After landing the coveted title role in Baz Luhrmann’s musical drama Elvis, Austin Butler barely slept for two years.
“I’d wake up everyday at 3 in the morning and my heart would just be pounding,” the actor said on a panel for the Warner Bros film at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles awards-season event. “It felt like this immeasurable weight on my shoulders. It felt so mammoth.”
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The “terror” he was feeling, he said, had to do with his fear that he couldn’t “possibly ever live up” to the task of portraying the musical icon — a performer with idiosyncrasies familiar to so many around the world.
Butler was joined on the panel at the DGA Theater by Luhrmann and producer Gail Berman, who like the actor have see the risks they took with Elvis affirmed many times over since the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere. The most meaningful response has come from those who knew the King of Rock and Roll personally — among them his daughter Lisa Marie Presley, wife Priscilla Presley, and longtime friend the talent manager Jerry Schilling.
Although Luhrmann was on a plane during the first screening of the film for Priscilla Presley and Schilling, Berman was present and said she felt “very nervous,” knowing that their response to it “could’ve gone any way.”
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Berman recalled that the pair went into the screening room with a female security guard who closed the door, leaving the producer outside to pace around. “Then, I could hear that [the film was] winding up and the female security guard opened the door and was crying and I thought, ‘Well she liked it.’ That was good,” she remembered. “Then, they came out and just kept saying, ‘Blown away. We’re blown away.’ It was a little bit of incredulousness. [Priscilla] was really overwhelmed.”
Butler not only wowed Elvis’ loved ones with the authenticity in his acting and musical performances — achieved through years of full-on immersion in the performer’s life and oeuvre — but he also managed to capture the performer’s interior life in a way that stunned them. “How did he know about Elvis’ anger?” Luhrmann remembered being asked in a letter.
While Luhrmann has established himself over the past 30 years as a singular talent, he said there’s been something special about his journey with Elvis and feels he might never be able to match it. “I’ve made some films,” he said, “[but] I don’t think anyone on this motion picture will ever have an experience like this [again].”
Released by Warner Bros. in June, Elvis examines the life and music of Presley through the prism of his complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). The film’s ensemble cast includes Olivia DeJonge, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Kodi Smit-McPhee and more. Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner wrote the script, which was based on a story by Luhrmann and Doner. Luhrmann and Berman were joined as producers by Catherine Martin, Patrick McCormick and Schuyler Weiss.
Check back Monday for the panel video.