The star of Baz Luhrmann’s loud and colourful biopic describes how he tried to avoid caricature and why he used a typewriter to communicate with co-star Tom Hanks during filming
About a quarter of an hour into Baz Luhrmann’s bright and brash biopic Elvis, unscrupulous promoter Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) is discussing the finer points of soft country with his leading musical acts when he hears a strange but compelling noise coming from a phonograph.
It’s Elvis Presley, singing the opening bars of That’s Alright Mama, a sound that will shortly change the world. And the way we hear that voice, rising rhythmically from a sea of tired and sentimental folk music, gives one a sense of just how strange and unsettling Elvis must have sounded at the time.
For the older generations, particularly in the Jim Crow south, his music was too sexual, too uninhibited, his dancing insufficiently white. Protests would hamper his early success, thwarting his creativity, driving him towards the mainstream, and a string of banal movies that nearly sunk his career. He rebounded, with a remarkable 1968 TV special, and an electrifying Las Vegas run that began in splendour, ended in farce.
The story of Elvis’s brief, spectacular life is well known even now, almost 45 years after his death, his voice and look so familiar that most people can manage an impression of him. Given a cultural icon so ubiquitous, pity the poor actor who has to play him.
That would be Austin Butler, a fresh-faced Californian born 14 years after Presley died, and whose research for the role must have felt a bit like archaeology. How did he feel, I wonder, when Luhrmann told him he’d been cast?
“I felt this enormous weight of responsibility,” he tells me via Zoom. “I had five months with Baz before I was cast where we just experimented, and then I had to do the screen test. Baz threw everything at me, he threw everything that I had prepared out the window so the scenes changed, he did the same thing that he does on set, and I realise now he was really testing me to see how I’d be under that kind of pressure.”
Austin had been forewarned about the Luhrmann ways by a rather famous colleague. “But like Leo [DiCaprio] told me earlier, Baz will push you off balance, and pull things out of you that you never knew you had inside you, and that’s exactly how it was. After that screen test, it was a week before he called me to tell me I’d got the part — it was a really long week! And when he finally called me and said are you ready to fly Mr Presley, I felt this really deep excitement and joy, followed immediately by fear.”
Did he know much about Elvis before he got the part? “I knew the music from the 50s, I had seen some of his films, I’d seen some footage, though nowhere near the full extent of what’s out there — and so really I had a very peripheral understanding of his life. So that was huge for me to get to explore his life.”
Caricature was a risk he was determined to avoid. “You have to get beyond that,” he tells me. “So many people have taken one thing that he does and they heighten it 100 times, and for me, I had to strip all that away and find the subtlety of him; the sensitivity, the vulnerability, his humanity.”
Luhrmann’s film has been given the blessing of the extended Presley family, which turned out to be particularly serendipitous for Butler.
“I met Priscilla, and I got to go to Graceland. She was very ethereal,” he recalls, “we didn’t talk much about stories or that sort of thing, it was more being in her presence and looking into the eyes of this woman that he fell in love with, and she’s the mother of his only child, and that was such a profound moment for me.
“She told me two things: one, you have really big shoes to fill, and two, you have a lot of support. And that was really enormous for me. She gave me a big hug and asked me if I had been to Graceland, and I said no, I’m about to go over there, and she said, I believe that’s where his spirit is. So I went over and I spent the day in the house by myself, just absorbing the way it feels in there.”
What was it like, being in that house loaded with memories on his own?
“It humanised him a lot, because you get to see this home that he bought for his parents and that he spent all his Christmases in, and you just think, his energy is in those walls, he’s walked these floors, and you see his personality through his home. But at that time, I still felt like a kid in my dad’s suit, where it felt so big, and I felt small, and so my process was about getting to the point where I felt his humanity so deeply that I had stripped away the icon or the caricature.
