Elvis and Austin Butler feel the temperature rise

On the day of Austin Butler’s final screen test for Elvis, director Baz Luhrmann threw everything at him. Butler had spent five months building up to that point, working on the part 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 changed the script. Some of the scenes Butler had set up went out the window. In others, Luhrmann gave lines from behind the camera. The minute of “Suspicious Minds” that Butler was to perform in a Presley jumpsuit was lengthened to six.

“I got home and I really thought, ‘I don’t think I got that. 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’s phone rang. Luhrmann was calling from Australia.

“I look at the phone and say, ‘OK, this is the time,’” says Austin Butler. “I picked up the phone and he was very dramatic and downcast. He’s like, ‘Austin, I just wanted to be the first to call you and tell you…Are you ready to fly, Mr. Presley?’”

When Elvis opens in theaters on Friday, he 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. And it will propel Butler, a native of Orange County, California, best known to this point for playing Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, to a much bigger stage.

“It all 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’s real and what’s fake in the hype land of the much-imitated Elvis hasn’t always been easy to discern. Elvis, which Luhrmann co-wrote, has no standard biographical take on Presley, instead telling his story through Presley’s infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a former carnival barker who guided Presley to stardom but lost it. exploited and manipulated. until Presley’s death in 1977. Parker narrates the story, adding a dimension to the nature of show business and performance.

“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 opinion, there would never have been a Colonel Tom Parker without Elvis,” says Hanks. “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, like The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge, Elvis is, in fact, a flamboyant, maximalist Baz-esque outburst. Unsurprisingly, it flashes past pivotal moments in the life of the Mississippi-born Memphis singer and a jukebox of songs. But Elvis also offers a more youthful, rebellious portrayal of Presley as a product of black gospel music, a hip-shaking sex symbol in eyeliner, and a progressive-minded maverick whose tightly controlled career mirrored the cultural battles of then and now. . Butler’s is an electric Elvis, not a cheesy nostalgia act, with more Bowie in it than you might expect.

“I’m not here to tell the world that Elvis is a great person. I’ll tell you what he is to me,” says Luhrmann. “Everyone has their Elvis.”

“Usually my job is to take things that are considered boring, old-fashioned or not relevant, remove the rust and re-encode them,” says Luhrmann, creator of the modern Romeo + Juliet. “Not to change them, just to retranslate them so that their value is present again.”

Presley’s value to contemporary audiences, while still surpassing most of his contemporaries, has faded somewhat. For many he represents the appropriation of black music. Some relatively recent productions — the 2005 Broadway musical “All Shook Up,” Cirque du Soleil’s Viva Elvis show in Las Vegas — failed to catch on substantially.

All of which meant 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 actor, Butler grew up shy.

“Then I could say, ‘When I feel scared and I feel like all the pressure is on me and I’m scared I’m going to fall flat on my face, he felt those things,’” says Butler. “Then he might say, ‘It’s okay to feel fear. It’s how you channel it.’”

Elvis is most poignant in his second half, in the Las Vegas section of the film, when Presley often achieved artistic accomplishments onstage during his 1969-1976 run at the International Hotel, but was increasingly caught up by Parker (who refused to do an international tour of Presley). and drug use. Priscilla Presley, who has enthusiastically supported the film, is played by Olivia DeJonge.

“A lot of the characters in this film are larger than life and genuinely larger than life,” says DeJonge. “With Priscilla, I wanted to make sure that she felt grounded and more like Elvis’ breath so that whenever he’s with her, he’s relaxed about her.”

Before Elvis began filming in Memphis, Hanks dined with Priscilla Presley, who later described her ex-husband as “an artist as unique as Picasso and as popular as Charlie Chaplin who really only felt truly himself and at home when he sang.” “.

While a more villainous role represents a rare departure for Hanks, who tested positive for coronavirus while filming the film in Australia, an indelible early pandemic moment, Elvis is also typical for the actor as he grapples with American history and it exists as a stand-alone drama. “Elvis” will primarily compete with franchise installments in theaters this summer.

“The franchise concept is now such a big part of the entertainment industrial complex that, to me, I just don’t think it’s a lot of fun,” says Hanks. “Everyone knows I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I think they’re going to have so much faith that they’ll get all three acts out of me, and then decide if it was worth it. watching or not.”

Reviews have been largely positive for Elvis, but enthusiastic for Butler. (In the movie, he sings some songs while Presley’s voice is used on others.) The actor acknowledges that he devoted two years of his life to the film, obsessively researching Presley and gradually transforming into him. Butler went through the daily routines wondering how Presley did them. When he finished the movie, Butler struggled to let him go.

“Suddenly it was me brushing my teeth, now it’s me doing these mundane things. It was a real existential crisis when I finished,” says Butler. “The next morning, I woke up and couldn’t walk. I thought my appendix would burst. It was 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 Presley filming his momentous comeback special. The scene left a leather-clad butler isolated on stage, with little to rely on other than his own ability to thrill a crowd. His nerves nearly overwhelmed him.

“But that terror of my entire career feeling like I was in this movie, that’s exactly what Elvis was feeling,” says Butler. “His musical career was at stake. It was make or break for him. Then he could rest on it. Then I came out and it was like having an out-of-body experience.”

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