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They Don’t Make Them Like Austin Butler Anymore

After Elvis and the Oscar-nomination, the 32-year-old actor is back with two buzzy projects: Masters of the Air and Dune: Part Two. He’s got a burning ambition and old-school Hollywood charm—and steely-eyed focus on just one thing.

Austin Butler is about to get his ass whupped.

Butler, towheaded and scrawny, not more than nine years old and painfully shy, cowers. The class bully is on the other side of his front door. Right there, on the lawn. Telling him to come outside so he can pound his face in. Butler looks to his mom. What do I do?

His mom is gentle. The least judgmental, most openhearted person he’ll ever know. Not a mean bone in her body. But she also understands how the world works—bullies included. So she looks her younger child dead in the eye and tells him what needs to happen next. “Lace up your shoes,” she says, “go out there, and beat the hell out of him.”

Butler does as he’s told. Of course, bullies are never as tough as they want to appear, are they? This one is no different; once Butler is outside, the bully tries passing his would-be victim’s beating off to the much bigger friend he brought along with him. But Butler, steeled with a new resolve, has an answer for that: “You came over. I’m taking you down.”

The bully strikes first—he tries to whack Butler with his skateboard—but Butler dodges. He tackles his opponent. Pins him to the ground. And then he just starts whaling. The bully relents.

It’s the end of the fight, but it’s not the last time Butler will scrap. A timid kid with no connections, he’ll force his way into Disney Channel and Nickelodeon stardom. As a young adult, he’ll overcome profound grief to find new depths in his craft. He will work harder and longer than anyone and everyone he meets to convince audiences that his leap from child actor to Hollywood leading man—perhaps the most terrifying jump in show business—is not just possible but inevitable. He will take this world in inches. And then, as a man, through sheer force of desire and artistic abandon, he’ll try to become the first movie star since Leonardo DiCaprio became the last movie star.

Doubt him if you will. But don’t underestimate his chances.

Some twenty-three years after the fight, Butler recalls the memory with amused astonishment. He can’t believe his mom said it. Beat the hell out of him? Beat the hell out of him! He can’t believe he actually did it, either. Or that he and the bully later became friends. It’s mid- December, and we are huddled together in a back booth at the casual French eatery Margaux, inside the Marlton Hotel in Greenwich Village. It’s 3:00 P.M. and we just did the New York City winter shuffle, during which, having weathered an icy commute, you spend the first few minutes in any restaurant dancing between making small talk and peeling off layers. For him, off goes a black trucker hat, a black coat, and a black sweatshirt, all piled onto the tableside hooks. Only a long-sleeved white Henley and an oversize black T-shirt layered on top remain. His blond hair is mussed. There is a smattering of sandy-hued facial hair on his chin and upper lip.

The past eighteen months or so have been more than a little surreal for Butler. He began 2023 in a position that all actors dream of but few know firsthand, nominated for Best Actor by every awards body that matters. It was his portrayal of Elvis Presley in director Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis that landed him there, and the experience—junket into roundtable into podcast, photo shoot into red carpet into reception—was both euphoric and exhausting.

When the film, a fever-dream retelling of Presley’s life, debuted to rave reviews and a strong box office in 2022, Butler became an overnight sensation. He was on the cover of national magazines and a fixture on the late-night TV circuit. Tabloids and online forums feverishly blogged about his dating life. Social media exploded with fans frothing at the mouth for the heartthrob. But like most overnight sensations, Butler had been working for much of his life for a role like Elvis. A role that he could give himself over to completely. A role that would catapult him to the top of every casting director’s list.

Elvis would deliver all those things, plus earn him Golden Globe and BAFTA statuettes as well as an Oscar nomination, but Butler is not one to be idle. While Luhrmann’s film was in postproduction, the actor dove right into shooting a few major projects that are now finally getting released. First up: Masters of the Air, a World War II miniseries from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg that debuted on Apple TV+ at the end of January. (Hanks costarred with Butler in Elvis as the singer’s infamous manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and recruited him during filming.) And in the biggest theatrical event of the spring—quite possibly the year—he’ll star opposite Timothée Chalamet in the second entry of director Denis Villeneuve’s cyberpunk Dune franchise.

Promotion for the projects is ramping up, but Butler is due for a break. After our interview, it’s back to the West Coast and then off on vacation. He’d spent the previous weekend in São Paulo with the cast of Dune: Part Two at Brazil’s Comic Con. Butler was blown away by the thousands of screaming fans. He was further shocked when a projectile whipped past him through the air—hurled from the crowd, right at his costar Florence Pugh. As the actors posed for a final wave and bow, “they flung it like a Frisbee,” he says, the incident still fresh in his mind. “I could hear it.” Ffffffffft! It hit her square in the face.

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