Austin Butler Reflects on ‘Elvis’ Journey, How He Learned to Embrace Auditions and Early Acting Years: ‘I Was Cripplingly Shy’

In November, Austin Butler was in Cincinnati on the set of Jeff Nichols’ film, “The Bikeriders.” He was shooting a scene with co-stars Tom Hardy and Michael Shannon that involved Shannon delivering a two-page monologue. Butler found himself lost in the moment, watching his fellow actor. “Jeff called cut and Mike walks away,” Butler recalls. “And Tom turns to me goes, ‘It doesn’t get any better than that.’”

Butler says Hardy was referencing Shannon’s performance, which he says, “wasn’t even watching an actor, it was watching a human being living in front of you.”

The 31-year-old actor could also be referring to the past year of his life, which found his career launched from roles in shows including “Zoey 101” and “The Carrie Diaries” into a bona-fide, world-famous movie star thanks to his turn in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis.” And not just any movie star, but the kind of old-school throwback to a Golden Age that is becoming rarer and rarer in Hollywood where his talent is as recognized as his star quality.

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“I got to be honest, I just feel so fortunate,” Butler says of the whirlwind months since “Elvis” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a rapturous response in May before hitting theaters in June when it took in close to $300 million at the box office.

If there was any doubt of the love for the film and his performance, industry screenings and events are still packed full despite the film being available on HBO Max and other platforms.

Since then, Butler has won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe Award, been nominated for both a SAG Award and an Oscar, hosted the Christmas episode of “Saturday Night Live” and filmed a role in the hotly anticipated “Dune: Part Two.”

Austin Butler Variety Extra Edition Cover Elvis
Austin Butler Variety Extra Edition Cover Elvis

By now, Butler’s story of landing the life-changing role of Elvis Presley is fairly established. How he pursued the part, working with movement, dialect and singing coaches just for the audition. How a major turning point occurred one late night when he was thinking about his mother, who, like Presley’s, died when he was in his 20s. In a bathrobe, Butler sat down at a piano and recorded himself singing “Unchained Melody” in honor of her. He had already sent one audition to Luhrmann but his agent urged him to send this one as well, and it was that video that caught the director’s eye. How a five-month process took place before he landed the role. And then how production was shut down right before filming due to the COVID pandemic, but Butler stayed in Australia to work on the role.

Also discussed at length have been his meticulous preparation for the part, as has his deep affection for Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, and daughter, Lisa Marie, who passed away just hours after Butler won the Golden Globe. Even today, weeks later, Butler still seems to be struggling to comprehend it.

“She had the greatest laugh,” Butler says. “The greatest, warmest and most honest laugh — she wasn’t putting it on. You felt terrific when you made her laugh.”

So Variety wanted to talk to Butler about some other topics — about how he’s handled rejection on the long road to “Elvis,” some of his favorite moments of the past year and one adorable canine co-star.

The audition process for “Elvis” lasted five months. Were there periods of time when you assumed it wasn’t happening, that they had gone with someone else?

From the start I knew Baz doesn’t just do auditions, he does workshops. So I knew it would be a process. I was able to keep my head down and concentrate on the work and try not to get too invested in thinking of it as my part.

I learned so much during that time — like the day of the screen test. He changed everything that day and rewrote the scenes I thought I was going to do. I had prepared this one scene and he said, “We don’t have time, we’ve got to get somebody else in here to screen test right after you. So we have to get you through.” And I felt suddenly like it wasn’t mine. But then the thing I realized about Baz, and acting in general, is that you really do your homework and then you can change it up. And sometimes things end up happening you didn’t expect and even if it’s not this perfect thing you had imagined when you were working on it in your bedroom, you find something new and exciting.

Austin Butler Variety Extra Edition Elvis
Austin Butler Variety Extra Edition Elvis

I know this is part of the job, but when a director mentions, “I’m seeing someone later today,” what does that do for you mentally?

You know, I think actors are just inherently insecure. And the amount of times we’ve heard no, or that somebody else is better for the job… you’re always having to manage that little voice in your head that says you’re not good enough, or that that somebody else would be better. So for that week when there was silence, I had to do my own therapy and say, “Even if it doesn’t turn out the way I want, I got to work with one of my favorite filmmakers for five months.”

