Of the estimated 400,000 Elvis Presley impersonators worldwide, many critics believe that only one man has successfully done the impossible: transformed into the King of Rock and Roll himself. Austin Butler, who plays the titular role in Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis, has quickly become a frontrunner for the 2022 Academy Awards for his awe-inspiring depiction of Elvis Presley. One thing Butler wants fans to know is that becoming Elvis was far from easy.
Butler landed the role while singing in a robe
The beginning of Austin Butler’s Elvis journey began when director Baz Luhrmann received a video of Butler singing “Unchained Melody” in a robe. Luhrmann was taken aback by the out-of-the-blue message but fascinated by the young actor’s talent, asking “Was it an audition? Or was he having a breakdown?”
The director brought Butler into the studio to rehearse potential scenes. Butler’s commitment to the role was at times so intense that not even Luhrmann could tell if he was in character. With an endearing Southern accent, many people on set were surprised to learn Butler wasn’t Southern at all – he was from Orange Country, California.
In an interview with GQ magazine, Butler shared how he struggled to keep Elvis separate from himself: “You can lose touch with who you actually are. And I definitely had that when I finished Elvis – not knowing who I was.”
The Elvis star’s immersive method was intensified when the Australia-based film set was shut down in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than pack his bags and head home to LA, Austin Butler stayed in Australia for six months and researched every aspect of Presley’s life.
Blood, sweat, and tears
When filming wrapped in March 2021, Butler’s dedication to his role had taken a toll on his health. “The next day I woke up at four in the morning with excruciating pain, and I was rushed to hospital,” said Butler.
Filming the nearly three-hour-long movie was just as emotionally exhausting as it was physically. In an interview, Austin later opened up about a particularly overwhelming experience on set that left him “in tears” after Lurhmann and other executives heckled him on his first day of recording the music for the film.
Butler believed that the heckling was done on purpose to emulate how Presley would have felt as audience members hurled insults during his first live performance, which is depicted in the film. “When we were filming this moment when Elvis first got on stage and he’s getting heckled by the audience, I knew what that felt like,” Butler recalled. “I went home in tears that night. I really did.”
This wasn’t the only time that Baz Luhrmann pushed his actors a little too far. Apparently, Leonardo DiCaprio even warned that Baz would likely “push you in ways you didn’t know somebody could,’” Austin said. “‘He’s gonna push you off balance and keep you off balance.’”
On a recent podcast, Luhrman had nothing but praise for Butler’s depiction of Elvis, even saying he was practically born to play the role. “He just happened, like, two years nonstop living and breathing as Elvis,” Baz said. “He’s now going through a…deprogramming thing because he’s been a long time since he’s known who he was.”
Even Butler’s voice has a hard time letting go of the King’s Memphis accent. After confusing fans with an on-and-off Southern accent in interviews, Austin finally addressed the issue with ELLE Australia: “I mean, that was the voice that I spoke in for two years… It is so habitual at the end, you get done and you kind of don’t remember what your natural voice is.”
Austin’s Oscar buzz
Judging by the 12-minute standing ovation Elvis received during its premiere at Cannes Film Festival, it’s no wonder that Hollywood is abuzz with rumors of an Oscar win for Austin Butler. Even Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’ daughter, announced via Twitter that Butler’s performance was “unprecedented and FINALLY done accurately and respectfully.”
Butler has a promising career ahead of him, but the immense physical and emotional labor that came with the role, similar to the same price the real Elvis had to pay for fame, took a toll on the 30-year-old actor. Over one year since filming Elvis, a fresh-faced Austin is back and busier than ever shooting new projects including Masters of Air, a mini-series set in World War II, and the highly anticipated sequel to Dune.