Austin Butler steps into the iconic shoes and bedazzled suits of The King, in new Baz Luhrmann film 'Elvis’.
The film tracks the life and times of this music superstar, as he rose to fame, created outrage, gained a huge fanbase, and changed the landscape of music as we know it. Joining Austin is Tom Hanks as the scheming manager to the star, Colonel Tom Parker, and Australia's Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla Presley.
'Elvis' was filmed right here in Australia. Audiences will recognise Oscar nominee Baz Luhrmann's kaleidoscopic, rich work from previous iconic films such as 'Moulin Rouge', 'Strictly Ballroom' and 'The Great Gatsby'.
With songs like 'Blue Suede Shoes', 'Hound Dog' and 'Suspicious Minds' sprinkled throughout, 'Elvis' is a deep-dive into a career of ups and downs, moving swiftly and smoothly from Memphis, to Beale Street, to Vegas.
Here, Baz Luhrmann talks about the film, casting Austin Butler in this pivotal role, seeing a new side to Tom Hanks, and bringing a contemporary twist to a classic story.
You are known for discovering talent or breaking talent out in a way that no one's ever seen before. What did you spot in Austin Butler that ignited that spark for you? Well, it was one of the most unusual roads to a casting, in that I think Austin found me in a sense. Look, he'll tell you, too, that there are some remarkable sides to his story. I mean, they are almost spiritual. They're almost hard to believe. This is a young man with incredible empathy who was told he should play Elvis early on. But really early on in our process, our casting director said, “There’s this great tape that came in.” She played it, and I remember he did something unusual – where most people just come up on the screen, he started with his back to the camera, this young guy playing piano, and then the camera went around him. He was playing 'Unchained Melody' and he was full of such intense emotion. I thought, “Wow, what's that? Boy, he can sing.” In that moment, from the get-go, it was very Elvis, he had a very Elvis soul about him. Then I got a phone call on the way to this auditioning workshop from Denzel Washington, who I do not know at all. Denzel says, “I had to ring you because there is this actor I've just been working with on stage in ‘Iceman Cometh.’ He has such a work ethic like I've never seen before. I just wanted to put a good word in for him.” So, from the moment Austin walked in, I workshopped him and workshopped him and workshopped him, because I really wanted to see if he could play young Elvis, could he play older Elvis? Did he have the stamina that was going to be needed to achieve the role? Then he just passed through with flying colours. But I think also, and I say this genuinely, Austin and Elvis’s souls align somewhat. They do. There's a similar empathy and vulnerability.
Maybe that's your gift, seeing that alignment between the artist and the character? Yeah. My point of view is that auditions are terrifying, so when someone walks through my door, no matter what the general opinion in the room might be, I make it my personal mission to do everything I can to get them the job. Secondly, I think it a privilege and an opportunity that with whoever has come through my door to learn something about the text of the script by working with them – some other aspect I might not have seen otherwise. So, it’s a give and take, a collaboration so to speak. Workshopping can include coming back three times, singing, even costume. I mean, many people we’ll put in hair and makeup very early on. It’s a thorough process and I consider it a privilege because I get to learn about the script, but also I get to meet actors on their way up. I mean, unknown actors who auditioned for 'Romeo + Juliet' are some of the most famous actors in the world now. I get to form relationships. So, it works both ways.
A little bit contrary to that process would be Tom Hanks, who is as established an actor as you can be in the world and beloved as they come. Yeah. Yeah.
He always seems to play a good guy or is always sort of the guy you root for. So, what did you see in him that said Colonel Tom Parker to you? Well, there are two things. First of all, just the fact that he was even interested? I was there. I mean, he’s one of the great actors not just of our time, but of all time. It was a very unusual experience because when you go to a high-end actor like that, it invariably takes a long time to take them down the road of what you’re going to do, talk them through the process. I went and visited Tom, who I knew socially a little bit, at his Playtone office, and I told him about the Colonel, and he was really attentive. I had a video and all these props to sort of show the way I’m going to do the film, and I had a reel on the Colonel, and about 40 minutes in he just said, “Well, if you want me, I’m your guy.” I didn't even get a chance to turn my video on. I think I said to the guys with me, “I think he just said yes, right? He did just say yes?” One of my great joys is helping actors play what I like to say is a string on their instrument that they don’t usually get to play. I think every actor has more strings on their instrument than they get to play in their lifetime. With Tom, he’s America’s good guy, so I think he ran towards playing this most complex and unusual, let us say, villain. I think part of the reason he had such an extreme reaction for Colonel Tom Parker – never a Colonel, never a Tom, never a Parker – was that he was an over the top person and really sucked the air out of any room. Tom threw himself at that, playing this complex guy who was more than a scoundrel, but a manipulator and a complicated, for want of a better expression, not very good person.