That’s such a healthy way of looking at it.

Yeah, well I say that now, but I would have been really sad if I didn’t get this. (Laughs) So I was happy that it all worked out.

You started acting at such a young age. How did you deal with all the rejection? Especially as a kid?

You get told “no” so many times. And early on someone told me something that really helped. They said, “It’s a numbers game. Prepare to go to 100 auditions before you book one.” So the idea was, I was just going through one of those hundreds to get to the one. I also saw this great video of Philip Seymour Hoffman where he said, “Any time that you have the opportunity to act, that is about you getting to do your job, it’s not about the role.” So even if it’s an audition, you’re getting to act in front of people in a room that somebody else paid for. Don’t think about it as getting the job, think about it as doing the best acting you can possibly do. Making it about the work, not the job, really changed my perspective.

When I started being around people who were making things, I felt their energy, it was like my tribe. It made me enjoy being there. And then I started learning that it was a craft, that you could get better and it just made me want to work harder.

That seems like such a healthy attitude; did you always have that feeling about performing?

I often talk about being shy and I think people don’t believe me. But I was cripplingly shy and it still sort of perplexes me that my passion became acting. But I was grateful to acting because it gave me a therapeutic way out of that shyness. Like, it was so debilitating to be at a restaurant as a kid and I didn’t want to talk to a stranger so I would whisper to my mom and ask her to order for me. But being about to have words written for me, words I could express emotions through that would suddenly start revealing things inside of me — and it was in a way where there were no consequences. I could be angry, I could be sad, I was allowed to feel what I wanted

Austin Butler Variety Extra Edition Elvis
Austin Butler Variety Extra Edition Elvis

Prior to “Elvis,” you stood out so vividly as Manson Family member Tex Watson in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — I understand working with Quentin Tarantino was a longtime goal of yours?

Completely. I’ve said this before but I really did print out the “Pulp Fiction” script and would read it with my mom when we would go to auditions or acting class as a kid. My mom was also big into making vision boards and putting out to the universe the things you wanted and Quentin was always that person who I dreamed of working with. When I was doing “The Iceman Cometh” I got this audition for the film, but we didn’t know what the part was. Sometimes you can overthink auditions and preparation but I just didn’t have the time with this one.

What scene did you audition with?

They actually sent me the scene Timothy Olyphant does in the movie, it’s within the fictional film in the film. I had no idea what the movie was, so I assumed it was a Western. They wanted me to film both parts, playing the good guy and the bad guy. So I set up the camera and did the scene with myself to a mark on the wall. I sent it off and the next day they said, “On Monday you’re going to fly to L.A. to meet with Quentin.” I went and they took my phone and everything away and that’s when I learned I was auditioning for Tex Watson.

Quentin came in and most auditions last 10 minutes if you’re lucky. I was there from like 9 in the morning to 9 p.m. He doesn’t record auditions, he really works with you and looks at you. It’s the same way on set, he doesn’t look through a monitor. I was supposed to have two other meetings that day and because I didn’t have my phone, my agent was worried. But at the end of the day, Quentin told me I had the part and gave me a hug. Then I got back on a plane and did the play the next day.

Austin Butler Variety Extra Edition Elvis
Austin Butler Variety Extra Edition Elvis

You’ve worked with some great actors in that film, but I’m most starstuck by the pitbull Brandy, even though Tex meets a grisly end thanks to her. I’m a fan of the breed, though they’re often misunderstood.

There were actually two different dogs and they were both so beautiful! My very first dog, his name was Jake, was a pitbull with a little bit of lab and he was the best. I would get a pitbull any day. I love them so much, they’re so sweet.

There has been so much love for your performance, including from your peers. Have you got to meet anyone you really admire during this process?

Oh, too many to name. And I love talking to them about the craft and our roles, really talking. Or just having fun. One that springs to mind is meeting Robert Downey Jr. on the red carpet at the Governors Awards. He walked up and told the photographers, “I want to see how Butler does it.” Then I said it was his turn to take some photos. Then we were posing together and I said, “Let’s do our best Blue Steel look.” So we both did our best Blue Steel for the cameras.

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