Gail Berman interview: ‘Elvis’ producer
“I’m happy to fill you in on that lengthy, 10-year journey,” jokes “Elvis” producer Gail Berman during our webchat about Baz Luhrmann‘s biopic of Elvis Presley. “I sat with my staff and said, ‘What could we do with Elvis that hasn’t been done before?’ Is it a film? Is it a musical? Is it a play? What is a story there that hasn’t been told? And we came up with a single name. Wouldn’t it be great to see what Baz Luhrmann could do with Elvis?” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
“Elvis” stars Austin Butler as Presley along with Tom Hanks as his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. It follows the music icon through his childhood, becoming a rock and movie star in the 1950s and his death in 1977.
One of the most daunting tasks was finding the right actor for the starring role. “Baz has a very lengthy process that he goes through with actors,” Berman explains. “In the case of Austin it was over a six-month period. Austin submitted a tape of him singing in a bathrobe, singing and playing the piano. Baz got intrigued by that and over a six-month period of time they worked on his audition. In July of 2019, I got a call from Baz’s office. He said, ‘I’m gonna show you the various screen tests.’ We went through each of the screen tests and Austin was saved for last. I had no idea who Austin was. I had no idea the order that Baz was interested in these actors, but as I watched each of the screen tests it became clear to me that this young man at the end was the guy. It wasn’t a contest.”
The producer reveals that if they couldn’t find the right Elvis, there was no reason to make the film. For that reason, the level of stardom was irrelevant. “I had separate conversations with Warner Brothers about the idea of who could play Elvis and I had encouraged them to think that we could go with an unknown if we had someone like a Tom Hanks, believe it or not, that’s true, in the role of the Colonel. We showed Warner Brothers the screen test in the same order that I was shown them and it was an absolute. They didn’t hesitate.”
The Emmy-nominated producer admits Hanks was “my dream casting for the Colonel. Frankly, Tom had never played a character like this before. I’m a huge fan of his, I think he’s a brilliant actor. I wanted to see him play this part. I wanted to see what an actor like him could do with the Colonel. I saw it in my head. It stayed with me. And when he agreed to sign on it was too good to be true. And of course, shortly before we started filming Tom and Rita [Wilson] both came down with the coronavirus, which ultimately shut the movie down until August. It was very frightening. We didn’t know the consequences of the virus at that time. It was a great worry for Tom and Rita. Then of course, when COVID happened, everything shut down. When Tom agreed to come back to do it, things went back into a COVID-like pre-production period and we were trailblazers, because there was no roadmap for that.”
In addition to more stories from the “Elvis” production, Berman discusses another music icon she has worked with — Dolly Parton, and why Presley wanted to, but never had the chance to record “I Will Always Love You.”