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From Nickelodeon To Elvis: Inside Austin Butler's Career Transformation

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

Reviews have 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; Priscilla Presley, widow of Elvis, calls his work "outstanding."

Butler may not be a household name, but he is no overnight success either. With a resume going back nearly two decades, Butler has been a fixture of family television on Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and ABC Family/Freeform, and in recent years has made a splash in the indie cinema world. "Elvis" may be the first time many are hearing Butler's name, but here's a brief look at his child-to-leading man transformation.

California Kid

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 recently 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, when Butler was twelve, that would change his life forever.

Orange County Fair

At the age of twelve, 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.'"

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

Nickelodeon Days

Butler appeared on Seasons 2 and 3 "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide," and during this time he stopped attending school and was homeschooled and took acting classes, eventually testing out of high school at age fifteen

His co-star Lindsey Shaw put him in touch with her manager Pat Cutler, who began to represent Butler as well. His earliest roles were not too far away from "Ned's." In 2007, he appeared on an episode of the Nickelodeon show "iCarly" as Jake, the cutest boy in school; that same year he made the leap to the Disney Channel, appearing on an episode of "Hannah Montana" as the cutest boy in school. Then, in 2008, he landed a recurring role on Season 4 of the Jamie Lynn Spears-starring "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, "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.'"

Rockits and Aliens

Butler might have been done with those types of roles, but they weren't quite done with him. 

In 2009 he 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 "High School Musical" star 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.

Butler would play yet another dimwitted cousin that same year in the short-lived ABC Family (now Freeform) sitcom "Ruby and the Rockits." Starring former Spy Kid Alexa Vega as Ruby and 1970s heartthrob David Cassidy as her estranged has-been rock star dad, the show attempted to be a whole bunch of things at once: A father-daughter reconciliation story, a found family comedy (as Ruby meets the cousins she never knew she had, including 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 Nick shows Butler had just graduated from.

Teenage Journeyman

As Butler entered his twenties in the early 2010s, he continued to book a succession of television roles that didn't veer too far from the teen heartthrobs he had played on Nickelodeon — though he was allowed the opportunity to break out a not-terrible Matthew McConaughey impersonation on a 2010 episode of the Jonas Brothers' Disney Channel series "Jonas." 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 Tisdale), more adult-oriented shows like "CSI" and "Are You There, Chelsea?" Butler was a regular on the teen dramas "Life Unexpected" and "Switched at Birth."

In 2013, he booked his highest profile gig yet as Sebastian Kydd, the on-and-off-again boyfriend of a 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 early-aughts New York City. While the part was yet another hunk role for Butler, 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.

Cinema Screens and Broadway

The mid- and late-2010s saw Butler's film career pick up, co-starring along with former "iCarly" star Miranda Cosgrove in the 2015 indie haunted house thriller "The Intruders." In this era he also appeared in two poorly-received films from onetime indie cinema darlings, Jim Jarmusch's 2019 zombie satire "The Dead Don't Die" and Kevin Smith's debacle "Yoga Hosers." In Jarmusch's (better reviewed) film, Butler at least has the honor of getting 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 to the seductive strains of the former Terence Trent D'Arby.

Neither role would turn out to be life-changing, but a Eugene O'Neill Broadway revival 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 of drunks and desperation, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Washington, David Morse, Tammy Blanchard, and many more veterans of stage and screen. 

In an interview with GQ in May 2022, Butler spoke about how his plan to not get intimidated by Washington was essentially to out-work him: Memorizing the entire script, always showing up to rehearsal before him, et cetera. 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." The production was not very well received overall, but Butler drew attention; theatre critic Hilton Als' review in the New Yorker called him out for an exceptional performance in a so-so show.

Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood

While 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 kept a printed copy of the "Pulp Fiction" screenplay when he was twelve 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 twenty-four hours with the role in hand.

The film was "Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood," a tribute to the Los Angeles of the late 1960s and an "Inglourious Basterds"-like 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, 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 La Bianca 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), and 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 Butler had won the title role in Baz Luhrmann's biopic of Elvis. In that on-camera 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 timbre (although at times he also sounded a bit like Brad Pitt). 

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" and "Ruby and the Rockits." 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 twenty-three. Production on the film stretched on for nearly two years, due in large part to delays when co-star Tom Hanks contracted COVID-19 in early 2020. 

When filming finally wrapped in March 2021, Butler's body gave out the very next day; he spent a week bedridden from a viral infection. If the film's early reviews are any indication, Butler's work was well worth the effort. Even critics who are allergic to Luhrmann's maximalist style have found Butler's performance at the very least a technical marvel of impersonation.

After Elvis

So what comes next for Austin Butler? What new role could possibly fill those blue suede shoes? While poised at the edge of stardom, Butler is a working actor at heart, as seen in those many years in the teen show trenches. Just as he booked "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood" while working on "The Iceman Cometh," and was cast as Elvis just as "Once Upon a Time" was about to hit theaters, Butler already has his next gigs lined up.

Later in 2022, he will star in the Apple TV+ series "Masters of the Air," the latest fact-based World War II drama from Butler's "Elvis” co-star Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. Based on the book of the same name by Donald L. Miller, the series depicts the valiant efforts of the U.S. Eight Air Force division, fighting the war in Europe from above, and caps off an unofficial trilogy of Hanks-Spielberg WWII chronicles that began with 2001's "Band of Brothers" and continued with 2010's "The Pacific." Then, in 2023, Butler will step into rock star Sting's space speedo as villainous Harkonnen warrior Feyd-Rautha in the second installment of Denis Villenueve's blockbuster adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune.