs, offers a more youthful and rebellious portrait of Presley as a product of black gospel music, a hip-shaking, eyeliner-wearing sex symbol and a progressive-minded maverick whose tightly controlled career mirrored the cultural battles then and now. He is an Elvis with more of a David Bowie than you might expect.
“I’m not here to tell the world that Elvis is a great person. I will say what he is to me,” Luhrmann said. “Everyone has their Elvis.”
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“Usually my job is to take things that are considered boring, old-fashioned or irrelevant, remove the rust and re-encode them,” added the creator of the modern version. Romeo + Juliet (“Romeo + Juliet”) by Shakespeare. “Not to change them, just to re-translate them so that their value is present again.”
Presley’s value to today’s audiences, while still surpassing most of his contemporaries, has faded somewhat. For many, he stands as a totem of black music appropriation. Some relatively recent productions, such as the 2005 Broadway musical “All Shook Up” or Cirque Du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis” show in Las Vegas, failed to attract significant audiences.
All of this means that Butler had a heavy weight on his shoulders. For him, it was essential to find ways to make Presley human, not superhuman. One connection that resonated with him was learning that Presley’s mother died when the singer was 23, the same age Butler was when he lost his mother. And like Presley, an initially shy actor, Butler grew up shy.
“Then I could say, ‘When I’m scared and I feel like all the pressure is on me and I’m afraid I’m going to fall flat on my face, he felt those things,’” Butler said. “’It’s okay to be afraid. It’s how you channel it.’”
Elvis is more moving in its second halfalready with Presley in Las Vegas achieving constant artistic achievements during his career at the International hotel from 1969 to 1976. But Presley was increasingly trapped by Parker, who refused to make an international tour of the artist, and drug use.
Priscilla Presley, who has enthusiastically supported the film, is played by Olivia DeJonge.
“A lot of the characters in this movie are mythical,” DeJonge said. “With Priscilla, I wanted to make sure she felt grounded and more like Elvis breathing so that whenever he was with her, he was relaxed.”
Before “Elvis” began filming in Memphis, Hanks dined with Priscilla, who described her ex-husband as “an artist as unique as Picasso and as popular as Charlie Chaplin who really just felt himself and at home when he sang.”
“Elvis” was largely filmed in Australia but had to stop initially when Hanks, in an indelible moment in the early days of the pandemic, tested positive for COVID-19. While the villainous role represents a rare change for Hanks, “Elvis” is also typical of Hanks in that it deals with American history and as a standalone drama, unlike the franchise films with which “Elvis ” will compete in theaters this season.
“The franchise concept is now such a big part of the show business complex that, to me, it just isn’t a lot of fun,” Hanks said. “Everyone knows I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I think they’ll trust me to give them all three acts and decide if it was worth watching or not.”
Reviews for “Elvis” have been largely positive and very enthusiastic for Butler, whose voice is heard on some songs while Presley’s is used on others. The actor acknowledges that he devoted two years of his life to the film, researching Presley and gradually transforming into him. In daily routines like brushing his teeth, he wondered how Presley brushed his. When he finished filming, he had a hard time letting go of the role.
“Suddenly it was me brushing my teeth, doing these mundane things. It was a real existential crisis when I finished,” Butler said. “The next morning, I woke up and couldn’t walk. I thought I had appendicitis. I had the most excruciating stomach pain, so I was taken to the ER. It’s amazing how your body can hold on while you’re doing something.”
The first big scene Butler shot, on the second day of production, was one of Presley filming his momentous comeback special. He was dressed in leather and isolated on stage, with little to fall back on other than his own ability to thrill a crowd. His nerves nearly overwhelmed him.
“But that terror of feeling like my whole career was on the line in this movie, that’s exactly what Elvis was feeling,” Butler said. “His musical career was at stake. It was a defining moment for him. So I was able to lean on that. Then I got out of there and it was like having an out-of-body experience.”