From Nickelodeon To Dune Part 2: Inside Austin Butler's Career

Austin Butler's high-profile breakthrough as Elvis Presley in "Elvis," Baz Luhrmann's biopic about the King of Rock and Roll, began via its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, with the film receiving a 12-minute standing ovation. The King, it seemed, had returned to the building.

Reviews praised Luhrmann's go-for-broke style and Butler's immersion into the role of one of the most iconic, distinctive personalities to ever hold a microphone. Playing one of the 20th century's most charismatic, influential musicians takes a fair amount of charisma and commitment, though he pulled it off spectacularly; Priscilla Presley, widow of Elvis, called his work "outstanding" after a private screening of the film (via Entertainment Tonight).

Butler is no overnight success. With a resume going back nearly two decades, the actor was once a fixture of family television on Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and ABC Family/Freeform. He reached another level with "Elvis," and he took another step toward Hollywood's A-list with his turn as the villainous Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in Denis Villeneuve's "Dune: Part Two." We're taking a deep dive into his child star-to-leading man transformation.

He's a California kid who loved going to Disneyland

Austin Butler was born in Anaheim, California in 1991. His mother, Lori Anne, was an aesthetician and his father, David, is a real estate broker. Though his parents divorced when he was seven, Butler's upbringing was by all accounts normal, if perhaps a little solitary. "I didn't really have a passion for anything that included other people at that time," he told GQ. "I wouldn't go play sports, I wouldn't do things with other kids."

Though he attended elementary school in Orange County, he was homeschooled as a preschooler, and would be once again when his acting career took off. Living in Anaheim presented one major hurdle to his pre-K studies, however: Disneyland. "[I] have vivid memories of my mom saying, 'Instead of doing schoolwork, let's just go to Disneyland,'" he told The Orange County Register back in 2016. "I have such happy memories of that place." But rather than Mickey Mouse's house, it was a trip to the Orange County Fair at age 12 that would change Butler's life forever.

He was spotted by a scout at the Orange County Fair

At the age of 12, Austin Butler was visiting the Orange County Fair with his stepbrother when they were approached by a representative for a background acting management company. According to Butler, the scout was initially interested in Butler's stepbrother, who at the time had a mop of unruly hair and a more distinctive look than the shy Austin. "They said to my mom, 'You have another son; have him audition as well,'" Butler told The Orange County Register.

Tagging along with his stepbrother to an audition turned out to be a stroke of incredible luck: Butler was cast as a background character on the Nickelodeon sitcom "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide." From there, he went on to appear in over forty episodes as Zippy Brewster, a classmate of Ned (Devon Werkheiser), the show's narrator and author of the titular guide. Butler rarely received any dialogue, but the experience not only convinced him that he wanted to pursue acting full time, it also got him noticed for larger roles at Nickelodeon.

Butler became known as the cutest boy in school

Austin Butler appeared in Season 2 and Season 3 of "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide," and during this time he stopped attending school. He was homeschooled and took acting classes, eventually testing out of high school at age 15. His co-star Lindsey Shaw put him in touch with her manager Pat Cutler, which helped advance his career. "I signed with her immediately, and she got me on the right track," Butler told Portrait Magazine. "I started auditioning all the time, and eventually started booking commercials and small roles."

In 2007, he appeared on an episode of the Nickelodeon show "iCarly" as Jake, the cutest boy in school, and that same year he made the leap to the Disney Channel, appearing on an episode of "Hannah Montana" as the cutest boy in school. In 2008, Butler landed a recurring role on Season 4 of the Jamie Lynn Spears-led show "Zoey 101" on Nickelodeon as (you guessed it) the cutest boy in school.

Sensing a trap in playing all these heartthrob roles, Butler sharpened his ambitions and pined for more serious work. He knew that if he wanted to be taken seriously as an up-and-coming actor he would have to branch out. "I wanted to do a part like 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape?' or 'The Basketball Diaries,'" he told GQ years later. "I was watching 'Raging Bull' and those types of films, and going, 'I don't want to be the guy who walks in slo-mo through a door.'"

