The careful crafting of Austin Butler
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The careful crafting of Austin Butler
Austin Butler at the Bike Shed in Los Angeles, May 30, 2024. “Elvis” and “Dune” established him as a chameleonic movie star — now, with “The Bikeriders,” something closer to the real Butler is being revealed. (Adali Schell/The New York Times)

by Kyle Buchanan

NEW YORK, NY.- There’s a scene early on in the new film “The Bikeriders” that functions like a stress test for stardom.

While drinking at a 1960s pool hall, a woman named Kathy (Jodie Comer) is unnerved by the menacing bikers in the room and grabs her purse to go. She’s only stopped dead in her tracks when she catches sight of Benny, another biker, alone. As Kathy stares at him from across the crowded room, the jukebox music and biker chatter fade away, and all you can hear is her stunned gasp as she realizes she’s fallen in love.

No visual effects are required for this scene, just a man who can hold the screen and make a woman hold her breath. It’s the sort of role you might have filled in past decades with the likes of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman or Brad Pitt. But who from today’s cohort of young stars has their presence?

That’s what worried director Jeff Nichols two years ago as he embarked on casting the character. He had written Benny as someone who feels mythic even to his fellow bikers, but no contemporary actor was even close to coming to mind. So Nichols wasn’t expecting much when he met with Austin Butler, whose breakthrough film “Elvis” was, at that point, still months from release.

What he found, even as Butler walked up, was someone who looked and felt exactly like the character he had written, someone with beauty, gravitas and easy masculinity.

Or, as Nichols put it, “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m talking to a movie star.’”

The last two years have more than borne out that first impression. Butler’s performance as the king of rock 'n' roll in “Elvis” turbocharged his career and earned him an Oscar nomination, while the March release of “Dune: Part Two,” in which he played the evil Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, confirmed that the 32-year-old actor was no one-hit wonder.

In addition to starring in the Apple TV+ limited series “Masters of the Air,” Butler has become a magnet for prestige directors: He recently filmed Ari Aster’s “Eddington,” is about to star in Darren Aronofsky’s crime thriller “Caught Stealing,” and has long been rumored for Michael Mann’s still-gestating “Heat 2.”

Since “Elvis,” Butler has played such wildly different people that you’d be forgiven for not knowing who he really is, even though that’s typically key to the whole movie-star thing.

That Butler feels accomplished but not yet typecast could be considered a feat. Handsome movie stars can spend their whole careers trying to prove they are more than meets the eye — that they’re capable of real acting and should be considered for character parts, too. Butler is navigating that arc in reverse: After establishing himself with two high-profile, full-transformation character roles, he’s only just now getting to the handsome movie-star bit.

With “The Bikeriders,” something closer to the real Butler is finally being revealed, though Nichols suggested that I was wondering the wrong thing. Instead of questioning who Butler really is, it’s much more fruitful to ponder who he’s going to be.

“We’re watching a person create the persona of a movie star, which I find kind of fascinating,” he said.

Although Butler lacks the whiff of danger that used to make bad-boy movie stars so alluring, that could be considered a good thing in our current, more cautious era.

“I’ve seen every different way of being on a set,” said Butler, who grew up in Southern California and started acting as a teenager in shows for Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. Still, his steadiness is not simply a reaction to bad behavior he’s witnessed; instead, it’s something more innate. “I owe a lot of it to my parents and the things that they instilled in me from being a child: Treat everybody how you want to be treated, regardless of if they can do something for you,” he said.

Butler’s father and grandfather were both motorcyclists, and he remembers sitting on the back of his dad’s bike as they went on long rides together. When he was 7, his parents divorced, and at 15, his father told him he was old enough to ride on his own. Still, it would have to be their secret: Butler’s mother forbade him from riding after his older sister got into a motorcycle accident. Butler drew on all that and more to play Benny, whose loyalties to Kathy and to his motorcycle gang are often at odds.

As an actor, Butler is forced to be peripatetic, creating temporary but tight-knit circles in far-off places. “Then you finish the job and the family breaks up, and you go to another one,” he said. “In therapy one day, I realized that pattern reminds me so much of my parents’ divorce.”

Nichols said that connection helped deepen a character who was originally written as dead inside.

“There’s some complexity in him that honestly changed my calculus as we were making the film,” Nichols said. “It’s not that he’s emotionally cut off, it’s that he chooses to be emotionally unavailable to people, but he’s got a lot of emotion going on. That’s a vastly better character, and it is a direct result of the human being Austin Butler is.”

Butler doesn’t want any of what you’re reading about him to interfere with how you might see Benny.

“I’m trying to decide how much I want to give away of my own internal thoughts,” he said. “I don’t want to impose upon anybody watching the film what is going on, because I want to allow them to project upon him.”

When “Elvis” wrapped, Butler was so spent that he went directly to the emergency room and was bedridden for a week. He then flew to England to begin shooting “Masters of the Air.” But as a working actor, he’s had to get used to the whiplash.

As he continues into his 30s, he’s hoping for more consistency. “Suddenly, it feels so much easier to say no,” he said, “and not feel such a need to mold myself into what I think other people want.” But at the same time, he feels he’d be remiss not to take advantage of the moment he’s been aiming at his whole career.

“It’s not lost on me how fortunate I am,” he said. “In my early 20s, there were roles that I wanted to get that I didn’t, and there were types of performances that I wanted to be able to bring to life that I wasn’t, and that caused me to then seek out teachers and to try to figure out how to get better in whatever way I could. It was very humbling for a long time.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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