Austin Butler owes Denzel Washington a thank-you card after he was cast as Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann's upcoming biopic about the King of Rock and Roll. In a new interview with Entertainment Weekly, the Moulin Rouge! filmmaker said he got a call from Washington out of the blue, suggesting Butler was the perfect actor to play Presley. When Luhrmann finally met the Once Upon A Time in Hollywood actor, he learned Washington was right.
Luhrmann said he received a video of a young man "in a flood of tears" as he performed "Unchained Melody." He thought, "Wow, what is that? How is that happening?" Then, he suddenly got a call from Washington, who acted alongside Butler in a limited Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. Washington starred as the salesman Hickey, while Butler had a supporting role as Don Parritt. It marked Butler's Broadway debut.
"I did not know Denzel," Luhrmann said. "And he said, 'I've just worked with this guy on stage. I've never seen a work ethic like it.' And I'm like, 'Okay, I must see him.'"
Once Luhrmann met Butler, he quickly learned Washington was not overselling Butler's talent. "Honestly, I put him through the ringer, but he lived Elvis," Luhrmann told EW. "What he's managed to do is not do an impersonation, but to live Elvis, to the extent that he's humanized him."
Although Elvis doesn't hit theaters for another month, Butler's performance has picked up plenty of buzz since the first trailer was released. His performance also earned praise from Presley's ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, and talent manager Jerry Schilling, who saw a private screening of the movie. "Austin Butler, who played Elvis is outstanding," Priscilla wrote on April 29. "Halfway through the film Jerry and I looked at each other and said WOW!!! Bravo to him...he knew he had big shoes to fill. He was extremely nervous playing this part. I can only imagine."
In his EW interview, Luhrmann said Presley's life fits "beautifully" into a three-act structure. "There's Elvis the punk, if you like, the original punk rocker, the rebel," he said. "Then there's Elvis the movie man, and that's when he is pop and family-friendly. And then there's '70s Elvis, which is epic. The Apocalypse Now of musicals is what I've joked about calling the movie – and that's the '70s period. It's so sprawling and it's beautiful, but it's powerful. It's a three-act pop-cultural opera."
Elvis hits theaters on June 24. The movie also stars Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker, Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla, Luke Bracey as Schilling, and Helen Thompson and Richard Roxburgh as Presley's parents. Luhrmann wrote the screenplay with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Donner.