Q&A: Austin Butler on what ‘Elvis’ taught him about fear
Austin Butler, you may have heard, has taken a bit of flack for sounding too much like Elvis now that he’s no longer, um, Elvis.
The 31-year-old breakout star of Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant biopic even had to be defended by fellow Oscar nominee Angela Bassett, who’s explained that she, too, had a hard time shaking the Tina Turner vibe after playing her back in 1993.
In any case, Butler says there’s something far more significant that’s remained with him since making “Elvis”: a new relationship with fear.
The challenge of playing an icon who’s been imitated as often as Presley was so great, he says, that he suffered from “impostor syndrome” and could have been felled by the fear — fear that kept him from sleeping well for two years, he adds — had he not learned to use it as a “compass,” in his words. Now, he says, he asks himself: “What am I terrified of today?” And then he tries to step toward it, rather than away.
Butler, whose Golden Globe from January now has to share shelf space with the BAFTA from February, looks like one of the key favorites to add an Oscar to that shelf, come March. He spoke to The Associated Press shortly after winning his Oscar nod, musing about how he tried to approach the role so it felt human and not like “going to a wax museum,” about what he learned personally from the process, and also about the shocking death of Lisa Marie Presley. T he interview has been edited for clarity.
AP: It’s been an emotional time for you: Winning a Golden Globe, then the tragic death of Lisa Marie Presley, then the Oscar nomination, all within days. Can you describe that journey?
BUTLER: I mean, the peaks are so high and the valleys have been so low. For each of these moments I’m just trying to stay as present as I can … I just wish Lisa Marie were here with us to celebrate. At times, in the midst of intense grief and just a shattering loss, it feels sort of bizarre to celebrate. But I also know how much this film meant to Lisa Marie, how much her father’s legacy meant to her. So I feel so proud and humble to be a part of that story. But it puts things in perspective for sure, when you have such intense loss like that.
AP: Let’s talk about the challenges of the role itself. You had to find a way to avoid mimicking a much-mimicked icon, and to bring humanity and authenticity to it. Can you put into words how you managed that?
BUTLER: It’s so hard to quantify it, and it’s such a tricky thing to talk about without sounding incredibly pretentious and self-important. There are certain aspects that even I don’t fully understand. Thankfully I had a long time. I had a year and a half before we started filming, and a large chunk of that time was alone in my apartment in Australia during the six months that the film shut down during the pandemic. So it was a lot of just focusing on it every day and trying to get into the life of this man, rather than all the external things.
Even the way that he moved, it all had to come from his spirit, rather than it ever feeling like choreography. Because there are moments where you want to be meticulous, you know, very specific to how he actually moved in a certain way or how he spoke or whatever that is, but it can’t feel like it’s a recreation — otherwise then you just feel like you’re going to a wax museum or something! So I was very fortunate to be surrounded by amazing people, my amazing movement coach Polly Bennett and dialect coaches and singing coaches and karate instructors. I had so many people around me that that aided me in that process. But it was just a long process of trying to figure it out every day, to feel like a detective.
AP: After all that, would you say the character has changed you in any permanent way?
BUTLER: Yeah and in probably more ways than I can even describe or figure out myself. But one of the main things is that it’s altered my relationship with fear, because this was such a daunting undertaking. And there were many moments where I where I felt, you know, where maybe I didn’t believe in myself, I felt impostor syndrome — just a terror that didn’t allow me to sleep for two years. And so now my experience is that when I feel fear like that, I kind of know that it’s not the thing that has to stop you. That you just keep doing the work and you use the fear almost as a compass, to go, “What am I terrified of today?” — and step into that rather than running away from it. I think that that’s probably the biggest thing that’s really stuck with me.
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