Meeting with the 30-year-old actor, crossed with Jarmusch and Tarantino, who plays Elvis Presley in the boosted biopic by Baz Luhrmann.
On May 25, at the Cannes Film Festival, the royal audience took place. At 10 a.m., in a palace on the Croisette, First had a date with King Elvis. His interpreter, at least, the one who resuscitates him in the musical extravagant Baz Luhrmann, namely Austin Butler. Austin who? But if, you know, the follower of Charles Manson who threatened to kill Brad Pitt at the end of Once upon a time… in Hollywood. “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s business.” Before that, we had met him as well at Jim Jarmusch (The Dead don’t die) that in Hannah Montana. And here he is suddenly, in flesh and blood, in the suite where he is about to give interviews to the channel. In black from the head to the boots, the hair slicked back like in 56, the eyes that electrify and never let go of you, the beauty of a rockabilly angel, a crooner’s voice that fills the room and bounces off the walls. This man, obviously, has decided to become a star. For a handful of minutes, he will tell us about the different facets of Elvis, what he meant to America and what he could still mean thanks to this film. Stressing in passing that he worked with two filmmakers who imagined Presley as a ghost (Jarmusch in Mystery TrainTarantino in true romance), as if to discreetly suggest that everything was written in advance. We know that he plays a little comedy, of course, so that the journalists have a nice piece of paper to write, so that they can tell that he is still in-character, that the spirit of the King still lives within him. But damn it, does he play well. Austin who? No panic. By the next Academy Awards, you should hand it over.
Premiere: You convinced Baz Luhrmann that you could be “his” Elvis by sending him a demo where you sang Unchained Melody, one of the last songs Presley performed on stage. Why this choice ?
Austin Butler: I had practiced on several songs and was trying to figure out which one to send to Baz. I hadn’t read the script so I didn’t know anything about the film. This song touched me particularly because it sent me back to the death of my mother. The way Elvis expresses the lack of love, the need for love, strikes me every time. One night I had a nightmare in which my mother was dying again and when I woke up this song popped into my mind. I then said to myself that it was her that I should sing and send to Baz…
Elvis Presley himself was very attached to his mother, was devastated by her death, so there was this emotional connection between you…
What did Elvis represent to you before this film?
I always liked him. My grandmother was a high school student in the 50s, she was crazy about him. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother when I was little, and we watched Elvis movies together on TV… But I mostly knew the icon, not the man. That was one of the main axes of my research: to discover what man he was, what life he had lived, to find out more about his humanity, about his psyche. What were his hopes, his dreams, his fears. And that made me love him even more.
What does it symbolize for young Americans today?
Many don’t know him. I hope that they will retain from the film its subversive power, its force of rebellion. He wore lace shirts and put on eyeliner at a time when it was not obvious, when we were laughed at for it. There is also a purity to him, which is perceived in the way he sings, the way he moves.
When you found out you had the part, what did you start with?
I felt a huge responsibility weigh on my shoulders. Before I was officially chosen, five months had already passed, during which I had absorbed everything I could find, books, records, documentaries… Once hired, I immediately called a very large dialect coachTim Monich, whom I knew because he had worked with Leo (DiCaprio) on Once upon a time… in Hollywood. I asked him for advice on the best way to approach Elvis vocals. His voice when he sings, his voice when he speaks, and how they have evolved over time.
Our review of Elvis
It feels like you’re less about “being” Elvis and more about giving a sense of who he was…
It is the fruit of a double work, both exterior and interior. First, I had to understand how he used his voice, how he danced… Then forget everything, to make it come from within. I imagined myself being Elvis at the time, in Memphis, on Beale Street, listening to the artists he admired. I was trying to experience what he had experienced, to understand what this music had provoked in him.
Have you watched and studied other fictional Elvis?
Many, yes. All that I could find. There are some great interpretations in the lot. Some very subtle, like that of Michael Shannon (in Elvis and Nixon, by Liza Johnson – editor’s note). She pleases me a lot because he does not try to imitate Elvis. This caricature, you know… Me too, in my turn, I wanted to find his humanity. His soul.
Did Tarantino, big fanatic of the King, who led you in Once upon a time… in Hollywoodgave you tips?
In the summer of 2019, between the moment I passed my audition and the moment I knew I was taken, a week passed, during which I was invited to discover Once upon a time… at Quentin. He greeted me yelling, “ELVIS!!! “. After the screening, he told me about his passion. I was of course thinking back to the monologue at the beginning of true romance… It was very moving for me, who has been a Quentin fan since I was twelve. I was also able to discuss it with Jim Jarmusch, who had guided me in The Dead don’t die. He loves Elvis too, he still realized Mystery Train ! I love asking people about the impact Elvis had on them. You, for example, is there a period of Elvis that you prefer to the others?
Probably the end of the sixties, after the Comeback Specialthe album From Elvis in Memphis… And you ?
It depends on the days. I really discovered thanks to the film his period seventies, the one I knew the least about. In 69-70, at the time of the first shows in Las Vegas, he was really on fire, it was amazing. Now I listen to songs like Polk Salad Annie, Never Been to Spain, An American Trilogy. And another fantastic song, which I love: Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues. And then, at other times, I only want to listen to the fiftiesthen I go back to Milkcow Blues Boogie and Heartbreak Hotel…
You must come out totally transformed from this experience, right?
I’ve spent so much time with Elvis over the past few years, it’s like he’s my best friend. Sometimes I’m intimidated, nervous about walking into a room, so I focus on its energy, and I feel changed, different. I also noticed that I still sound like him from time to time. It’s really addicting.
Elvisby Baz Lurhmann, with Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge… At the cinema on June 22.