How did the 30-year-old beat countless other young actors to play Elvis? Why, with a little bit of luck—and an unprompted endorsement from his hero Denzel Washington.
There are an estimated 400,000 Elvis Presley impersonators worldwide who devote themselves to shimmying into rhinestone jumpsuits and slicking their hair back and swiveling their hips. Who, night after night, croon “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender,” and pronounce you man and wife and put on their best Southern drawl to thank you, thank you very much.There is perhaps no other person in human history who has been imitated and idolized as much as Elvis. In the face of the King’s omnipresence, how can a performer who is met with the task of portraying Elvis make it feel…real? After all, even footage of the actual man can feel uncanny, as if he, too, is yet another impersonator playing up the tropes.
Now, Austin Butler is taking on the challenge of trying to resurrect him for the Baz Luhrmann biopic Elvis. If Elvis was a polite, handsome, and talented young interloper in the world of music, then Butler is a polite, handsome, and talented young interloper in the world of Elvis interpreters. For starters, the 30-year-old actor looks as if he’s been transported to our interview—at a convivial Los Angeles restaurant where the owners treat him like family—on a ray of California sunshine. He’s tall, with a face meant to be ripped out of a magazine and taped up in a locker: blue-green eyes, a lock of sandy blond hair that falls over his forehead, lips so pillowy they might as well be memory foam. When he smiles, it is the most earnest smile you’ve ever seen in your life. And if you are within Austin Butler’s vicinity, there is, statistically speaking, a 98 percent chance he is smiling right at you. Even when he’s saying things like: “You can lose touch with who you actually are. And I definitely had that when I finished Elvis—not knowing who I was.”
Pictures by Eric Ray Davidson for US GQ June/July 2022 fashion edits.
His friends say he really is that unflaggingly upbeat. On the set of the upcoming Apple TV+ drama, Masters of the Air, in which Butler plays a World War II fighter pilot, there was one guy who would do a warm imitation of him, punctuating everything with “Beautiful! Excellent!”
Filming was slated to begin in March 2020 in Australia, Luhrmann’s home and where he shoots most of his movies. But just a few days prior, Tom Hanks was infamously diagnosed and hospitalized with COVID-19. Production was shut down indefinitely. The producers were ready to whisk Butler home to Los Angeles, but he decided to stay put and hole up and use the break to dig even deeper into his character.
The first single of coming Soundtrack is by Doja Cat “Vegas”
He basically turned his apartment into a detective scene, à la Charlie in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia unearthing a vast mail-room conspiracy. “Just images of Elvis everywhere, from every time period,” says Butler. “I think the film would have been very different if we had started shooting at that point, and I’m grateful I had the time to let myself marinate.”
Six months later, they were finally ready to go. The first performance scene that Butler had to film was Elvis’s big 1968 comeback special, which, appropriately enough, had a ton of pressure riding on it. Despite his nerves, Butler maintained that unrelenting positivity. “Look, I’ve worked with every kind of actor and every kind of performer. And I accept that they have freak-outs, that’s okay,” Luhrmann told me. “But Austin, he doesn’t freak out. He has the most polite panic of anyone I’ve ever met.”
So how did he finally extricate himself from teen-crush territory? Butler pauses to think about it. “Do you ever listen to Ira Glass?” he asks, referencing the popular public-radio personality. “There’s that one quote, where he talks about how there’s this gap between where your skill is and where your taste is.” You may want to make work that corresponds with your taste, but your capabilities aren’t quite there yet. Butler says he related to that, being firmly in the middle of that gap and mostly taking jobs to pay the bills.
By the time that next job rolled around, Butler had someone huge in his corner. As Luhrmann tells it: “I get a phone call out of the blue from Denzel Washington, who I did not know. Denzel Washington just said, in the most incredibly emotional and direct way, ‘Look, I’ve just been onstage with this young actor. I’m telling you, his work ethic is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen anyone who devotes every single second of their lives to perfecting a role.’ ”
“I was so grateful for that,” Butler tells me. “He didn’t call me beforehand, he didn’t call me after. It was this generous thing that he just did.”
Luhrmann, who cast a young Leonardo DiCaprio in 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, actually drew a comparison between the two actors. Just recently, Butler and Luhrmann met up with Leo after a Lakers game. “I think Leonardo was recognizing what Austin’s about to go through,” Luhrmann told me. “The difference for Austin, and this is fortunate, is that Austin is very young looking, but he’s 30.”
Photography by Eric Ray Davidson @ericraydavidson
Talent Austin Butler @austinbutler
Styled by Jon Tietz
Grooming by Jamie Taylor at the Wall Group for Leonor Greyl and Augustinus Bader
Tailoring by Susie’s Custom Designs, Inc
Prop styling by Audrey Taylor
Produced by Seduko Productions