Austin Butler on what ‘Elvis’ taught him about fear

Austin Butler, as you may have heard, took a bit of criticism for himself sounds too much like Elvis now that he’s not, um, Elvis anymore.

The 31-year-old breakout star from Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant biopic even had to be defended by fellow Oscar nominee Angela Bassett, who explained that she too found it difficult to shake the Tina Turner vibe after playing with her in 1993.

In any case, Butler says he’s been left with something far more meaningful since making Elvis: a new relationship with fear.

The challenge of playing an icon who has been impersonated as often as Presley was so great, he says, that it made him suffer “Cheater Syndrome” and could have been crushed by fear — anxiety that would have prevented him from getting a good night’s sleep 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 afraid of today?” And then he tries to walk toward it instead of walking away.

Butler, whose January Golden Globe now has to share shelf space the BAFTA from February, looks like one of the main favorites to add an Oscar to that shelf next March. Speaking to The Associated Press shortly after his Oscar nomination, he reflected on how he tried to approach the role in a way that made it feel human and not like “walking into a waxworks,” which personally got him out of the process had learned and also about it shocking death by Lisa Marie Presley. T The interview has been edited for clarity.


AP: It was an emotional time for you: winning a Golden Globe, then the tragic death of Lisa Marie Presley, then being nominated for an Oscar, all in a matter of days. Can you describe this journey?

BUTLER: I mean the peaks are so high and the valleys are so low. In each of those moments, I’m just trying to stay as present as possible… I just wish Lisa Marie was here with us to celebrate. Sometimes, in the midst of intense grief and just a shattering loss, it feels kinda bizarre to celebrate. But I also know how much this film meant to Lisa Marie, how much her father’s legacy meant to her. That’s why I’m so proud and humbled to be a part of this story. But it sure puts things in perspective when you have such an intense loss.

AP: Let’s talk about the challenges of the role itself. A way had to be found to avoid imitating an often imitated icon and give it humanity and authenticity. Can you put into words how you did it?

BUTLER: It’s so hard to quantify and so difficult to talk about without sounding incredibly overbearing and smug. There are certain aspects that even I don’t fully understand. Luckily I had a long time. I had a year and a half before we began filming and much of that time was spent alone at my flat in Australia during the six months the film was shelved during the pandemic. So it was a lot to just focus on and try to get into this man’s life every day instead of all the outside things.

Even the way he moved had to all come from his mind rather than ever feeling like choreography. Because there are moments when you want to be specific, you know, very specific, how he actually moves a certain way or how he spoke or whatever, but it can’t feel like a recovery — otherwise you’ll feel just feel like you’re going to a wax museum or something! So I’ve been very fortunate to be surrounded by amazing people, my amazing movement coach Polly Bennett and dialect coaches, vocal coaches and karate teachers. I had so many people around me that helped me in this process. But it was just a long process, trying to figure it out every day, feeling like a detective.

AP: After all that, would you say that the character changed you forever?

BUTLER: Yes, and probably in more ways than I can describe or figure out myself. But one of the most important things is that it changed my relationship with fear because it was such a daunting endeavor. And there were many moments when I felt like, you know, maybe I didn’t believe in myself, I felt imposter syndrome – just a scare that didn’t allow me to sleep for two years. And now my experience is that when I feel this kind of fear, I kind of know it’s not what needs to stop you. That you just keep working and using the fear almost like a compass to say, “What am I afraid of today?” – and going in instead of running away from it. I think that’s probably the biggest thing that really stuck in my mind.


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Sarah Y. Kim

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