He grew up in Anaheim, California close to Disneyland but since winning the role of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic on the King of Rock ‘n Roll, fans were baffled that Austin Butler’s voice had seemingly changed to mimic that of the music icon he embodied on-screen.
While accepting his first Golden Globe for his portrayal of Elvis Presley, Butler was jokingly accused of having an “identity crisis” per Teen Vogue, who noted that his dialect had shifted from a higher pitch to the smoother Southern drawl so synonymous with Presley, who was born and raised in Tennessee. “The month before I heard that Baz was making the movie, I was going to look at Christmas lights with a friend,” Butler recently said during The Hollywood Reporter‘s Actors Roundtable. “There was an Elvis Christmas song on the radio and I was singing along, and my friend looked over at me and goes, ‘You’ve got to play Elvis.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s such a long shot.’”
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After his Golden Globe win for Best Actor, the Carrie Diaries star was asked about his accent. “I don’t think I sound like [Presley] still, but I guess I must because I hear it a lot,” Butler told reporters. “I had three years where that was my only focus. So, I’m sure there’s pieces of him in my DNA and I’ll always be linked.”
In an interview on the Graham Norton Show which aired on Friday, February 3, 2023, Butler said he was still in the process of shedding the accent. “I am getting rid of the accent, but I have probably damaged my vocal cords with all that singing,” he said. “One song took 40 takes!”
What was Austin Butler’s voice like before Elvis?
What was Austin Butler’s voice like before Elvis? In interviews recorded prior to Elvis, like this ET one from 2015 in which he gushed about then-girlfriend Vanessa Hudgens, the actor’s voice was a higher pitch, though there are elements to the way he speaks that are on the way to sounding like Elvis.
Butler has been acting since he was a teenager, starring in various Disney Channel and Nickelodeon TV series such as Hannah Montana, iCarly, and Zoey 101. Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as the notorious Tex Watson—who’s from Dallas, Texas—from the Manson Family cult was his last role before taking on Elvis. While Dallas and Memphis accents are different, you can hear Butler’s voice growing deeper.
These days Butler’s voice is noticeably lower in pitch and some vowels are more drawn-out, akin to the way Presley spoke. This is what’s known as a “role spill”, according to Luzita Fereday, a lecturer in Voice at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. In an article for The Conversation, she described how many actors fuse their “personal identity with characters” in a concept known as “boundary blurring” in the acting community.
“Your voice is a direct expression of who you are and your experiences. The fusing of personal identity with characters is crucial to the craft of an actor. However, some actors can lose their ‘idiolect’ (their individual way of speaking) and can retain features of accents they may have used for their character,” she observed.
Butler studied Presley for more than two years, isolated from his family to prepare for the role. “What a great guy to get to hang out with every day and learn everything about. I read every book on his life. I watched every frame of footage, every interview he ever gave,” he told LA local news station KTLA5.
He expanded on this point during and Actors on Actors interview for Variety with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery actress Janelle Monáe, Butler shared how he transformed into the role of this legendary music icon. “During Elvis, I didn’t see my family for about three years. I was prepping with Baz, and then I went to Australia. I had months where I wouldn’t talk to anybody,” Butler said. “And when I did, the only thing I was ever thinking about was Elvis. I was speaking in his voice the whole time…This is what it takes.”
The film’s director, Baz Luhrmann, explained to The Hollywood Reporter that Butler’s experience transforming into Elvis is something he’s never seen before. “I think that you’ve got to understand just how deep the journey has been for him. It’s a role of a lifetime that he gave his life to, he really gave it all for such a long time,” he said. “And actually the voice — I mean, people’s voices do change. I’ve never known him actually not to speak in the way [he did] in that time. When he first came in, he already had quite a deep tone of voice. Surely he had to inhabit another character completely. But it’s just a measure of how much physical change — I mean, his body changed, physically, just from training to do all that.”
He continued: “When he came in, it was about six weeks later that I said to someone, ‘What part of the South is Austin actually from?’ And they said, ‘Oh, no, he’s from Anaheim.’ He was already obsessively practicing changing the muscles in his mouth. To produce a sound that was the Elvis voice, really.”
The term “de-roling”, as Fereday noted, is the method by which an actor lets go of certain physical character traits that aren’t their own once they finish performing. Fereday speculated that this may have been challenging in Butler’s case. “It can be difficult to de-role for an actor who has invested significant commitment to a successful transformation of accent, body and character,” she wrote. “It can take months for an actor to feel they have let the character go, especially if they felt a strong synergy and connection with the character.”
Indeed, in speaking with Australia’s ABC Gold Coast, Butler’s vocal coach Irene Bartlett talked about her take on how he’s maintained his Southern drawl. “What you saw in that Golden Globes speech, that’s him. It’s genuine, it’s not put on,” she said. “I feel sorry people are saying that it’s still acting [but] he’s actually taken [the voice of Presley] on board.” She added that his accent might be there “forever.” She added: “Because of COVID shutdowns, he was working on it all the time and it’s difficult to switch off something you’ve spent so much focus [and] time on.”
In a 2022 interview with ELLE Australia, Butler reflected on the changes to his speaking voice since filming Elvis, comparing it to a stage persona and speculated that the same might happen for future roles because of his personality. “Because I’m a shy person, and when I know that there’s bits of Elvis that I’d have to click into in order to go out on stage and be in front of a ton of people, being surrounded by his name everywhere, there’s triggers,” he said. “You spend so much time obsessing about one thing, and it really is like muscular habits, your mouth can change. It’s pretty amazing. I know that I’m constantly changing. Check in with me in 20 years when I’ve played a lot of roles, who knows what I’ll sound like!”
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