His first feature film was panned by critics

Austin Butler booked his first feature film role in the 20th Century Fox sci-fi family adventure "Aliens in the Attic." Part home invasion thriller, part kid-friendly creature feature, the film stars Carter Jenkins and Ashley Tisdale as a teenage brother and sister who discover that their Michigan vacation home has been infiltrated by diminutive ETs with the power to control the minds of grown-ups. Butler co-stars as the siblings' meathead cousin who gets roped into saving the world, and while he manages some decent physical comedy bits, the film wasn't a very good showcase for anyone involved — it was panned by critics and audiences alike.

Butler would play yet another dim-witted cousin that same year in the short-lived ABC Family (which became Freeform) sitcom "Ruby & the Rockits." Starring Alexa Vega as Ruby and 1970s heartthrob David Cassidy as her estranged rock star dad, the show attempted to be a whole bunch of things at once: A father-daughter reconciliation story, a found family comedy (Ruby meets the cousins she never knew she had, leading to some out-of-place humor involving Butler as her horndog cousin), and a behind-the-music parody playing off Cassidy's real life pop star history. Ultimately, though, the show fell back on the type of dopey humor that wouldn't have been out of place in the juvenile shows Butler had just graduated from.

He played Carrie's boyfriend in The CW's Sex and the City prequel

As Austin Butler entered his 20s, he continued to book a succession of television roles that didn't veer too far from the teen heartthrobs he had played on Nickelodeon. In between guest appearances on "The Wizards of Waverly Place," the "High School Musical" spin-off "Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure" (starring his "Aliens in the Attic" co-star Ashley Tisdale), more adult-oriented shows like "Are You There, Chelsea?" and "CSI," Butler was a regular on the teen dramas "Life Unexpected" and "Switched at Birth." He also played an obnoxious surfer with distractingly-white teeth in two 2010 episodes of the Jonas Brothers' Disney Channel series "Jonas."

In 2013, he booked his highest-profile gig yet as Sebastian Kydd, the on-and-off-again boyfriend of young Carrie Bradshaw in The CW's "Sex and the City" prequel "The Carrie Diaries." The two-season wonder starred AnnaSophia Robb as Carrie, narrating her high school misadventures just as her adult counterpart would chronicle her early-00s life in New York City. While the part was yet another hunk role for Butler (he literally walked through a door in slow motion), he did his best to cut through the poor-little-rich-boy characterization, but a role that required more of him than just a pretty face was still out of reach.

Denzel Washington took Butler under his wing

In 2015, Austin Butler appeared opposite former "iCarly" star Miranda Cosgrove in the indie haunted house thriller "The Intruders." Over the next few years, he was in two poorly-received films from one-time indie darlings: Kevin Smith's debacle "Yoga Hosers” and Jim Jarmusch's zombie satire "The Dead Don't Die." In Jarmusch's film, Butler gets killed by zombies and then beheaded by Adam Driver as a preventative measure. In "Yoga Hosers," he is saddled with a comically terrible Canadian accent and is introduced yet again walking slo-mo through a door. Neither role would turn out to be life-changing, but a Eugene O'Neill Broadway show starring Denzel Washington? That's a different story.

In 2018, Butler was cast as a member of the massive ensemble of "The Iceman Cometh," O'Neill's epic 1946 play about drunks and desperation. Directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Washington, David Morse, Tammy Blanchard, and many more veterans of stage and screen, the revival was a huge opportunity for Butler. In an interview with GQ in May 2022, Butler revealed that he memorized the entire script and always showed up to rehearsals early. Eventually, Washington took notice and mentored Butler during the production. "He'd start telling me thoughts about the scene," Butler recalled, "and suddenly I've got Denzel almost as an acting coach." Theater critic Hilton Als' review in the New Yorker singled Butler out for an exceptional performance in an overall so-so show.

The Shannara Chronicles

What if "Game of Thrones" and "The Lord of the Rings" combined into a high fantasy show with teen appeal — and what if Austin Butler was a lead on it? Well, in 2016, that's exactly what happened. Butler played one of the main roles in "The Shannara Chronicles," a forgotten fantasy series that you can stream on Netflix. It was one of Butler's first major leading-man moments that didn't actively involve a high school setting.

Butler played Wil Ohmsford, a half-human/half-elf farm boy who discovers that he is destined for far greater things than mucking out barns. Wil teams up with an elven princess and a human thief to protect the Four Lands from banished demons. The show was shot on location in New Zealand and was Butler's first big experience working with Weta Workshop — a major contributor to "Dune: Part Two."

