Austin Butler never planned to play Elvis Presley in a movie. The "Elvis" star hadn't even been told he resembled the late Rock 'n' Roll singer until a month before he learned about director Baz Luhrmann's ambitious film — a dramatic never-before-told Presley story starring an ensemble cast comprised of Tom Hanks, Olivia Dejonge, Kelvin Harrison Jr. Alton Mason, and Yola. However, as fate would have it, a series of chance events eventually helped Butler land the role of a lifetime.
"The bizarre thing was I never had anybody say, 'You look like Elvis, you should play Elvis,' or any of that."
"It was fate," Butler tells POPSUGAR. "The bizarre thing was I never had anybody say, 'You look like Elvis, you should play Elvis,' or any of that. Then [there were] two moments that this friend (ex-girlfriend Vanessa Hudgens) said, 'You got to play Elvis' . . . I got the call that Baz was making [the movie], and the hairs on my arm stood up. And I just thought, 'This is it, it feels like the stars aligning.'"
In Butler's mind, tackling such a monumental role was a long shot. Before commencing his Presley transformation, the actor had little faith in his ability to do the role justice, much less snag the part. While searching for his "Elvis" star, Luhrmann received a videotape of Butler tearfully singing Presley's cover of "Unchained Melody" — an informal audition that immediately caught his attention. The "cold call" Luhrmann received from Denzel Washington ultimately helped seal Butler's destiny.
The first thing Butler did when he was cast for "Elvis" in 2019 was call up dialect coach Tim Monich. "I said, 'We got to get to work,'" Butler says. The actor was all set to begin his "Elvis" journey, even spending time at Presley's Graceland in Memphis, TN, while preparing for the film. However, production on the film stalled in March 2020 due to the pandemic, leaving Butler alone for roughly six months in his apartment/Presley-decorated shrine to reflect on what his performance would look and sound like. He nearly psyched himself out of the opportunity, but leaning on advice from fellow actor Rami Malek helped Butler shake his nerves.
"There was this thing where I had an unrealistic expectation that I could somehow contort my face to look exactly like Elvis."
"[Malek] was very helpful when I was going through a near panic attack before starting," Butler jokingly reveals. "We actually spoke before COVID. So I was about to start shooting, and I didn't feel ready. I was on the verge of an anxiety attack, [and] I just didn't feel ready at that time — then I spoke to Rami, and he really helped me."
Butler initially struggled with his physical appearance in relation to Presley — he still didn't feel like he looked the part. He reveals, "There was this thing where I had an unrealistic expectation that I could somehow contort my face to look exactly like Elvis. Or I looked at other people, and I go, 'They look more like him,' that sort of thing — you start judging yourself. So for me, Rami was like, 'At the end of the day, it's not about that. You don't want to go to the Wax Museum and just see that. You want to see your soul and his soul colliding and creating something we've never seen before.'"
The liberating advice encouraged Butler on his mission to nail Presley's accent, mannerisms, movements, and how they changed through his active years — a "slow process" that took the actor a year and a half to complete. "It's like trying to learn an entire orchestra piece, where you're trying to learn every note and every instrument," Butler notes. "You can only learn one thing at a time, so I would obsess about what his eyes were doing at a certain moment, what his hands were doing, or the way that his voice changed because it wasn't just one voice."
The challenge to fully embody Presley was "fascinating" for Butler. But what mattered most to him wasn't turning into an exact replica of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, but honoring his humanity. That objective became his North Star in every "Elvis" scene he shot — one that would help him mold his version of Presley.
"I was trying to do what I had prepared and the homework that I'd been doing for eight months."
Butler says "Elvis" presented "tons of challenge" throughout the filmmaking process. The hardest scene he filmed called for him to instruct a band on how to perform a song during a rehearsal for Presley's Vegas show. Luhrmann wasn't satisfied with the initial takes, so he asked Butler and the band to "play the song raw." "We did it one take, and it was awful," Butler says. "It was that thing where you feel all the air in the room just suck out, and it's because I was trying to do it perfectly. I was trying to do what I had prepared and the homework that I'd been doing for eight months, or however long I'd had this track in my mind . . . I was thinking, 'This is a nightmare — I'm not going to get through today.'"
A pep talk with himself ultimately gave Butler the motivation he needed to let go of what was expected of him and instead do what felt right. "I said, 'This isn't about playing perfectly. This is about hearing the music and getting them to play the music that's in your mind,'" he says. "So I went back out there, and suddenly, I felt free. It became one of the most exciting moments that I've had, because it felt so truthful. . . . Getting everybody to play [the song] the way that it was in my mind — it was so liberating, and suddenly, you feel like you're out of your body. That was a beautiful moment for me."
It's not surprising that there are still traces of his newfound Southern twang in his voice, considering how long he spent with a character like Presley. The experience of depicting Presley on the big screen will never leave Butler, and he seems content with that. He still perks up at any chance to revisit his portrayal in real life.
"Elvis" hit theaters worldwide on June 24.