If you do a quick internet search for “Austin Butler”, two main names pop up: the first, Quentin Tarantino – Butler recently appeared in Tarantino’s smash hit Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood – and the second, Elvis Presley, whom Butler will be portraying in an upcoming biopic directed by Baz Luhrmann.
For any actor, associations like those would come with a lot of pressure. “I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel that,” 27-year-old Butler admits with a laugh. “The fear and self-doubt and all those things – I don’t know if they’re a part of every actor’s process, but they’re there. I think just as a human being that’s something sort of deep in our nature.”
Butler has a deep voice, speaking with a slow deliberation that makes each word feel carefully considered. It’s only been a few days since the release of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and as the Los Angeles-born actor discusses the experience, a satisfied exhaustion lingers behind every sentence. Still, he’s as casual as he is gracious, sharing stories from set with regard and ease.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood may be the actor’s first Tarantino project, but his personal history with the director goes back to his youth. As a young performer, he would read the screenplay for Pulp Fiction out to his mother as they drove to auditions. “It was the first script I ever printed out,” he recalls. “I just thought, this is amazing writing. Before that, I just appreciated a film as a whole… but with [Pulp Fiction] I thought, man, I’ve got to see the words on the page.”
In Tarantino’s most recent film, Butler portrays Charles “Tex” Watson, a member of the infamous Manson family. “It’s a really conflicting thing, playing somebody who did such horrific things,” Butler admits. In preparation for the role, Butler read “everything that I possibly could,” ranging from histories of the Manson family to Watson’s own books. “The real challenge when playing a person who did these monstrous things is to not judge them while you’re playing them. Afterwards, I can judge or before I can judge, but not in the midst of it.”
Easing his psyche during the process was Tarantino himself. “He’s been doing this for about 30 years now – I mean, I think he’s had almost a 30-year career – and he’s just endlessly grateful,” shares Butler with admiration. “You see a lot of people who do what they do, whether that’s in the film industry or whatever industry, and they can get sort of jaded after a time. He is just so not that. It’s really infectious on set.”
Before working with Tarantino, Butler starred alongside Adam Driver, Bill Murray and Chloë Sevigny in Jim Jarmusch’s hit zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die. At present, however, his sole focus is the as-of-yet-untitled Elvis project helmed by director Baz Luhrmann, which will star him and Tom Hanks. The four-month journey to getting the role, says Butler, was “the most elaborate, extensive process that I’ve ever gone through.”
Luhrmann discovered Butler through the theatre; Butler portrayed Don Parritt in a 2018 production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh on Broadway alongside Denzel Washington. The show is an ordeal – a draining story told over four hours. “It’s one of the most profound experiences I’ve had,” says Butler. He describes the play as a sort of culmination of a lifetime effort. “I’ve worked since I was maybe twelve years old… I really have, for a long time, been gently and slowly going towards the direction I’ve always dreamt of going… [Iceman] was very emotionally demanding – it sort of seemed like climbing Everest to me. It was really something profound, getting over the crippling anxiety before it and then going out there and giving everything that I possibly had.”
The journey from The Iceman Cometh to Luhrmann’s Elvis film is fuzzy, and Butler confesses he’s reluctant to delve any deeper into the topic. “It’s hard for me to talk about it, almost, because it still feels very delicate,” he remarks. “[It’s] just a beginning, you know?”
For now, the actor chooses to be immersed in the man himself, forming a nuanced picture of the Rock and Roll icon through whatever media he can get his hands on. The experience, he’ll admit, has been humbling. “I have such a deep admiration and respect for this man,” he says. “I also, through a lot of research, have felt that a lot of parts of myself that I sometimes hide from the world he also had, whether he showed them publicly or not. It’s a thrilling thing as an actor, to get to have that therapeutic experience of discovering these parts of yourself.”
Butler is himself a guitar player, having picked up the instrument at a young age after receiving a CostCo-brand Stratocaster clone for his birthday. “At first my parents thought I was tone-deaf because at that time I couldn’t really hear the difference between a high note and a low note,” says Butler with a laugh. “But there was something about it that I just became obsessed with, to the point where I ended up just playing eight hours a day. My fingers would split open, and I would put superglue in the holes in my fingers. I would just play all day long.”
Luhrmann’s Elvis film currently occupies the majority of Butler’s time, though, in the future, he says he’d love to return to the stage. “I would love so, so much to do a play with Mark Rylance. I admire him so much – that would be such an honour.”
At the moment, the actor is simply thankful to be where he is. “The other day I was going back and just trying to take a moment to be grateful for everything that I’ve gone through in life – even [for] some of the things that at the time didn’t go the way that I wanted them to… I realised things really do happen for a reason; they can lead you to a place of beauty and wonder you wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.”
“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is currently in cinemas worldwide.
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