Austin Butler (‘Elvis’): ‘I never sang in front of anybody’ before this movie [Complete Interview Transcript]

Austin Butler is a Best Actor Oscar nominee thanks to his breakthrough performance as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Warner Bros’ “Elvis.” Already this awards season, the 31-year-old actor has claimed multiple critics’ prizes plus the Golden Globe. Will he take home the Oscar next?

Butler recently spoke with Gold Derby editor Denton Davidson about grief, all of the support he had along the way, and the challenging days behind the scenes on the Baz Luhrmann biopic. He shares with us the moment he got his first guitar, and the fact that he had “never sang in front of anybody” before taking on the role of Elvis Presley.

Watch the full video above and read the complete transcript interview below.

Denton Davidson: I’m Denton Davidson senior editor for Gold Derby, with Austin Butler, who plays Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s epic film Elvis. Austin, um, I was told by one of the producers Gail Berman that you sent in an audition tape wearing a bathrobe, singing at a piano and I need to know more behind that story, you know, why was t- why was that the choice and, uh, why did you wanna make your first impression in that way?

Austin Butler: The thing for me was my agent had- had said, you know, “We can send Baz clips of you acting, but we can’t, we don’t have anything of you singing, so- so maybe film yourself singing something, and send it in to him.” So, I- I had been watching all these documentaries and trying to figure out what I would send and, uh, I ended up trying to send, uh, a tape of me signing Love Me Tender, and, uh, and when I did it, I watched it back and I just saw all the external things, you know, I- I saw me trying to force the muscles in my face to look like Elvis, and, um, you know, it just, it felt very surface and, uh, and so I- I put it aside and I said, “I can’t send that,” and, uh, and I- I was, I was really just trying to figure out if I even believed that I could approach this, you know, “What is, what’s the way in, how would I want to, you know, if- if- if I was the guy who he gave the job, uh, how would I even wanna do it?”

And so a lot of it was me trying to figure out my own belief, um, but then, you know, I’ve- I’ve talked about my mom a lot in this, uh, and- and, um, so I had learned that Elvis’s mother passed away when he was 23, uh, which is the same age I was when- when my mom died, and, uh, and so I- I- I just learned that in this, in this documentary, and, uh, ended up waking up from this dream one night, where my mother was dying again in this dream, and, uh, and so I just had all this, th- this pain inside, and I really thought, you know, “That Elvis would’ve woken up from this similar dreams, I’m sure,” and- and- and suddenly in that moment it was so human, it was like, it wasn’t about anything external.

It was about th- the grief of a young man and, uh, and so I- I thought, you know, “Elvis would- would put this into song, so- so what if I just sit down and- and sing a song right now with- with all this emotion?” And I had just woken up. So, that’s, hence the bathrobe, uh, my hair was a mess, you know, I had, (laughs), I had this bed head, and, uh, I sat down at the piano and- and I started, and the first song that came into my mind was Unchained Melody, which I had no idea was gonna be one of the last moments in the film, and, uh, and so I just sang that song to my mom, and- and it was really, it was just that, you know, just the truth of- of that emotion, and I just kind of let myself cry, and I let myself play the music and, uh, and I just filmed it once and- and I kinda thought, “I have no idea if this is for Baz at all, but this is, it’s the most truthful way that I think I can approach this in this moment, is to take all of my own soul, and- and pain, and everything into- in- into this,” and- and, er, you know, thankfully that was something that Baz also resonated with and- and, um, so that- that’s how I first, you know, got connected to Baz.

DD: Wow. Um, and as you’re doing that, are you singing, um, as yourself or are you trying to be El- how- how much different is your own singing voice then Elvis’s and- and have you had aspirations to be a singer when you were younger, I mean was that something you wanted to pursue?

AB: What, and I was, uh, so shy. So, I never sang in front of anybody. Uh, I- I would sing in front of like very, very close friends, or I- I sang in front of my mom back in the day, but it was, you know, I- I- I, music was always a part of my life. So, I- I got my first guitar when I was about 12, and got a piano the next year, and- and I would just play music for eight hours a day, I would lock myself in my room and just play, but that was more, um, uh, it was more just therapeutic for me.

So I didn’t really do it in front of anybody else, um, but I- I think for whatever reason, er, right before I heard that Baz was making the film, I was, I was kind of in a mu- musical phase of I- I guess sort of, you know, I- I think my- my voice has a similar tamber to Elvis’s. So, when I sing it- it kinda has similar characteristics, but I wasn’t at that time really trying to, uh, sing like him, um, until, un- until I heard that Baz was making the film, and then I, and then I just, you know, tried to get as specific as I possibly could.

So, I mean when I sang Unchained Melody, I was trying to sound as close to Elvis as possible, but- but my- my own singing voice I don’t even really know what it is, ’cause I- I don’t, I don’t let it out much.

DD: (laughs), um, maybe in the future we can, we can look for that.

AB: Maybe, I mean I loved performing on stage so much and I had the time of life, so, yeah, it, yeah I- I wouldn’t completely cancel that out.

