Austin Butler has received nearly universal praise for his performance as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic Elvis. He has taken the awards circuit by storm, having won a Golden Globe and BAFTA Award, and is widely considered the frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
But landing the role of the legendary singer wasn’t easy. Butler’s unconventional path to getting the part involved encouragement from Vanessa Hudgens and Denzel Washington, five months of collaborative meetings with Luhrmann, and a middle-of-the-night audition video in his bathrobe.
Encouragement from Vanessa Hudgens
Before Butler even knew an Elvis movie was in the works, his then-girlfriend Vanessa Hudgens insisted that he would be the perfect actor to play Presley, according to CNN.
The two were out looking at holiday lights one night when one of Presley’s Christmas songs came on the radio, prompting Hudgens to remark, “You’ve got to play Elvis!” Butler had been told before that he looked like Presley, but he had never given it much thought, responding: “Oh, that’s such a long shot.”
One month later, he received a phone call from his agent, informing him Luhrmann was making an Elvis movie. Butler told The Hollywood Reporter the coincidence made the hairs on his arm stand up, and he decided to give it everything he had, immediately hiring movement, singing, and dialect coaches to start preparing for auditions.
A Wide Casting Net
Luhrmann launched a worldwide search for a lead actor, holding casting calls in the United States, Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand, according to Variety. Butler prepared a video recording of himself singing “Love Me Tender” but was dissatisfied with the results.
“I watched it back, and I just saw all the external things,” Butler told Gold Derby. “I saw me trying to focus the muscles in my face to look like Elvis. It felt very surface, and I put it aside and said, ‘I can’t send that’. I was really just trying to figure out if I even believed I could approach this.”
Meanwhile, Luhrmann had some better-known names in mind for the part, including Ansel Elgort, Harry Styles, and Miles Teller. Butler had already recently lost a high-profile role to Teller: Both were up for the part of Rooster in Top Gun: Maverick, and Teller got it.
The Bathrobe Audition Tape
Butler did eventually submit an audition video and continued researching Presley. He was startled to learn Presley’s mother died when he was 23, the same age Butler was when he lost his own mother. One night, Butler woke up at 2 a.m. after a horrible nightmare about his mother dying again, he told Gold Derby.
“I just had all this pain inside, and I really thought Elvis would’ve woken up from similar dreams,” Butler said. “Suddenly, in that moment, it was so human. It was like it wasn’t about anything external, it was about the grief of a young man. I thought Elvis would put this into song, so what if I just sit down and sing a song right now with all this emotion?”
Still wearing his bathrobe, with his hair disheveled from sleeping, Butler used his smartphone to record himself singing “Unchained Melody,” unaware the same song would be used in the emotional climax of Luhrmann’s film. Butler told Gold Derby, “I just kind of let myself cry, and I let myself play the music.”
Denzel Washington’s Recommendation
Although they had already submitted an earlier audition tape, Butler’s agent watched the new video and insisted they had to send it in. Luhrmann ended up watching it, and it made a strong impression: “He was in a flood of tears, and it was emotional to look at. I was just moved by it. So I said, ‘I must see him.’”
Around this time, Luhrmann also got an unexpected phone call from Denzel Washington. Luhrmann and Washington didn’t know each other, but the actor had worked with Butler during a Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in 2018.
“‘He says: ‘You’re about to meet an actor I’ve been on stage with. You will not believe this young man’s work ethic. There is just no minute he won’t give to the art,’” Luhrmann said. The call further convinced the director he had to meet with Butler.
Five-Month Audition Process
Butler flew to New York City to meet Luhrmann, and the two talked for three hours. That conversation was the start of five months of collaborative meetings in which the two discussed the film and how to approach bringing Elvis Presley to life.
Even after all that, Butler still had to perform a screen test so that Luhrmann could sell the studio on casting him. Butler prepared to sing three songs and perform some scripted scenes, but when he arrived for the screen test, Luhrmann had changed everything at the last minute and asked him to sing different songs that Butler had not practiced.
“He put me through the ringer, and I realize now it’s because he likes to be very spontaneous on set,” Butler said on The Kelly Clarkson Show. “He wanted to see if I would lose my mind.”
Butler left the screen test convinced he wouldn’t get the part. About a week later, Luhrmann called Butler, who recounted their conversation: “He’s very dramatic in the way he goes about things so he sounded kind of downcast, and he goes, ‘Hey Austin, I just wanted to be the first one to call you and say… Are you ready to fly, Mr. Presley?’ And it was just the greatest phone call I ever had.”
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.