“Are you born with destiny, or does it just come, knocking at your door?” Indeed Colonel Tom Parker, the infamous money-hungry manager of Elvis Presley believed in destiny, that he, and he alone was meant to the lead the King of Rock to eternity. I pose this question, the existence of a so-called destiny or fate to Austin Butler from a hotel room in Sydney, Australia. In his deep native Anaheim accent, without breaking eye contact, he is swift to answer. “I think so,” he responds.
“When you look back in retrospect at your life and you see how things connect… I think so,” Butler adds. The actor was in his Los Angeles home tapping the keys of the piano and singing an Elvis tune when his friend had told him, in a nonchalant way, that he should one day play the King of Rock. Just two days later, Butler received a call from his agent about the opportunity to star in an upcoming Baz Luhrmann film.
Butler admits that his knowledge of Presley was “peripheral” before he happened upon the role. Like much of the globe, the actor knew of Presley’s roster of hit music and classic films. It wasn’t until he discovered the context surrounding his childhood – a poor child growing up in a largely Black neighbourhood in Memphis, Tennessee – and the singer’s relationship to his mother that Butler was enthralled by the story. In short, the actor says, “We don’t have Elvis without Black music and Black culture.”
Rebekah is wearing Jillian Boustred
Lurhmann has been careful using the term “biopic” to describe ELVIS in past interviews. Instead, the Australian director offered it as a “superhero film” during a press conference at CinemaCon earlier this year. While the film does chart the childhood of Presley, he focussed on three phases of the singer’s career – the rebel, the Hollywood star, the Vegas twilight – and his tumultuous relationship with his manager Parker (played by Tom Hanks). All with the high-octane cinematic glitz and glamour we’ve come to know from the filmmaker.
At a run time of 159 minutes, the film is intimidatingly lengthy. A journalist who had attended the same screening suggested a “survival pack” was necessary to survive. Little did they know it would be a theatrical feast for the eyes.
In learning about Presley, Butler learnt a lot about himself and more specifically, his relationship with “fear”. “There are these moments where the fear is so intense it’s going to make the creation impossible and that feeling of self-doubt and questioning if things are possible,” Butler recalls. “What I learnt is that I feel fear every day. But, fear is essentially energy and it wakes me up every day at three or four in the morning for two years while making the movie, so it allowed me to think, ‘Well, I’m awake, I may as well read an Elvis interview, watch something or get to work.’
“It provided this energy during the entire process where I just worked harder than I ever have.”
Ironically, co-star Olivia DeJonge who was tasked with the equally-daunting task of portraying Priscilla, recalled the fearless execution of Butler on set. “My first day on set, I didn’t have any lines,” she notes. “I had the pleasure of watching Austin throw himself into the ’68 Special which was an insane experience. He really threw himself into that, into the flames with no fear and to watch somebody go out on a limb like that and really pull it off was such a masterclass in commitment to the role and being really brave. It was spectacular.”
The real Priscilla Presley echoed this notion upon an early private screening of the film, and praised Butler for the portrayal of her late husband. When I spoke with DeJonge as we overlooked the harbour, she had seemingly paid homage to Priscilla with the most perfect blue pant suit, blue kohl eyeliner and a deep side-part. The 24-year-old Melbourne local – who has been acting since age 11 – was quick to remind me that she doesn’t feel “famous” and has “just been enjoying the process”. Of course, that doesn’t mean there was any lack of pressure.
The actress’ most captivating scene arrives in the film when Priscilla tells Elvis she is leaving. The couple sit at the bottom of the stairs of the family home where she cradles the singer as he weeps.
“That scene was also my audition scene. I felt a little bit of pressure I suppose, and knew what it was and I knew what it meant, and it got me the job,” she recalls. “I had sat with [Priscilla] for quite a while by the time we ended up shooting the film – it had been two-and-a-bit years. I had a lot of care and a lot of empathy for her. Which is a bit strange because I was playing her in a film, but she felt like a friend and it’s not so hard to extend yourself with empathy in that situation when you’ve gotten know someone in that way.”
“Apart from being Elvis’ wife, she was so praised for, or looked up to, for the way she held herself and her style and her fashion and her makeup which was so authentic. This was in a time of no social media,” she adds.
Priscilla loved the film so much that she appeared alongside the cast at the Met Gala and again at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival last month in promotion of ELVIS. DeJonge admits she experienced a sense of relief from the way Priscilla embraced the film. Knowing how much respect Luhrmann and Butler had for the King of Rock however, it was never a question.
ELVIS releases into Australian cinemas from June 23, 2022.