DD: Was it easier for you to- to preform as someone else on stage, is it, is it, is that easier for you to, and, so what- what is the key to getting his voice and movements right, without looking like a Vegas impersonator, I mean, ’cause that’s a, that’s like a- a balancing act, to- to make it look genuine because he’s such an iconic figure, there’s so many versions we’ve seen of him, um, so how do you bring yourself into Elvis and make him a b- like someone that we believe?

AB: Well that I mean that was the, that was the big question, and I tried so many things, you know, I, thankfully I had a year and a half before we started shooting. So, I could try many different technics, and- and, uh, I- I was surrounded by great people, you know, my- my, I had this, um, an amazing movement coach named Polly Bennett, who I had found because she worked with Rami Malek on Bohemian Rhapsody and, uh, and so she was, she was very, you know, v- very, very involved and- and very helpful and, um, and, uh, I can, I can walk you through some of the things that we did together, but, uh, but it’s kind of how it all fits, er, together, you know, you- you have a speaking voice, to singing voice, his physicality onstage and offstage. Um, and then also how that changes over the years, how he walks differently later on then he does in the early days, or how he speaks differently and- and so it was kind of figuring out a way to break those down into- into bites size pieces.

And then, and then there are certain th- things that, I mean the tightrope that I often talk about is the fact that on one side you have very meticulous things, very- very technical specific things, like th- the architecture of his mouth, or, uh, which- which shapes the way that sounds come out, or, um, a specific way that he moves, which, you- you know, and some of it is just getting your body to be able to move in a certain way. Um, and then it’s, and then it’s not making any of that choregraphy, it can never feel choreographed, because if it does then- then it won’t feel like it’s happening right now for the first-time.

That- that- that’s a little bit, you’re a little bit liberated from- from the confines of, er, a- a meticulous trainspotting moment, when- when you don’t have footage, but if we’re trying to recreate something Baz used the word, “Trainspotting,” a lot, like, “This is a trainspotting moment, we can watch Milton Berle, Hound Dog and see exactly what, how Elvis’s moving in that moment, exactly where his eyes go, how his hand is positioned, everything.” So, the tricky thing is- is to get those things as specific as possible but making it feel inside like it’s happening right now for the first-time and it- it’s spontaneously.

So, it was kinda this, I- I would have to go back and forth and sometimes I would have to listen to the song and not think about anyway that he moved, and just- just figure out how the music was moving me, and then, and then you s- then you start feeling, “Okay, why does his hand move in that way on this note,” or that sort of thing, and you start stringing these authentic moments together, so that by- by the time that I’m on set, and this is way having time was such a- a- an amazing g- gift to me, because by the time that I got onset, it- it, I pra- I’ve done these things so many times and tried to get it into my marrow as much as I could, so then I- I wasn’t having to think about it, you know?

DD: Yeah.

AB: Um, and I talk about things like, the fact that- that Elvis never was choreographed himself. “So where did he get that inspiration from,” he got it from going to the gospel church, he got it from being do on Beale Street, and so I started putting myself in, er, you know, the- the mindset of not just looking at Elvis but looking at the people that influenced Elvis and- and putting myself in situations like with Baz, we went down to Nashville and recorded these gospel singers, and they sang for eight hours and, er, and from their soul, and stomping their feet and singing these gospel songs, and you- you can’t help but get chills, and tears in your eyes, and that’s sort of like the raw meaning of music where your body moves because it has to. I always knew, er, from that moment when I felt that in Nashville, “That if I wasn’t feeling that, then I was off.” So, I, so it was, it was this kind of, that wo- that became my northern star in a way was that- that emotion of the- the music moving you in a spiritual way, you know?

DD: I love that. Um, you get to go toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks in this film, (laughs), and, um, who didn’t grow up loving Tom Hanks, um, if, er, if you’re 30, did you have a favorite Tom Hanks, um, movie when you were growing up?

AB: Geez, I had so many favorite Tom Hanks movies. I- I- I mean loved Big, I loved Forrest Gump, uh, you know, Cast Away, Toy Story, you know, I- I- I, and that was, that was the amazing thing when he, when he first, when I first met him, and I would be in one room, and I would hear Tom Hanks laughing in the other room, and it just dawns on you, “That’s Woody, that’s, you know, that’s the icon of Tom Hanks in the other room,” and, uh, that was, that was really surreal it- it was kind of amazing.

DD: So what was it like then acting with him?

AB: … Well that’s what I was gonna say, is that, is that once you get into filming, uh, we were, we were separated, er, mostly, I mean usually you, we would share a makeup room together but because of the fact that for one, we both had a lot that was going on, so he had, he had a big prosthetics rig and, uh, and we both would arrive really early, so we’d get there at three or four in the morning, and get in the makeup chair and, uh, but we had separate rooms. So, we often maybe we would see each other for a second in the dark at four in the morning, as we kinda waved blurry eyed at each other and make our way to our own makeup rooms, but then by the time that we got on set, we looked like Elvis and Colonel Parker.