“After finishing the film, I went back to Graceland, it was about a month or two ago. And feeling the difference was remarkable, because the first time I still was struggling with these feelings of imposter syndrome, and going back I felt like I was coming home.”
In Luhrmann’s film, it’s made clear that Colonel Tom Parker’s influence was both a blessing and a curse for Elvis Presley. Elvis said himself that had Parker not discovered him in 1955, he might never have become the huge star he did. He might also, however, have been happier, because Parker may well have played a role in Elvis’s drug dependency, and certainly thwarted his creativity, pushing him into a series of thoroughly regrettable movies, and blocking his plans to tour internationally in the 1970s.
And though ‘Parker’ claimed to hail from Huntington, West Virginia, he was in fact a Dutchman, Dries van Kuijk, who had a serious gambling addiction, lied about practically everything and may quite possibly have been a sociopath. In Elvis, he is played with a mephistophelian flourish by Tom Hanks, who leans on his strange ‘southern’ accent and asks us kindly to see things from his point of view.
Did Austin and Hanks work closely in rehearsals, I wonder, or avoid each other in order to preserve the frisson of simmering conflict? “So for Tom and I, we had certain challenges because the Covid protocols on set meant that we didn’t have time where we were in the same hair and make-up room. They would separate us for the day until we were on set, but there was a kind of silver lining to that as well — often he wouldn’t see me until I walked out on stage, and so that was really a special experience.
“Tom was really generous and he gave me a typewriter when he got to Australia (where Elvis was filmed). It came with a typewritten letter from Colonel Tom Parker, that Hanks had written. So he sends me that letter saying, this is a machine on which we can communicate. And I then typed him back as Elvis, and we started sending these letters back and forth.
“It was a way I’d never rehearsed before, but it was really remarkable because to commit something to paper, you have to really question, is this what this human believes? So it helped me to form a lot of the backstory and an internal life — and it really was this spontaneous thing that we did.”
Those typewriters formed a pathway into a vexed and complex relationship. “It was a very complicated relationship that they had, because I truly believe there was real love there, the love of a father figure, because Elvis remained loyal to him his entire life, and loyal to a fault.”
An even bigger relationship for Presley was the one with his mother, Gladys, who died when he was 23. Elvis’s reaction to that is one of the key scenes in the film, and a situation Austin Butler could deeply sympathise with.
“One of the real keys into his humanity for me was learning that his mom died when he was 23, which is the same age I was when my mom passed. And so that’s one of those scenes you know is coming and you don’t want to go there, it’s like walking into fire because you just know this is going to be very painful.
“Then the day came, and in a way I felt like I could honour my own mother through that, because I wouldn’t be here without her on every level, and I definitely wouldn’t be an actor if she hadn’t quit her job to drive me to auditions and support me in every way. So this is like a sort of love letter to my mom, and to Elvis and his mom.”
Last month, Elvis premiered in the glitziest manner possible — at the Cannes Film Festival. “It was so magical,” Austin says, “out of this world. I’d never been to Cannes before, and also I hadn’t seen the film yet! Priscilla, Tom, Olivia [DeJonge], Baz, everybody had seen the film, but I waited a long time and then I thought I’ve waited this long, why don’t I just wait for Cannes.
“It’s kind of scary because you don’t know how the audience is going to respond, but I just thought this has the potential to be one of those moments that I’ll never forget, and it turned out to be just that. Everybody was so kind, the reception, the energy of the audience, and the love of everybody in that theatre was really out of this world.”
Making Elvis, though, had not been a cakewalk. Tom Hanks caught Covid midway through the shoot, and at the end of it, Austin Butler collapsed. “Yeah, I didn’t get sick the entire time I was preparing and filming the movie, and the day I wrapped, I went home, went to bed, and woke up at four in the morning in excruciating pain, and ended up in the hospital. I couldn’t get out of bed for a week. It’s wild how your body can hold on until it knows you’re done and then it gives up.”
‘Elvis’ opens in cinemas on June 24