Butler and his young castmates were praised by critics for their work on the series, which is based on the novels by Terry Brooks. It also had quite the pedigree behind the camera: Co-creators Al Gough and Miles Millar would later go on to create "Into the Badlands" and "Wednesday." Jon Favreau (of Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars fame) served as an executive producer. Sadly, "Shannara" was canceled after two seasons, but that couldn't stop Butler's rise.

Working with Quentin Tarantino was a dream come true

While Austin Butler was in performances of "The Iceman Cometh" in New York, he was asked to submit an audition tape to Quentin Tarantino for his upcoming film. Butler — who as a 12-year-old kept a printed copy of the "Pulp Fiction" screenplay that he would recite to his mother while she drove — jumped at the chance to work with one of his heroes. Soon after he sent in his self-tape, Tarantino asked him to do a live audition, so Butler flew to Los Angeles on his day off, spent the day workshopping with the acclaimed director, and returned to New York within 24 hours with the role in hand.

The film was "Once Upon a Hollywood," a tribute to the Los Angeles of the late 1960s and an alternate history that explores the murder of Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family. Butler was cast as Charles "Tex" Watson, one of the many real-life figures portrayed in the film. He was a follower of Charles Manson who was convicted of the murder of Tate and her houseguests, as well as the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the following day. 

In Tarantino's film, Watson and his accomplices make an unplanned stop at the home of Tate's (Margot Robbie) next door neighbor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). There, they are confronted by Dalton and his former stuntman/driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). When asked on the red carpet how he coped with playing such a dark figure, Butler told Variety that the "monstrous" nature of the role was tempered by the "dream come true" of working with DiCaprio, Pitt, and Tarantino.

Becoming The King

On July 15, 2019, it was announced that Austin Butler had won the title role in Baz Luhrmann's biopic of Elvis. In his Variety interview at the red carpet premiere of "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood," two weeks after the announcement, his hair was already dyed jet black and swooped up with grease, and his voice was already bearing a very Elvis-like tone. In a rarity for actors playing The King, it was also announced that Butler would be performing his own songs. For longtime fans, however, this was no surprise, as he had been playing guitar and singing as far back as "iCarly."

When asked how he was preparing to play one of the most recognizable pop culture figures of all time, Butler simply replied, "Many, many hours of hard work." That hard work took the form of intense preparation and study, delving into every facet of the life and influences of The King, and finding a tragic personal connection: Both Butler and Presley lost their mother at age 23. Production on the film stretched on for nearly two years, due in large part to delays when co-star Tom Hanks contracted COVID-19. 

Filming finally wrapped in March 2021, and Butler's body gave out the very next day — he spent a week bedridden from a viral infection. For an actor as dedicated as Butler, it was a small price to pay for a movie that wowed critics and audiences alike. Even critics who are allergic to Luhrmann's maximalist style found Butler's performance to be a technical marvel of impersonation.

The voice heard around the world

Austin Butler really commits to his roles. The filmmakers and fellow actors he's worked with often make a point of noting just how dedicated Butler is to his work. Whether it's physical training, script analysis, or vocal work, Butler is in it to win it. Losing it, on the other hand, is a whole other story — at least when it comes to his notoriously hard to shake "Elvis" accent.

You can't swing a peanut butter and banana sandwich around the internet circa March 2023 without hitting a culture piece about Butler's lingering accent. "Austin Butler is still Elvising," begins one such article on Mashable. Butler discussed the matter with late night talk show hosts Stephen Colbert and Graham Norton, revealing that he spent so long learning Elvis' vocal patterns that it took some serious training to unlearn them.

The actor told Norton the comments about his accent made him self-conscious, saying: "I thought, 'Am I being phony? Is this not my voice?'" Ultimately, as he told Colbert, he needed a dialect coach to get rid of his Elvis voice. It must have been a bittersweet moment, considering all the work he did to get the accent. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Butler revealed that he made a sound catalog for The King: "I created my own archive of how he said every word and every diphthong, and the way that he used musicality in his voice."

SNL and Hot Ones

There might be no greater measure of an artist's popularity in the modern age than being asked to appear on "Hot Ones" — unless, of course, it's being asked to host "SNL." Within about the span of a year, Austin Butler did both. This media blitz followed "Elvis" mania, and it did nicely to promote Butler's next round of high-profile character roles. In 2022, Butler hosted "SNL" with Lizzo as a musical guest. His "SNL" monologue moment caught us totally off guard by managing to be both a goofy Gollum impression and a touching tribute to his mother, who he lost to cancer when he was 23. In addition to this genuine bit of emotion, Butler also sent up his Elvis persona in several sketches.

