Growing up in Anaheim, California, closer to Disneyland than Hollywood, a young Austin Butler first encountered Elvis Presley through his grandmother. "She was in high school in '56, so the Elvis of the '50s was always in her household," he remembers. "Whether that was his music or watching King Creole or Jailhouse Rock, those were the first memories I had."
At age 31, Butler has now lived as the King of Rock and Roll in Baz Luhrmann's high-octane biopic, Elvis, which covers the momentous scope of Presley's life from his discovery at Sun Records in the early '50s and meteoric rise to stardom to his comeback in the '60s and his domination of the Las Vegas Strip in the '70s. Butler recorded an audition tape of himself at the piano, dressed in his bathrobe and singing "Unchained Melody," which both intrigued and impressed the director. (Unbeknownst to the actor, Denzel Washington, with whom he'd starred on Broadway in The Iceman Cometh, also cold-called Luhrmann to recommend Butler.) He won the part.
"It really felt like the role of a lifetime," Butler tells A.frame. "But what comes along with that is just immense terror and a nearly crippling amount of responsibility — responsibility to all the people that gave me the job, but even more so to Elvis' family, and to his friends, and to all of his fans around the world. And there's also so many ways that it could have gone wrong."
One does not simply swivel his hips and become Elvis, so Butler's prep work began a full year before filming was slated to begin. He hired a movement coach, a dialect coach, an acting coach, and a singing coach. When production was delayed by six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Butler immersed himself even further into all things Elvis. "The only way I could do it was to not leave any stone unturned. I didn't ever want to look back and say, 'I could have done more.' So, it was just my entire life at that time."
"The whole thing is trying to pull back the veil on somebody who's been held up as larger-than-life, whether that is people looking at him as almost a deity or if as a Halloween costume. Either way, it's not a human," Butler explains. "I gave into the joy of all the little mundane things. So, it was realizing, 'Okay, Elvis eats breakfast in the morning, what does that look like? What is the first thing he thinks about when he wakes up in the morning? How does he brush his teeth at night?' All those little mundane things that make somebody human."
"It was this constant searching, and curiosity, and fear that guided me towards the things that I needed to keep working on," he says, running a hand through his shaggy blonde hair. "I don't think I ever had that moment where I thought, 'I've gotten it right.'"
Butler's first day on set was filming the '68 Comeback Special, a pivotal moment in Elvis' life as it effectively relaunched his music career after a seven-year break from performing. "It was throwing me in the deep end," the actor laughs. "Trial by fire." Dressed head-to-toe in black leather, Elvis takes the stage, picks up his flaming red guitar, and croons "Heartbreak Hotel," followed by a medley of hits, including "Hound Dog," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Jailhouse Rock," complete with the requisite rubber legs and pelvis thrusts.
"Suddenly, here's the moment of truth, where everybody that's believed in me — the studio, and Baz, and all my coaches, and everybody that's put in so much effort — all of that is for the moment between action and cut," Butler reflects. "And it was terrifying, because I thought, 'If this doesn't go well, my career will be over.' In that moment, it really felt as though my life was on the line. Because acting is the core of my life."
Butler found himself nearly paralyzed with fear in his dressing room, until it dawned on him: "That is exactly the feeling that Elvis was having before walking out on that stage. His career was on the line. He's having to prove himself and, if it doesn't go well, he'll be laughed off the set." He realized, "I can feel all this fear, and it doesn't mean it's wrong. It means that I can go out there and channel this. And, at that point, it didn't feel like there was this separation."
Feeling closer to the man than the myth, Butler stepped on the set, a near-perfect recreation of the NBC studio where the special was recorded. As Luhrmann called "action" and the music began to play, "I started to see genuine emotion on the audience's face, and I looked down at the black leather on my arms, and the rings on my fingers, and at the set that was identical to the footage that I'd seen so many times." In that moment, Butler became Elvis. "It was an out-of-body experience that was beyond anything I could have imagined it would've been, and I just allowed myself to surrender to that... It was one of the most surreal and beautiful experiences I've ever had as an actor."
"And it didn't mean that I wasn't terrified for the rest of shooting," he quickly adds.
Butler saw Elvis for the first time when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Luhrmann had offered to screen it for him before then, but Butler had never been to Cannes before and he figured, why not wait to see it at the Palais with an audience of thousands? But as the premiere approached, he found himself second-guessing how the audience would respond. His The Dead Don't Die director, Jim Jarmusch, had once told Butler about being booed at Cannes. Elvis was met with a 12-minute ovation.
"I felt as though I was able to surrender to being an audience member and not really see myself up there so much," Butler says. Yet, Luhrmann had one more surprise for his star: The film ends with a recreation of Elvis' final performance in 1977. "I didn't know that he cut between me and then Elvis singing 'Unchained Melody'" — the same song he'd auditioned with — "and that just brought me to tears. It was this really full circle moment. And just getting to hold Priscilla's hand in that moment, I'll never forget that moment."
When Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis' daughter, saw an early screening of Elvis, she reportedly said afterward: "If Austin Butler doesn't win an Academy Award, I'm going to eat my foot." Earlier this year, he received an Oscar nomination — his first — for the performance. "It really means so much to me," Butler says now. "This experience is something that I will just never forget for the rest of my life. But also, when I think back to not knowing how the film would be received, and remembering the amount of terror, and the sleepless nights for three years of making this film, I feel so much more grateful right now at being recognized... It means the world to me."
Although he says the Presley family's review is "the only review I would ever need in my life," the response from his acting heroes — "Leo, Brad, Cate Blanchett, and there's another one, but he's a very private person so I'm not going to say" — has been the cherry on top for Butler. "I can't even believe that they know my name," he exclaims. "When they compliment the work, because they know what goes into the work, that really resonates with me."
And then, there's his grandmother, who introduced him to the King all those years ago.
"Both of my grandmothers are so incredibly proud, and so excited, and they watched the film right when it came out. It's been really cool to share this with them," shares Butler. "They're sort of going back in time now, but seeing it with their grandson."
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 95th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category for an interview.