Then you have Priscilla, who is also an American icon in her own right. You found Olivia DeJonge, who’s so lovely. What did you see in her that made you know you had found your Priscilla? That was unusual, too. My friend and long time writing collaborator, Craig Pearce, he did a show called ‘Will’, which is about Shakespeare. He said, “Oh, there’s this remarkable young actor.” I remember thinking of that, then when the auditions came up, the tape came in and he said, “Oh, that’s that young actor!” And actually from the get-go, everyone had the opinion that Olivia should play Priscilla. What she had was both this kind of naivete that was necessary for the early part of the relationship, but that she could evolve the character through many years until she arrived at the fully evolved woman, somewhat the adult in the relationship.
You cover three decades in this film, correct? Exactly. I mean, I had to answer that question for Austin as Elvis. I had to answer that question for Olivia as Priscilla and you know, that was equally challenging because the early Priscilla is one that Elvis is basically telling her how to do her hair and everything, this is how life is. Later, Priscilla is the one looking after Elvis. Elvis is the infantilised, lost one.
Of course we know Elvis was an iconic musician but no matter the subject, the connection you have to music in all of your films is significant. This film includes several artists from the era and from the area Elvis grew up in. Well, I didn't want to do a few things. One, a biopic – this is not a biopic. Two, I didn’t want it to feel nostalgic. And three, I just wanted to tell this epic story. The epic story really is about America in the `50s, `60s and `70s and about these two great gestures, which is the sell and the show, the showman and the snowman. You can’t tell that story if you don’t deal with the issue of race, particularly if you’re doing music. Now, I think Elvis is at the centre of culture for the good, the bad and the ugly in the `50s, `60s and `70s. This young man, for a time, is living as a kid with his mother in one of the few white-designated houses in a black community. I spent time in Memphis and eventually, after a long period, managed to track down an African-American older man, Sam Bell, who just passed last year, but who, along with some other young boys, hung out with Elvis when they were about 13. They would run down to the juke joints and they would go to the Pentecostal joints. I think it's incredibly important to understand how much Elvis loved gospel above all other music. He gravitated toward it, he would stay up after doing two shows in Vegas and sing gospel. It’s what made him a very spiritual person to the end. So, because Elvis was absorbing music – gospel, country, and so on – he’s a product of all of these mixtures of music. Ergo, you have to have that music in the movie, you have to have Big Boy Crudup and Big Mama Thornton. As to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, do I actually know that he saw her? No, but I know that they were fans, I know Elvis’s mother, Gladys, played that music all the time. But most definitely his friendship with B.B King was genuine and B.B. says some extraordinary things about what he and Elvis felt together about music.
In this film, you have artists like Yola, Shonka Dukureh, you have Alton Mason and Gary Clark Jr. and Kelvin Harrison Jr. What attracted you to not only put their incredible voices in this film, but to also put them on screen as these respective legends that they play. It must have been so exciting to put today’s artists into these roles. Oh yes, it’s great to have them. I love featuring these incredible contemporary artists, because somewhat like in 'Gatsby', you will hear classic Elvis, and the young Elvis will be sung by Austin, and the older Elvis will be sung by Elvis. But you also hear, at moments, translations –whether it’s Big Mama Thornton’s 'Hound Dog' with Doja Cat, or other superstar artists. My credits are very unusual credits. As the last statement in the film is about Elvis’s continuing influence on culture and music, I’ve chosen some super star acts to make tribute all the way through to the very last credit. I hope the audiences will find it worthwhile to stay to the very end.