He sent the single-take recording to Luhrmann. Within days, Butler, who lives in Los Angeles, had been summoned to the director’s home in New York. “From the moment he walked in, he was soulful, spiritual, kind — just brilliant,” Luhrmann said.
Butler still didn’t quite have the part. That changed after Luhrmann asked him to perform renditions of Elvis hits like “Suspicious Minds,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” They read lines from the script, too. “He was also doing such a perfect Southern accent,” Luhrmann said. “I remember asking one of my guys, ‘Where in Texas does he come from?’ And I was told, ‘Oh, no — he’s from Anaheim.”
Butler, who still speaks with an Elvis twang, grew up near Disneyland. His father, David, works in commercial real estate, and his mother, Lori, ran a day care from their home. While his older sister, Ashley, was a popular cheerleader, Butler was a homebody, teaching himself to play guitar and piano; skateboarding on a makeshift ramp in the backyard; and obsessing over James Dean and Marlon Brando flicks on Turner Classic Movies. “He just had such an incredible, animalistic spontaneity, and I was enraptured and fascinated,” Butler said of Dean.
Butler started taking acting lessons when he was in his early teens. “I remember printing out the ‘Pulp Fiction’ script when I was 12 and reading it to my mom as she drove me to class,” he said, laughing.
By 20, Butler had put together a decent children’s television résumé (“Zoey 101,” “Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure”) and was headed toward young-adult roles (“The Carrie Diaries,” “Arrow”). By 24, Butler had appeared in a couple of indie films. “But it was a very slow burn,” he said.
His break came in 2018, when his performance in the Broadway revival of “The Iceman Cometh” caught the attention of critics — and the production’s star, Denzel Washington, who urged the William Morris Agency to get behind Butler. Around the same time, Butler landed a small but notable role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” He played the Charles Manson follower Tex Watson.