There are about half a million registered professional Elvis Presley impersonators in the world. That includes figures like the Latin singer El Vez or Las Vegas’ flying Elvises. It leaves out the fans who dare to croon Love Me Tender at weddings and baptisms. But the crown belongs to Austin Butler, an unknown actor who has become the most desired man of the moment as the protagonist of Elvis, the Baz Luhrmann-directed biographical drama about the king of rock.
Butler’s appearance at the last Cannes Film Festival received a 12-minute ovation. Judging by the poor reviews of his co-star, the better-known Tom Hanks, who plays Colonel Tom Parker, the cheers were directed at the new face. As Luhrmann said when he chose him for the role, over the rumored Miles Teller or Harry Styles, Butler “cannot be ignored.”
Biopics tend to make the careers of their protagonists. Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), and Rami Malek won the award for bringing Freddie Mercury to life in 2018′s Bohemian Rhapsody. So the praise for a performance that is likely to reach the Oscars is not surprising. But this time the comments also come from the Presley family, with Elvis’s only daughter, Lisa Marie, insisting that if Butler doesn’t take home the statue, she will “eat [her] own foot.” “Nothing makes me more excited than having filled his entire family, Priscilla, Lisa Marie, Riley [Keough, his granddaughter] with pride, doing justice to this man and his enormous legacy,” the actor confessed at Cannes, showing off the southern manners that he learned from the idol.
But Elvis Presley was never the young Californian’s idol. Leonardo DiCaprio took that place, but not until late: the 30-year-old actor, who taught himself to play piano and guitar, came to acting by accident, after he accompanied his stepbrother to a casting. He began to take on small roles, many of which he doesn’t even remember, in commercials and television series for teens.
Not even Butler can believe his newfound success. In his years as a teen star, his greatest fame came because of his almost decade-long relationship with fellow actress Vanessa Hudgens, with whom he broke up two years ago. And while he dreamed of roles like DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) or The Basketball Diaries (1995), and read and re-read the script for Pulp Fiction (1994), hoping to one day work with Quentin Tarantino, the chances seemed very remote. Amidst such “unrealistic expectations,” he has come to confess, he even thought of quitting acting and going to the other side of the camera.
At least in Hollywood, there’s nothing like saying no to get the deciders to say yes. Butler played Don Parritt in The Iceman Cometh, the Eugene O’Neill play with which he debuted on Broadway, alongside Denzel Washington. And then came the dream job with Tarantino in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).
But none of that set him up to play Elvis. His preparation came through a dream, or rather a nightmare, that he had while working on a video to send to Luhrmann. He had been trying to show his best Elvis for some time. “I thought that if I worked hard enough my face would look like Elvis, until I realized that it would only make me look like a figure of him in a wax museum,” he confessed at Cannes. There, he dreamed that his mother, who died of cancer when he was 23 years old, came back to life, only to die again. Elvis’ mother also passed away when the Unchained Melody singer was 23 years old. With that feeling, he sat down at the piano. The resulting recording made Butler into Elvis, embodying, as Lisa Marie said, the late star’s “heart and soul.”
The biopic was filmed over almost four years, including a break during the pandemic. Butler claims to have gone so deep into that black hole called Elvis that he was hospitalized for a week after the filming ended. Then came his appearance on the London red carpet in a white Alexander McQueen tuxedo, channeling a certain 1950s flavor. At Cannes, he wore a white shirt that gave him a Hawaiian air, while maintaining a touch of French chic, with the Cartier watch on his wrist indicating his future as ambassador of the luxury brand.
Butler even seems willing to stand up to new youth idol Timothée Chalamet, securing a spot in Dune 2 as his adversary. He has also spent 10 months shooting the series Masters of the Air in England under the direction of Cary Fukunaga. Paul Thomas Anderson and Alejandro González Iñárritu are on his wish list of directors. His dream of emulating DiCaprio is taking hold on a personal level, now that Butler has made public his relationship with model Kaia Gerber, Cindy Crawford’s daughter, 10 years younger than the actor. As Luhrmann, who directed a young DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet (1996), stated, it’s easy to see a new Leo in Austin. And the new version comes with an advantage: fame will find him already mature.