How Austin Butler Resurrected Elvis

His dream at that time was to do a play in New York, which came true when he landed a part in a 2018 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. One of his costars was Denzel Washington. “There’s that thing where you meet your heroes, and you want to be their best friend,” Butler says. “I was like, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ So, I went into the quickest mentality of ‘I’m not going to try to be his friend, I’m just going to try to do work as well as I possibly can.’ ” Butler showed up at the table read for the play, having memorized the entire mammoth script. Then he would try to arrive at the theater earlier than Washington every single performance. Eventually, the legendary actor caught on to what was happening.

One day, Washington waved him over and said, “Hey, I got an idea for you,” Butler shares. “Then I sat down; it’s just Denzel and me in this empty theater. He started giving me acting advice and he really took me under his wing. He’d start telling me thoughts about the scene, and suddenly I’ve got Denzel almost as an acting coach.” And maybe even a life coach. “Denzel always goes back to gratitude,” Butler adds. “I look at that for longevity in any career. Having those moments where, at the best of times or the worst of times, you’re being grateful for what you actually have and having humility.”

Critics started to notice Butler too. Hilton Als, reviewing the play in The New Yorker, both opened and closed his review praising Butler and highlighting him as the standout among his more seasoned castmates. “Most performers want to be seen at any cost,” Als wrote, “but actors—at least, those as good as Butler—are both determined and relaxed in their ambition to do justice to the playwright’s text while contributing to the life of the story.”

The play put him on the map and vaulted him to the company of his other heroes—Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, directed by, yes, Quentin Tarantino. Butler remembers one night shoot, in which Tarantino ordered a crepe truck to the set at 3 a.m. “We were sitting there eating Nutella crepes, and Quentin goes, ‘How great is this?’ ” Butler recalls. “I think back to my 12-year-old self, being there with Quentin and eating a crepe at three in the morning on his set. And he goes, ‘You know what my goal is? My goal is to give everybody on this set such a good time that their next job sucks.’ ”

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