Elvis Presley made a return to the zeitgeist this past year.
On the heels of the Oscar-nominated 2022 drama Elvis, starring Austin Butler, the adult animated series Agent Elvis, featuring a “retro cool” look and the voice of Matthew McConaughey as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, arrived in April on Netflix.
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Created by Priscilla Presley and John Eddie, with Eddie and head writer Mike Arnold serving as showrunners, the animated sitcom follows the music icon as he moonlights as a secret agent between performances during the period from 1968 to 1973. “It’s a known fact Elvis wanted to be a secret agent. The whole impetus for the series started from that photo of Elvis going to Richard Nixon and offering his services as an undercover agent,” claims Eddie. “I had always pitched it as Elvis Presley as a secret agent fighting crime, as if directed by Quentin Tarantino.”
He also cites the Maysles brothers’ classic Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter as a stylistic inspiration. “We wanted it to be an adult show,” says Eddie. “And we wanted to capture the turbulent times, the sex, the drugs, the rock ‘n’ roll, what was going on in the country at the time.”
Ironically, the pilot episode not only includes Elvis’ famous 1968 comeback special but also a scene at Spahn Ranch, where he encounters Charles Manson (voiced by Fred Armisen) and his followers in an alternative history — which the showrunners say was planned before Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood debuted in 2019.
“A lot of these starting points of the show were based on real moments in Elvis’ life as well as real moments in history,” Arnold elaborates, adding of the pilot, “[The ’68 comeback special] was his return to rock ‘n’ roll, whereas prior to that he’d been doing movies. So it felt like a great jumping-off point. And then we tried to seize on those sort of salient moments in history and popular culture right in the middle of Charlie Manson — and Elvis really was on his kill list.”
Eddie says he became friends with Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley in 2013, when he was a musician on Lisa Marie’s tour. (The season was completed before Lisa Marie’s death in January. The first episode includes an end-credit dedication.)
Eddie pitched the series because he’s a “big Elvis fan” and explains that he chose animation because, until he saw Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 movie with Butler in the lead role, “I always thought, no matter who played Elvis, they never got past the fact that they didn’t really look like Elvis. And I think Austin did an amazing job. But I thought if we did it animated, then we’d be able to capture how Elvis looked and the vibe of Elvis without actually having an actor have to overcome that.”
McConaughey signed up for the lead. Says Eddie, “Matthew really brought something different just by not trying to imitate Elvis’ voice. He more just embodied the cool vibe.”
Priscilla plays herself, and the cast includes Johnny Knoxville, Niecy Nash-Betts, Kaitlin Olson and Don Cheadle. It also features Tom Kenny (who voiced the title character on SpongeBob SquarePants) as Elvis’ chimpanzee sidekick, and even Luhrmann came on board to play a director in one episode.
To create the retro look, animator Robert Valley was brought on early and was heavily involved in character design and the visual style of the series. Valley, the Oscar-nominated director of the 2016 animated short Pear Cider and Cigarettes and helmer of a pair of Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots episodes, is known for his distinctive bold, graphic style and angular lines. The look of the series, says Arnold, was about combining an “appropriate period feel with the distinctive design and style of Valley.”
“Robert said Elvis was the hardest he’s ever designed. He said Elvis is such a beautiful man that if you get one little thing wrong, it throws the whole face off,” adds Eddie. “We even ended up having to take Valley’s design and then doing the 3D model to really capture Elvis as our character. A lot of time and effort went into capturing the Elvis character.”
The animation was produced at Sony Pictures Animation, the studio behind movies including the Hotel Transylvania franchise and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (and the upcoming Across the Spider-Verse and Beyond the Spider-Verse). Eddie explains that when they were starting the project, Mike Moon was at Sony, and he subsequently brought the project to Netflix during his stint with the streamer. Says Eddie of the SPA team, “They’ve just been very supportive of the idea and gave us a big sandbox to play with.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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