By Meg Watson
Austin Butler attends the Australian premiere of Elvis.Credit:Chris Hyde/Getty Images
In a 1972 press conference at Madison Square Garden, five years before his untimely death, Elvis Presley told a pack of reporters “it’s very hard to live up to an image”.
“The image is one thing and the human being is another,” he said.
It was a brief comment – and disarmingly earnest too, coming from a man wearing a baby blue suit and cape who had just moments earlier stood up to show off his custom-made, gemstone-encrusted gold wrestling belt. But it’s one that clearly stuck with Austin Butler.
This is the quote the 31-year-old actor recalls, one week before he finds out if he’s won an Oscar for his portrayal of the icon in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, as he reflects on the best and worst parts of his newfound fame.
“In a way, [Elvis has] guided me to hopefully deal with this time in my life in the healthiest way I can,” he says.
“People have this idea of me that has certain shades of the real thing, but it’s not all me … Each one of us, as human beings, is much more complex than just any one idea.”
Despite being a total newcomer to Hollywood, Butler is one of the frontrunners to win best actor at the 95th Academy Awards next Monday. And, with Oscars buzz for his performance gearing up immediately after the film’s release last June, the entertainment industry has spent much of the past year obsessing over who he is and where he came from.
You might know him as the pre-teen heartthrob: a Californian kid who grew up in the shadow of Disneyland and forged his career playing high-school boyfriends on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and the CW.
Or, you may have heard he’s a hard worker (praise his one-time Broadway co-star Denzel Washington reportedly delivered via cold call to Luhrmann during casting). Butler famously endured a five-month audition process working with voice and movement coaches to secure the role of Elvis, eventually beating big names like Harry Styles and Miles Teller.
When production for the film was shut down at the start of the pandemic, Butler chose to stay in Australia – despite fears for family back home – and “focus on the work”. He holed up in a Gold Coast apartment for months and spent his days going for “long walks on the beach, listening to Elvis’ voice and his life and his songs”.
“I spent two Christmases in a row in Australia,” he says. “I was there for a year and a half … For two solid years, [Elvis] was the only thing that I thought about.”
And that leads into what is probably the most prevailing idea of him today: an Elvis obsessive.
Austin Butler portrayed Elvis at all stages of his career in the film, also contributing vocals to his early songs.Credit:Warner Bros Pictures
As much praise as Butler has received for his uncanny performance, he’s also been on the receiving end of a fair amount of mockery – especially for his voice, which still carries much of Elvis’ iconic Southern drawl.
After his best actor win at the Golden Globes, a writer for The Cut speculated he “refuses to stop using his Elvis voice, instead weathering the entire awards season speaking as if he is possessed by a southern ghost with laryngitis”.
Butler has spoken a lot about the voice, clarifying it’s not something he’s doing deliberately; he’s actually making active efforts to shake it loose. But he also seems level-headed about any criticism that comes with being in the public eye.
“There are times when people will say really, really nice things about you and then times when people say horrific things,” he says. “[I know I] can’t hold on to either one of those.
“Being able to look back at Elvis’ life allowed me to really meditate on those lessons that I ended up learning through him. [That includes] the emotional turmoil that comes when you experience so much love while you’re on stage, and your dopamine spikes through the roof, and then you’re in an empty hotel room and suddenly, you feel lower than ever.
“That sort of loneliness after so much adoration really taught me a lot about dealing with all that comes with fame. It’s helped me.”
Austin Butler attends the photocall for Elvis during the 75th annual Cannes film festival.Credit:Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Like Elvis, Butler was a shy kid who dealt with tragedy at a young age. After providing care in her final months, the actor lost his mother, Lori, to cancer when he was 23 – the same age Elvis was when his mum Gladys died.
He spent the time after her death away on a shoot for a fantasy TV series, on his own in a hotel in New Zealand, wondering whether there was any worth in the kind of work he was doing.
“After my mum passed away, I really started trying to think, ‘How can I best serve others? How can I make other people’s lives better?’” he says. “Because of the way my mother passed I started thinking about medicine, or helping people with chronic pain. My sister ended up going into that for a bit … But in the midst of all it, I kept going back to watching films.
“I would have that experience that I’ve had my entire life, of watching a movie and being transported by the magic of cinema: having moments of needing to cry, and a film has brought me that, or needing respite from whatever pain it was that I was feeling and having a film make me laugh.
“[There’s nothing like] being in a darkened room watching a movie and to leave feeling like the world is a bit brighter – feeling a little less alone.”
“If [movies] make just one person’s life a little bit better, then I feel that it’s a worthy endeavour”: Austin Butler.Credit:Warner Bros. Pictures
It’s not a surprising sentiment to hear from an actor nominated for an Academy Award. But that doesn’t mean it’s not sincere either.
In fact, Butler seems incredibly sincere about pretty much everything he talks about – whether that’s Elvis, his connection to the Presley family (“deeper than I could have ever imagined”), the magic of cinema, the surreal thrill of meeting A-list celebs during award season (“there’s only a handful of people where you can almost feel their energy before you see them; Tom Cruise is one of those people”), or a journalist from the other side of the world.
At the end of our conversation, I mention I’m six months pregnant with twins and his face lights up. Before two seconds have passed, he’s telling a beautiful story about how Elvis’ mother would dance for hours in church when pregnant with him and his twin brother, and how one psychologist thinks it informed his love of music.
“It’s the first human connection Elvis would have ever had,” Butler says. “Music was encoded into him, into the fibre of his being. It’s amazing.”
Moments like this won’t do much to shake the image Butler has built of himself as an Elvis obsessive, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“These days, I’m feeling incredibly fortunate and privileged to be a part of [the film and entertainment industry].
“This 12-year-old kid at a Q&A in London the other day told me, ‘I watched this film back in December, and it changed my life; I’ve been playing the guitar two hours a day’. I just thought, ‘How cool. Like, that’s what it’s about.’
“If just one person says that it makes their life a little bit better, then I feel that it’s a worthy endeavour.”
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