“I had learned that Elvis’ mother passed away when he was 23,” reveals Austin Butler, who stars as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann‘s biopic of the iconic performer. “It’s the same age I was when my mother died. I ended up waking up from this dream one night, where my mother was dying. I had all this pain inside. I thought, Elvis would have woken up from similar dreams, I’m sure. Suddenly in that moment it was so human. It wasn’t about anything external. It was about the grief of a young man.”
Butler goes on to explain how he poured his grief and emotion over the loss of his mother into his audition. “I had just woken up,” he explains. “My hair was a mess. I sat down at the piano and the first song that came to my mind was ‘Unchained Melody,’ which I had no idea would be one of the last moments of the film. I just sang that song to my mom. It was just the truth of that emotion. I let myself cry. I let myself play the music. I just filmed it once and thought, I have no idea if this is for Baz at all, but it’s the most truthful way I can approach this at this moment. Thankfully that was something that Baz also resonated with.”
Although he portrays one of the most celebrated performers of all time, Butler never seriously pursued his own singing career. “I was so shy,” he admits. “I never sang in front of anybody. I would sing in front of very, very close friends. I sang in front of my mom back in the day. Music was always a part of my life. I got my first guitar when I was 12. I got a piano the next year. I would just play music for eight hours a day. I would lock myself in my room and just play. But that was more just therapeutic for me.”
Butler gets technical while describing how he studied “the architecture” of Presley’s mouth and how it shaped the way sounds came out. While becoming the character he adds, “Some of it just getting your body to be able to move in a certain way. And then it’s not making any of that choreography. It can never feel choreographed.” He also attended gospel church in Nashville to immerse himself with the same musical influences Presley had. “They sang for eight hours from their soul. Stomping their feet. You can’t help but get chills and tears in your eyes. That’s the raw meaning of music, where you body moves because it has to. I knew if I wasn’t feeling that then I was off.”
Butler has been nominated for Best Film Drama Actor at the 2023 Golden Globes. Additional accolades include a win for Best Actor at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards (AACTA) and the Breakthrough Performance Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
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