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Austin Butler and Janelle Monáe Go All In, From Living as Elvis for Three Years to Keeping Books of ‘Knives Out 2’ Notes

Photographs by Alexi Lubomirski

Austin Butler transformed into a music icon this year, taking on the presence and the swagger of the King in Baz Luhrmann’s electrifying “Elvis.” And Janelle Monáe made the reverse journey, continuing her reinvention from futuristic pop diva to multi-hyphenate actor with a meaty (and mysterious) central role as a tech entrepreneur in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.”

Janelle Monáe: Being someone who has toured for many years, making it your own is no small thing. I know a little bit about what that takes. You played Elvis when he was a teenager, all the way up to his passing.

Austin Butler: That was one of the challenges of it, because we were shooting out of sequence.

Monáe: Was there a lot of prosthetics? Did you have to lose weight and gain weight?

Butler: Initially, Baz said we could film it in sequence. “Well, OK, I can take a break and gain the weight.” But with COVID, the whole schedule got turned upside down. We ended up working a lot with finding subtle ways that you can age. Elvis ended up experiencing a lot of pain in his knees, in his back, and I felt that completely.

Monáe: You did his comeback performance first.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Butler: That was the second day of shooting — the first performance. It was so nerve-racking because I had a year and a half before that point to prepare. And all the preparation is for nothing if you don’t get it. Before walking out onstage, I really had the terror: “My career feels like it’s on the line in this moment.” But at that point in Elvis’ life, his career was on the line and he had terror.

Monáe: You use it all. You use the nerves. With film, you get a little bit more control. But when you’re live, that’s it — there’s no re­doing. You can’t back things up. And you use what’s around you.

Talk to me about Baz Luhrmann, a director I’ve wanted to work with. He came to see me perform at the Sydney Opera House. What a legend. What was something that surprised you?

Butler: He’s the closest thing to a jazz musician that I’ve seen in a director. He does so much homework. And then you show up and he might say, “I rewrote this scene last night” — that you’ve been working on for a year and a half. It’s terrifying in the beginning.

Monáe: You have a musical background.

Butler: Piano and guitar. I didn’t sing ever. I’m a very shy person, so I didn’t sing at all.

Monáe: Oh my. You had to record all of the singing, right? They didn’t go find somebody else.

Butler: No, Baz thought he was going to have to, and then I sang. All the early Elvis was my voice. For me, it was being precise about “How does Elvis voice this? What are the mannerisms of his voice?”

I’ve been dying to ask you about growing up in the Baptist church, and how that may have influenced the way you sing. The spiritual connection to music.

Monáe: It absolutely is a part of my DNA. I grew up, like you said, in the Baptist church. Both sides, paternal and maternal side, were singers. My great-grandmother is still alive. She’s 94.

Butler: She’s still singing?

Monáe: She’s singing; she plays the organ. I come from a super musically inclined, soulful family. And I knew that there was only one Lauryn. There was only one Prince, one Grace Jones, one Stevie Wonder, one Judy Garland. I had to really find my voice. They had a blueprint, and it was like, “What is the you-print?”

Butler: Wow.

Monáe: Speaking of other artists, what I loved about this film was that it was very clear that Elvis was inspired by a lot of Black artists. You had Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Butler: Big Mama Thornton. Mahalia Jackson.

Monáe: Mahalia was in there. There were so many artists that Elvis was inspired by, borrowed from — people say took from. I’m happy that was addressed. Because I don’t think he would have been as successful, or really found his own voice, had he not seen gospel singers in church. And seen jazz musicians playing. Did you learn about Black music in a different way?

Butler: When I was cast, Baz and I went out to Nashville. And we got to record at RCA there. That was my first time ever in a recording studio. And then he and I drove out to this tiny wooden church. And we had 30 of the most incredible gospel singers. I’m the only white guy in there, and the guy leading the congregation — his name is Shannon — he said, “We’re not just making a song right now, we’re not just making a movie.” He said, “Somebody very close to me is dying right now, and I got something to wail about. So let’s wail together.”

They moved seamlessly from one gospel number to the other, singing spiritual music for eight hours straight. I stood in the center. And I was so fortunate to get to be there. Chills are going down my body. Tears are pouring down my face. That was a pivotal moment for me, as far as what music means and what movement means. When you can’t help but move because your spirit is being moved.

Monáe: Mmm-hmm.

Butler: I’ve only had a couple moments before filming “Elvis” where I danced in public, because I was very, very shy. I’d always be a wallflower at a party. One of them is in that gospel church, and another is at one of your shows. You moved me in such a way that I couldn’t help but move.

Monáe: Oh, my goodness. What? Where did you see?

Butler: It was at a music festival that shan’t be named. It was at Coachella, I’m embarrassed to say. I’d seen you in “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures,” and I’ve been profoundly moved by what you’re doing in the acting space.

I’m curious what the experience was like shooting in Greece.

Alexi Lubomirski for Variety

Monáe: I saw the first “Knives Out.” And I was so excited that they were making those films that you could go to with your family and you didn’t leave heavy, right? You left solving a murder mystery. I’d already said yes because it was Rian Johnson. And then I read the script and I was like, “Hell yes.” And then when they said, “We’re going to be shooting in Greece,” it was a “F yes.” Lots of things were getting canceled for me, and it was just a dream come true to be sent that script.

There was a lot to manage with this role, a lot of energies to manage. I had to keep two to three different notebooks.

Butler: Do you keep a notebook for each character you play?

Monáe: Yes. I had to know, “OK. What am I doing this coming week? This is the energy.” Whenever I’m thinking about characters, I start with the energy. It’s like, “What’s the spirit of this character? How can I make sure that I honor that?” I wanted them to really root for my character. So I had an opportunity to play with accents that give you that. When you hear her speak, you’re like, “Oh, I want her to win. I love her. I want to hug her.”

Butler: Do you have principles that you’ve taken from music that you can apply across acting?

Monáe: I’ve been given a very unique opportunity to have a music career and an acting career. Honestly, I don’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t doing both. 

I look at it as storytelling. What is the story we’re telling today? Sometimes it’s like you take a role because you want to be challenged, right? You’re like, “I have this side of me that I want to explore a little bit more.” Now I’m thinking a lot differently. I’m just like, “Is this going to be fun? Who is the director? Who are the actors? When I meet them, do I get a good vibe? OK, I can be with you guys for three months.” Because time waits for nothing.

Speaking of time, how do you push out the noise when you’re preparing for a role? I was like, “Family, I love you. But I may not be texting you back because I’m really devoted to doing my best.”

Butler: 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. And when I did, the only thing I was ever thinking about was Elvis. I was speaking in his voice the whole time.

Monáe: You had to say, “This is who I am. This is what it takes.”

Butler: This is what it takes.


Set Design by Jack Flanagan