Elvis Presley is such a cultural icon that it’s sometimes hard to remember he was also a real human being. That was the goal for Austin Butler, who portrays the famed rockstar in Baz Luhrmann’s new musical biopic ELVIS.
Speaking to Lifehacker Australia in Sydney, Butler said finding Elvis’ humanity was his goal every day.
“That’s what fascinated me. Like who is Elvis when nobody is looking?” Butler said.
“I ended up just looking for any key in and it meant massive amounts of reading and watching and listening and then you find these things that feel very personal. He was such a complex human.”
Butler’s deep dive into Elvis’ life uncovered a lot of things he didn’t know about the singer, including that he was a lone twin.
“The fact that he was a twin and what that does to you psychologically, to be a twinless twin,” Butler explained. “It’s so fascinating when you start learning all about these twinless people who have this other half who, from the moment they were born, wasn’t a part of their life.”
The film represents the confluence of events and inspirations that propelled Elvis to become the star that he was.
“As well as putting into context the fact that he was dirt poor, his father goes to prison at a very young age, he has this drive to take care of his parents and on top of that, he’s in one of the few white houses in a Black neighbourhood. We don’t have Elvis without Black music,” Butler said.
“Seeing all his influences and the fact that also his style was influenced by all his time down on Beale Street. It’s so wonderful when you get to put all that into context and see the truth of it.”
ELVIS charts the life of the famous musician from the early days of his childhood through the rise to his becoming one of the best-selling artists of all time.
With such an incredible career to cover, Luhrmann’s film enlists an incredible cast and frames Elvis’ story through his relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
To help nail the duo’s complex relationship, Butler said that he and Hanks turned to conventional methods like scene rehearsal, but also stepped out of the box a little bit.
“One of the things we did that was sparked by Tom was, he’s sort of famous for giving people typewriters. When he got to Australia, he sent a typewriter to my room with a type-written letter from Colonel Tom Parker, that he’d written,” Butler said.
“In the letter it says, you know, ‘my boy’ and he goes into this whole thing, and he says ‘this is a machine on which we can now communicate’. So I read the whole letter and then I typed him back one as Elvis.”
“So we started sending these letters back and forth and it was a very unconventional way that really was enlightening as far as how to find our way into the relationship of these two men, because you’re committing it to paper.”
Elvis’ other major relationship in the movie is with his wife, Priscilla, who is played by Australian actress Olivia DeJonge in ELVIS.
The pressure of playing such high-profile characters was huge but somewhat heightened for DeJonge due to the fact that Priscilla would be seeing her performance.
“I think knowing that she is alive and was going to see the movie was definitely a bit daunting,” DeJonge told Lifehacker Australia.
“But she’s rallied around the film and been very supportive, so it’s a big relief.”
DeJonge said that Elvis and Priscilla’s relationship was one built on “care and deep gratitude” for each other, which is something she and Butler worked hard to portray.
“For us, we wanted to hone in on the simplicity of the relationship and the beginnings of it just being very pure, and the sort of like, Bonnie and Clyde aspect of it,” she said.
“You know, it was sort of them against the world for a little while there and we really wanted to play with that idea and play with the chemistry.”
Beyond representing the relationships Elvis had with his family, friends and fans, there’s one thing that is expected from a biopic like this: Elvis’ music.
Similar to Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, Butler really does sing in ELVIS.
“All the 50s is me,” he confirmed. “I prepared for all of it because I wanted to be able to do it all as close as I possibly could. Then at a certain point in the film, towards the late 60s, they start merging our voices and then into the 70s our voices are merged.”
Of course, tackling the role of Elvis doesn’t just involve the singing, but Butler also had to nail the King’s iconic dance moves and his accent.
“He really threw himself into that role like nothing that I’d ever seen before,” DeJonge said.
“It was incredible. He sort of transcended in front of our eyes, and it was electric.”
Much of ELVIS’ 2-hour and 40-minute runtime is filled with the artist’s catalogue of incredible songs, brought to life with the blockbuster spectacle we’ve come to expect from Baz Luhrmann.
For DeJonge, working with Luhrmann was a “huge pinch-me moment” after studying his films in school.
“Baz is a dream,” she said. “Working with him has taught me so much about craft and performance and about, sort of, honing in on a vision.”
Butler echoed his co-star’s sentiments, saying “He’s like a jazz musician, he does so much homework and immerses himself in the work.”
“Baz, he’s amazing at creating a very safe environment so that way he can push you right to the edge of what you feel is possible… It was the time of my life getting to work with him.”
While Elvis holds a place in the heart of many fans around the world, Luhrmann’s movie will always have a special sentiment for the many Australian cast and crew members who worked on the film while it was shooting on the Gold Coast.
ELVIS was one of the many major films to be shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. It made headlines worldwide after Hanks contracted the virus during production.
“It was such a huge challenge. We thought maybe we’d lost the film,” DeJonge said.
When production was able to continue a few months into the pandemic, DeJonge said it kept the group together, “like a lifeboat”.
For Butler, Australia became “a second home.”
“I was here for six months when production shut down and I had a lot of time at that point to explore,” Butler said.
“…You know, I’d work and then I’d get to a certain point where I’d just need a refresh and I’d walk across the street, I was staying right across from the ocean, so I’d just go and jump in the water and come back, and it just revitalises you. I love it here so much.”
Now it’s time for a little less conversation and a little more watching.
See ELVIS in Australian cinemas from June 23.