Special for Infobae of The New York Times.
“Are you ready to fly?”
The question appears at the beginning of “Elvis”, the last film dream of Baz Luhrmann. It’s the mid-1950s, and Tom Parker — ersatz colonel, wannabe talent manager, borderline psychopath — is sitting next to a shy Nobody named Elvis Presley. Just riding a Ferris wheel at a Mississippi country fair, bulky Parker wants to know if his buddy will seek stardom at any cost.
“Yes sir, I’m ready, ready to fly,” Elvis replies. As soon as the pact with the devil is made, the attraction begins to turn.
Lately, a version of the same scene, or at least the same dialogue, has occurred in real life, with Austin Butler, who plays the title role in “Elvis,” as the shy Nobody who is about to become a star.
In 2019, when Butler landed the role, after beating out Harry Styles and Ansel Elgort, Hollywood expressed its disbelief. The big budget of “Elvis” called for an artist who would sing, swing his hips and be possessed by the spirit of an idol, and Butler had yet to prove his talents, most of his experience coming from teen TV shows in the early 20s. low budget. Then the filming of “Elvis” began in Australia (after a long delay due to the pandemic), and rumors of the set began to spread throughout the film world: Butler, this lanky with a deep voice, could be the real protagonist.
When Warner Bros. began screening “Elvis” for industry insiders last month, many viewers raved about it, comparing the 30-year-old Butler to early Brad Pitt. As Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’s daughter, exclaimed emotionally after one such screening: “If Austin Butler doesn’t win an Oscar, I’ll be furious.”
In other words, Hollywood has already decided that Butler is on the brink of stardom, maybe even superstardom. Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio and Denzel Washington have been advising Butler and lobbying behind the scenes on his behalf. Denis Villeneuve recently cast Butler as the villain for “Dune: Part Two.” (The actor began intensive knife combat training in order to play the role.) Butler will also star in “Masters of the Air,” an upcoming war saga produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg for Apple TV+.
“Austin is living that moment of being on the brink of stardom, and I know it because we went to the Met Gala together,” Luhrmann said. “As soon as we stepped onto the red carpet, there were expressions of excitement from her fans. They weren’t just yelling. they were ecstatic. She had only heard that sound once. She was with a young actor named Leo”. She was referring to a DiCaprio before “Titanic”, who then broke hearts in “Romeo + Juliet” (1996), by Luhrmann.
The question is if Butler is ready for an otherworldly promotion, should it come, and if he really wants it.
When we met earlier this month in Beverly Hills, California, Butler was running late, in part because a TMZ cameraman had ambushed him. He had returned to his Jeep Wrangler after going to Starbucks.
“I’m trying to learn to live with this new lack of privacy,” he said. “It can be very uncomfortable.” Until recently, the paparazzi were more interested in the women in his life: Butler had a nine-year relationship with actress Vanessa Hudgens that ended in 2020, and is now dating model Kaia Gerber.
Pensively, he scratched (nervously?) the blond hair on his chin.
“I was an anxious kid and very shy, to the point that if we were in a restaurant, I would whisper to my mom what I wanted to order, and she would have to order it for me,” Butler said. “And I’m still very shy.”
Butler showed me a small tattoo of the number “27” on his left wrist. It was his mother’s lucky number, he explained. She died of cancer in 2014, when he was 23 years old. “She was my best friend,” he assured. “She said that 27 was her number from God of her. Every time she saw him, she felt that God was taking care of her ”.
Warner Bros. is using all of its marketing resources to make sure “Elvis” succeeds after producer Gail Berman lobbied for ten years to get the movie made, and brought it to the Cannes Film Festival to be shown there. had its world premiere. “Elvis” will hit North American theaters on June 24.
However, similar films — aimed at older, more cultured viewers who have nothing to do with superheroes — have struggled at the box office, in part, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The popularity of streaming services has also increased.
“Elvis,” which has cost at least $150 million to make and market, is a risky film for other reasons. Hanks, for example, gives a performance that can polarize audiences. Contrary to his usual choice of characters, Hank plays the villain, Colonel Parker, wearing a fat suit and speaking with a thick Dutch accent. When the first trailer for “Elvis” dropped in February, the online comment section became a party; one user considered Hanks’ accent to be “nonsense nonsense,” and another compared it to “Henry Kissinger when he was pretending to be from New Orleans.” (The real Parker was born in the Netherlands, but claimed to be from West Virginia.)
Luhrmann had never heard of Butler when he began the casting process for “Elvis.” To prove that he could sing, Butler recorded a video.
“At first, I tried ‘Love Me Tender,’ sitting in my bedroom, but when I saw it again, my heart sank. There was no life there. It was like going to a wax museum. I tried to make his gestures, but they did not come natural to me.
He pondered on it for a day or two.
“Then I had a horrible nightmare,” he said. “I dreamed that my mother was alive, but she was dying again. And when I woke up, I was totally and terribly heartbroken. My pain was overwhelming. And suddenly, I realized that Elvis, who also lost his mother when he was only 23 years old, could have lived through moments like that. Perhaps he even woke up from the same dream.
Still in her dressing gown, Butler sat at the piano and recorded herself singing “Unchained Melody,” which she had also been practicing. “But instead of singing to a romantic partner, I sang it to my mother,” he recounted.
He sent the one-take recording to Luhrmann. Within days, Butler, who lives in Los Angeles, had been summoned to the director’s home in New York. “From the moment he walked in, he was soulful, spiritual, kind, just brilliant,” Luhrmann said.
Butler didn’t have the part yet. That changed after Luhrmann asked her to perform Elvis hits like “Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” They also read lines from the script. “He also did a perfect southern accent,” Luhrmann said. “I remember asking one of my assistants, ‘What part of Texas are you from?’ And they told me: ‘Oh, no, he’s from Anaheim‘”.
Butler, who still speaks with an Elvis accent, grew up near Disneyland. His father, David, works in commercial real estate and his mother, Lori, ran a daycare out of his home. While his older sister, Ashley, was a popular entertainer, Butler was a homebody, learning to play guitar and piano; he was skateboarding on a makeshift ramp in the backyard; and he became obsessed with the James Dean and Marlon Brando movies at Turner Classic Movies. “He had this incredible animal spontaneity, and I was ecstatic and fascinated,” Butler said of Dean.
Butler began taking acting lessons as a teenager. “I remember printing out the ‘Rat Times’ script when I was 12 and reading it to my mother as she drove me to class,” he said with a laugh.
At 20, Butler already had quite the resume in children’s television (“Zoey 101,” “Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure”) and was headed toward young adult roles (“The Carrie Diaries,” “Arrow”). By age 24, Butler had appeared in a couple of independent films. “But it was a very slow evolution,” she explained.
His big break came in 2018, when his performance in the Broadway remake of “The Iceman Cometh” caught the attention of critics – and the show’s leading man, Denzel Washington, who encouraged the William Morris Agency to endorse Butler. Around the same time, Butler landed a small but notable role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, where he played Charles Manson follower Tex Watson.
Washington also helped convince Luhrmann to take a chance and choose Butler.
“Denzel Washington called me—I’d never seen him, I didn’t know him—and he said, ‘Look, I know you’re looking at young Austin Butler, and I wanted to tell you that I’ve just been onstage with him, and I’ve never seen an actor with a work ethic like his,’” Luhrmann recounted. Washington declined to comment.
Butler lived up to Washington’s description, said Berman, the producer. The actor obsessively researched Elvis, in part by going through the Graceland files; he worked with a movement trainer to learn how to properly rotate his hips (the secret is actually in his knees); he listened to the entire catalog of Elvis songs in chronological order; and covered the walls of his apartment with pictures of Elvis, quotes and a meticulous timeline of his life. (To relax, he took solo walks on a beach, learned French, and made pottery.)
“There were times when I was scared,” Butler said. “I can do it? Will I be a failure? Will they find out I’m a fraud? But then I started to get comfortable with fear, until I was able to say, ‘I see fear, but it won’t be able to stop me.’