Since its release last June, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis has been a nearly constant source of intrigue: its elision of Presley’s relationship with Priscilla Beaulieu; the curiously long time Butler took to credit his ex-girlfriend, Vanessa Hudgens, for urging him to pursue the role; and the physical toll playing Presley took on Austin Butler, who told GQ’s Gabriella Paiella of being hospitalized, the day after shooting wrapped, with a virus that mimicked the symptoms of appendicitis. But one of the most curious aspects of Elvis’ awards season run is the fact that Austin Butler is still talking like Elvis Presley in his daily life.
Butler himself joked about it in his monologue when he hosted Saturday Night Live in December—after which he nevertheless continued to talk like Elvis. His January appearance on the red carpet at the Golden Globes (where he went on to win Best Actor in a Drama Motion Picture) sparked a new round of commentary about his vocal transformation. Butler defended it. His singing coach, Irene Bartlett, defended it (while also admitting that he may just talk like this from now on). Butler told talk show host Graham Norton it was starting to go away. Dave Bautista promised Butler doesn’t sound like Elvis in Dune 2, in which they both star. As of this week, the story was that “tapping into [Presley’s] energy” helped the naturally shy Butler get through the stresses of award season—which, by the way, has so far included many more wins for Butler’s performance. (We’ll find out if he can add a Best Actor Oscar to his tally on March 12.)
So what is the deal with Butler’s Elvis voice? GQ asked a vocal coach who is not in Baz Luhrmann’s employ: Andrew M. Byrne, who has degrees in vocal pedagogy and 30 years experience as a professional vocal coach in New York City.
Byrne primarily works with Broadway performers and has had clients who, like Butler, have played real people whose voices and manner are known to audiences. “Part of my job is to listen and watch the [actor] and give that person feedback like, ‘This feels like the right direction for you and how you can embody this person in a way that’s respectful of them, but also acknowledges your own anatomy and where you’re coming from.’”
Watching Elvis, Byrne noted the technical precision of Butler’s work right from his first scene. “What struck me most was the different colors he got into the singing. If you listen to that opening ‘Battle Hymn Of The Republic,’ that’s almost what we would call a ‘legit’ quality of voice, where someone’s singing has an operatic quality, which Elvis did,” Byrne says. “Another example is the song ‘It’s Now Or Never.’ If you listen to that original recording, the notes Elvis sings at the end really verge on a classical quality of voice. Part of the reason I think Elvis has had such staying power is he had quite a lot of range, not only high and low, but in terms of the colors that he sang with, from rock and blues angle to a more classical-leaning style. Butler did a good job of finding those colors and making it feel dynamic.”
The 31-year-old Butler portrays Presley from age 20 through later years, when he was in poor health (he died at 42). Makeup helps sell the illusion, but so does Butler’s voice. “There was a change in vocal energy as the character aged,” says Byrne. “That has to do a little bit with the pitch that he’s speaking at, which got lower and gruffer as it went on, which is probably pretty true to what Elvis experienced in real life.”
Why might Butler still be speaking this way, nearly two years after the shoot wrapped? Byrne notes that people’s speech can change during their time in the public eye: “I’m from suburban Michigan, where Madonna’s from, and she does not speak like that anymore.” But in Butler’s case, there’s the added layer of having immersed himself in this character. “Taking on someone like this [in a movie] is a very intense process,” Byrne says.
And while this isn’t Byrne’s specific focus in the training he does, he says that there is a cognitive component to what Butler would have experienced. “In the brain, what makes something lock in is the intensity of the situation and the salience of it, meaning how important this is for you,” Byrne says. “Someone who’s doing something that requires a great deal of focus over a long period of time, and it’s very salient—‘this is the thing I want to do in life’—that opens channels in the brain. That’s called neuroplasticity. So whenever there’s a process that combines those two things, there can be changes that can end up feeling very automatic or subconscious after it, because you’ve locked in on such an intense thing in such an important situation, and then stuff like where your voice lives can actually change. In the end, it’s just muscles, and you can retrain those muscles to do something else.”
As Butler himself has noted, the film took multiple years to make, including during covid lockdowns, during which time he chose not to see his family so that he wouldn’t have to break character. In Byrne’s view, these conditions could have also contributed to significant changes in Butler’s body and brain. “What else are you going to do if you’re sitting in your apartment?” Byrne says. “If there’s not a lot else happening in your life, that can make the process much more powerful, and make the changes more long-lasting.”
On Marc Maron’s podcast WTF, Butler recalled a particular singing scene that took 40 takes, positing that it may have permanently damaged his vocal cords. Byrne, who runs a training program called The Singing Athlete, doesn’t recommend that a performer subject his body to that kind of abuse. “Film sets are extremely long days. So often when people start to get into vocal trouble, that has to do with fuel, not only in the voice, but in the body and the brain. When resources get depleted and you’re on take 40, you have a lot less in the tank to correct the mistakes that come up. It can create either temporary or permanent damage to the instrument, especially when you’re using a vocal quality that might not be the most central for you as a human, and you have to take on someone else in addition to the load of having to do it over and over again.”
Which brings us back to Paiella’s reporting about Butler’s hospitalization for exhaustion. “What I thought was interesting was that it was an appendix inflammation,” says Byrne. “The vagus nerve is what controls your larynx and your vocal cords, as well as the appendix … that’s part of the same system.
“The vagus nerve gives information to your brain about all of your organs,” Byrne explains. “So the reason vocal problems can be very emotional and very far-reaching is that that has an effect on many things in your system, including your heart, your lungs, your digestive system. So he had this trauma in another part of the vagus nerve, and then the voice [may have] responded to that and locked into this other place. It’s a potential theory that there’s a relationship there.”
The good news for Butler is that there is a process to undo the changes to his voice. Byrne has worked with students who’ve come to him to let go of a character. “A big part of vocal coaching can be to adjust habits,” he says. “That includes how they’re essentially moving the anatomy that deals with their speaking voice, everything from the tongue to the jaw to the soft palate and the larynx itself. These are all things that we deal with as vocal coaches to create the desired effect for the person—especially if they are receiving some kind of feedback that says that something needs to change.”