So, there wasn’t, I wasn’t seeing Tom and he wasn’t seeing Austin, you know, it was — it allowed us to live in that world the whole-time and then, and then there were certain weekends where he would, he would call me and say, you know, “Hey you wanna come up stairs and watch Saturday Night Live and get some pizza?” And, you know, so we had, we had days like that as well where I got to be with Tom, and- and that was really just s- some of the times in my life as well, but for the most part it was, I just was seeing Colonel Parker.

DD: What was your toughest day on set, you know, was there a day that would seemed m- more challenging in particular than others?

AB: I mean there are, there are days that are challenging for different reasons, you know, I- I mean digging into deep grief it just never feels good, you know, so those days are- are, um, you feel like you’re walking into a burning building or something, you know, it- it, you kinda, you show up and- and you know it’s gonna be painful. Um, but the, er, the- the challenging days were the first performances, you know, because I had so much time to prepare and, uh, and so many people that believed in me to get, you know, to get me the job in the first place, to- to, you know, support me during the entire preparation time, and ow suddenly the moment of truth is here, where all that matters is what happens between action and cut, and, uh, and suddenly the fear comes in of- of, “Am I enough?” uh, you know, all those things that, “Am I gonna fail everybody,” uh, you know, and- and th- those fears when- when you wake up in the morning, (laughs), and you know that you’re gonna go into one of those days, I mean what I felt was- was nearly crippling anxiety.

Uh, but I- I, er, I was almost desensitized to it by that point, because I’d been feeling it for so long. So then, so then you just, you- you just do the work and you also realize that any one of those moments, like ’68 Special is one of the first things that we filmed, and that was a make or break moment in Elvis’s, uh, Elvis’s career, he felt like if that didn’t go fell his career would be over. Um, so it was the, it was the same feeling that I was feeling, so I didn’t have to push it away, I could, I could know that he was feeling fear as well, and- and what did he do with it, he channeled in- into the music, into the rapport with the audience, and so- so that was, that was nice to kind of know that any moment that I was feeling anything it was usually parallel to what he was feeling.

DD: And then you’ve gotten such a great response, um, you just won The Australian Academy Award for best actor, People’s Choice Award, breakthrough performance of Palm Springs International Film Festival, now there’s all this Oscar buzz surrounding you and the film, you know, what’s that been like just going l- living through this, what’s the, what’s the last year of your life been like and how have thing changed, things changed for you?

AB: Well, I mean, I- I’ve been acting for a longtime, uh, since I was a kid, I never had another job, and there’s- there’s been, you know, er, yeah, there’s been many different chapters in- in my career, and in my life, and, uh, I’m very grateful for this one, ’cause I’m getting to work with people that I’ve admired for so long and, um, and I’ve never given more of myself to any role and, um, and so but you, when you film it, you really, we really didn’t, like Baz and I would have these conversations where you’d go, “What if everybody hates it, you know, what if, what if, what if you get booed at can, what if?” You know, there’s all these fears that come in of- of the fact that, I mean, I’ve talked, I’ve said this so many times, but, I- I really felt like if it didn’t go fell, I wouldn’t work again. Uh, because of, because of all the beliefs that had been put in me, and then or and- and- the people that doubted it, and so suddenly then you’d be proving them right, and then all the people that believed in you would be, you know?

So, there’s all those fears, so now, no matter who it is, if it’s an eight-year-old kid in a grocery store saying, “I loved Elvis,” or an 80-year-old woman saying, “She met Elvis one day and how much the movie touched her,” or- or my ow- or peers saying, you know, “That- that, er, the film resinated with them in- in a certain way.” It just feels really, I’m- I’m just really grateful, um, yeah, I feel good.

DD: And I wanna talk about your career a little bit, because people are acting like this is just like the breakthrough performance as if you’ve never done anything before, um, but you have, you’ve even gotten a SAG Ward nominations for Once Upon a Time in Mili- in Hollywood, and I mean, you have, you’ve been a part of it, um, a lot of film and television. So, can you talk about, you know, do you think you would’ve been prepared for this level of attention if you were 20, like are you, are you a little, you know, relieved that it’s, that it’s happening now for you or, um, what do you feel about that?

AB: I- I very much am. I- I- I remember being 16 or 17 and comparing my, where I was to where DiCaprio’s career was and I always felt like I was, uh, you know, at a certain point I thought, “Oh, I- I think I’ve missed it,” you know, I- I- I, ’cause I- I, and- and- and this has been a great lesson in just never really comparing yourself to anyone ’cause we all have our own paths and, uh, and I- I- I feel like if I hadn’t, if I had a certain level of success at a, at a young age maybe I wouldn’t have had to double down and- and work on craft and- and really try to figure out how to get better and, um, so- so yeah I am, I am grateful for that.

DD: Well it sounds like you- you know, the timing is, has been perfect for you and this is such an outstanding film and a bold performance, congratulations on this and best of luck to you with all the upcoming awards. Uh, there could be a lot of red carpets for you coming up, so enjoy this ride, and to everyone watching this interview head over to GoldDerby and make your Oscar predictions, checkout more interviews with other contenders like Austin, including quite a few we’ve done with other actors and crafts people from Elvis, um, and Austin thanks for chatting with GoldDerby today.

AB: Thank you so much, it’s nice talking to you, I’ll see you later.

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