In his 2023 "Hot Ones" appearance, Butler stoically sniffled through a row of hot wings while discussing his career. At one stage, he opened up about doing "The Iceman Cometh" on Broadway with acting legend Denzel Washington. "It was some of the most brilliant acting I've ever laid eyes on," Butler said of Washington's work in the play. "He knew it, the audience knew it, the other actors knew it. And you'd expect when somebody's done something brilliant, they're going to do it again tomorrow, and he wouldn't... It was just new life every night. It was just that complete presence." The wonder is clear in Butler's voice as he tells this tale — it's obvious that he draws inspiration from his brilliant co-star.

Tom Hanks sold him on Masters of the Air

Perhaps because he started his career with so much television, Austin Butler seems to move between the big screen and the small screen at a steady clip. In 2024, he made his streaming debut in the series "Masters of the Air" — and this came about entirely because of his work in "Elvis." According to a story Butler recounted on "Late Night with Stephen Colbert," Butler and Tom Hanks were having dinner close to the end of the "Elvis" shoot. Hanks jokingly warned Butler that he'd need to dive right into something different after "Elvis" so he wouldn't lose his mind — and then pitched him "Masters of the Air."

The Apple TV+ show is a World War II epic that follows the 100th Bomb Group, an American bomber unit. It comes from the producers who made "Band of Brothers” and "The Pacific" — Gary Goetzman, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks. Butler's co-stars are also a who's-who of young TV and movie heavy-hitters, including Callum Turner ("The Capture"), Barry Keoghan ("Saltburn"), and Freddy Carter ("Shadow and Bone"). Even though Apple TV+ is notorious for not doing much to market its shows, Butler's turn as Major Gale "Buck" Cleven won praise from critics and further cemented him as one of Hollywood's top young talents.

Butler channels James Dean in The Bikeriders

On paper, Austin Butler is a talented character actor blessed with leading man looks. This, combined with his total commitment to whatever role he lands, is what makes him such a sought-after star in Tinseltown. Whether he's playing supporting roles or leading ones, he gives absolutely everything for the project. The actor set his skills to ensemble mode for "The Bikeriders," a fictionalized account of a very real 1960s Chicago motorcycle gang. The story centers on tough customer with a heart of gold Benny (Butler), the woman he loves (Jodie Comer), and the man who loops him into the biker gang life (Tom Hardy).

Butler is the heart and soul of the film. He goes beat for beat with a powerhouse ensemble here: His co-stars are some of the top actors of a generation, including Michael Shannon, Boyd Holbrook, and Damon Herriman. He leans into a new brooding, edgy energy in this role, and critics were wholly convinced by his turn as Benny. "Coming off his Oscar-nominated 'Elvis,' Butler fits comfortably into a James Dean-style rebel whose cause seems to be surviving one violent encounter after another," Deadline said in its review.

He went full villain for Dune: Part Two

Austin Butler's biggest role to date is probably a tie between Elvis and Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, a bald sci-fi baddie who killed his own mother. Butler joined the ensemble cast of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" movies in the box office smash "Dune: Part Two." Feyd-Rautha is ruthless, cannibalistic, and not afraid of a little smooch with his overlord uncle, Baron Harkonnen, played by bad-guy-par-excellence himself, Stellan Skarsgård.

"He really enjoyed being evil," Skarsgård told Variety, approvingly. He also told the publication that Butler based Feyd-Rautha's voice on Skarsgård's own, and that "it was like hearing an echo. It was very, very precise." Butler's commitment (he learned knife-fighting for the role) also impressed Villeneuve. "Austin brought something that is a cross between a psychopath killer, an Olympic sword master, a snake, and Mick Jagger," the director told Empire.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Butler revealed that he set some boundaries in terms of his commitment levels this time around. "I've definitely in the past, with 'Elvis,' explored living within that world for three years and that being the only thing that I think about day and night," he said. "I knew that I wasn't going to do anything dangerous outside of that boundary, and in a way that allowed me to go deeper." He's come a long way from being the "cutest boy in school" in "iCarly," and Butler looks set to become a household name in Hollywood.