How Austin Butler Became ‘Elvis’: “I went into the research as though I had the job”

“Other audits and stuff were coming through. But I just said, ‘I’m not going to audition for anything else.’ I turned down everything else… I threw all my eggs into this one basket.” — Austin Butler

One of the most talked-about films of 2022 is Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a biographical film of the iconic King of Rock and Roll. In the film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood actor Austin Butler cartoons Elvis in what many critics having been calling a career-making performance. In an in-depth interview with Total FilmButler speaks about landing the role and how Elvis became something of an obsession for him during the audition process.

Butler recalls that he felt that being cast as Elvis was fate. He explains:

“There were a couple of moments before I’d ever heard that Baz was making an Elvis film that made it feel like the stars were aligning. A couple of months before I heard that he was doing it, I was driving – it was Christmastime in LA, and I was driving with a friend of mine, going to look at Christmas lights. An Elvis Christmas song was on, and I was singing along with it. And my friend reached over, and kind of had this epiphany moment. He said, ‘You need to play Elvis.’ That’s one of those things that feels like such a long shot, that I just brushed it off.

And then a couple of weeks later, I’m playing the piano at home, and kind of goofing around. And my friend was there as well, and said, ‘I’m serious, you need to figure out how you can get the rights to an Elvis film, and do it.’ And once again, I just kind of said, ‘That would be amazing.’ But it just seemed like such a long shot. And a couple of days after that, I get this call from my agent, who said, ‘Baz Luhrmann is making an Elvis film.’ All the hairs on my arm stood up. And I just thought, ‘There’s something here. I’ve got to just give this everything I’ve got.’”

In fact, Butler was so focused on landing the role that he refused to audition for anything else during the process. He reveals:

“I went into the research as though I had the job. And at the time, I didn’t have a job. I’d finished an acting job before that, and it’d been some months, and other auditions and stuff were coming through. But I just said, ‘I’m not going to audition for anything else.’ I turned down everything else, because I said, ‘I’m not going to split my energy here.’ I threw all my eggs into this one basket.

I started watching every documentary I could, listening to every Elvis record, reading every book that I could get my hands on that was written on him, and listening to every interview that he’d done.”

During that period, Butler did whatever he could prepare himself to play Elvis — however, he soon learned that he shouldn’t be imitating Elvis, he should be infusing his own personal experience into Elvis’s similar experiences. Butler continued:

“In one of the documentaries I’d watched, it really struck me that his mom passed away when he was 23, and my mom passed away when I was 23.

At this time, my agent said, ‘Put something on tape for Baz of you singing, because he’s seen you acting. But put something on of you singing.’ I ended up doing ‘Love Me Tender’ in my bedroom, and I watched it back. I thought, ‘I can’t stand this impersonation.’ So I didn’t send it.

And then a couple of days later, I woke up from a nightmare that my mom’s alive but dying again. And it was just that thing where you just wake up, and you just feel awful. I had tears in my eyes, and I thought, ‘What do I do with this? What would Elvis do with that?’ So I thought, ‘I’ll put it into music.’

So I went to the piano. I started playing the piano. I set up a camera, because I thought, ‘This is an emotion that he would have experienced. This is something that I can actually say: “This is true.”’ I always saw ‘Unchained Melody’ as a romantic song, but at that point, I thought, ‘What if I sing it to my mom?’ So I was playing the piano, and I sang it to my mom, and I recorded it. I was still in a bathrobe and everything. You know, I didn’t look like Elvis or anything. I just sent that to Baz. And that got his attention. “

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