Casting director Denise Chamian, CSA, first spotted Butler’s talent in 2013 when she was casting Wes Ball’s film “The Maze Runner.” Butler didn’t get a part because he played a little too young, but he remained on her radar.
Butler came close to playing Rooster in “Top Gun: Maverick,” which Chamian also cast, but lost out to Miles Teller. However, the tables would turn when Chamian put Butler forward for Elvis in Luhrmann’s film. While Luhrmann had his own ideas for the film’s star, including Teller and Harry Styles, Butler ultimately proved he had what it takes — and the rest is history.
Below, Chamian breaks down her casting process and explains why Butler was fit for the part of the King.
When was the first time you met Austin?
It was back in 2013 for “The Maze Runner.” He read for the lead of that, and Austin has maintained the same aura that he had back then. He has these sparkly blue eyes, and is a really good actor.
At the time he played a little too young for them, and I think that’s one of the reasons that he wasn’t included in the things I’ve auditioned him for throughout the years. Anytime we did a major search, he was always in the mix.
He has always been mesmerizing to watch, even in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
This happens a lot with casting directors, you’ll meet somebody when they’re very young. If they’re good, you keep bringing them back and you’re always trying to fit that person into the right slot.
The thing that he got the closest to was “Top Gun.” When I cast that, we were looking for the role that Miles Teller played. I felt so passionate about Austin. Ultimately, his audition was shown to Tom and all the filmmakers. They agreed he had something and they were happy to know him, but they thought he was too young. At that point, I saw that this actor has something very special that other people don’t always have. It’s almost the way he looks into the camera. He knows the camera and lets the camera see him, and that is really what is so captivating.
How did you find Elvis in him?
He got to a certain maturity level in auditioning for “Top Gun: Maverick.” When I started casting “Elvis,” Baz wanted to do a worldwide search — which we did. We went all over the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. We even went to London. We did open casting calls online and even looked at Elvis impersonators, but from the very beginning, there was something about Austin to me that was a little reminiscent of Elvis.
I knew he could sing, but I didn’t know how well. His agent told me that. When I sat down with Baz, he knew he had certain people that he wanted to test. He had Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller. There was a group of guys that he was circling. He later added Harry Styles to that.
I had a list of my own people. When we got to Austin, I said, “This is your Elvis,” and Baz just looked at me. It’s a pretty big statement to make. Shortly thereafter, I had Austin go on tape and that started the process of Baz meeting with him, doing a workshop in New York and we tested him along with other actors.
Until we did the screen tests, I don’t think it was clear to anybody, necessarily, that it was going to be Austin. There were a lot of factors to really consider. He was also pretty much unknown out of that group of guys.
Did he have to perform a specific Elvis song for the audition?
He did his own recording of “Unchained Melody.” He sat down at a piano. He’d had a dream about his mom who had passed away a few years ago, so there was a feeling of melancholy. He went in and just recorded it. He sent it to his agent, and his agent sent it to me. I thought it was amazing and said we are going to hold onto this until his audition, and we’ll send this.
Everyone did the same song for the test and the white suit for their final auditions. They had hair and makeup. It was a full-blown test. He’s so great in the film, and by the end, people have missed that edit from Austin’s Elvis to the real Elvis.
I was blown away by his performance. I also have to give credit to Nikki Barrett for the rest of the cast in Australia, because originally we were going to take a lot of people out of the U.S., but we didn’t end up doing that.
Going back to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” you can see why Tarantino wanted to hire him.
It was so memorable for such a small part. You remember him. All you have to say is “the guy who played Tex Watson” and everyone knows who you’re talking about. People like that don’t come along very often.
Casting directors are particularly in tune because we see so many actors at one time for one role. You know when somebody walks in a room, what sets them apart from the rest of the people that have read.
Austin’s work ethic is also what sets him apart, and his ability to understand material and translate that and make it feel so honest. I think that honesty is also what the audience feels. He works tirelessly to get something right. By the end of the movie, he left it all up there on the screen. I thought it was just incredible.