When you’re acting opposite two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, you can bank on lessons being learned.
And for Austin Butler, the star of Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic “Elvis” (in theaters now), the first one arrived in the form of an old-school manual typewriter, a longtime Hanks passion.
“It came to my room at the hotel, with a letter rolled up in there that had been just typed,” says Butler, 30.
Hanks, 65, had written the letter, but as his character, Elvis manager Colonel Tom Parker. It was addressed not to Butler, but to Elvis. The message was clear: Write me back as Elvis.
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That began a frequent exchange of in-character missives between the two actors, a simple but effective means of diving into their respective alter egos.
“Tom would write something as Parker like, ‘Dear Elvis, I saw your movie “G.I. Blues” tonight,’ and then he’d talk about it a bit in the letter, and then I’d send one back,” says Butler.
“I have a stack of letters now at home, from Tom as Colonel Tom Parker,” Butler says with a laugh. “It wasn’t part of the official rehearsal, but in the end it was an amazing way to put on paper a man’s mind. To have to condense who your character was into a short letter. It was such an invaluable process that helped me understand these two men.”
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Asked about the typewriter gift to Butler, Hanks is succinct: “I just felt that every artist needs a word hammer.”
Butler may be well known to fans of teen TV dramedies such as “Hannah Montana” and “Switched at Birth,” but his star turn in “Elvis” put him into a different Hollywood orbit. He knew it was time to study.
Hanks “never gave me advice in a spoken way, it was more in me observing him in front of the camera,” says Butler. “He was so justified in everything he did as Colonel Parker that it even had me wondering, as Elvis, ‘Am I doing the right thing here, maybe he’s right?’ ”
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Butler says he also picked up tips on the art of the close-up, observations that he says echoed the nuanced moves of Brad Pitt, who Butler worked with in his role as Manson family member Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
“Tom can say so much with so little, just as Brad can,” Butler says. “You’re looking at them and really you don’t see them do much during the scene, but they know it’s their close-up. You just see something in their eyes light up, and it changes everything.”
Hanks says Butler came to the role of Elvis well-prepared. “He’s been an actor a long time, he came up through that Disney school of acting and has made some movies now, so he did not come to this accidentally in any way.”
Butler is quick to return the compliment. “I can’t say enough about how kind and open and generous he is,” he says. “But as an artist, beyond being a great leader on set, he has such mastery of his craft. I had so much to learn from him.”
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