For most cable TV watchers born between a very specific window in the mid-’90s, Austin Butler was first introduced to cultural consciousness as the once-in-a-blue-moon Nickelodeon/Disney Channel actor who dated Vanessa Hudgens. A few years and some made-for-TV movies later, he’s a household name who just won his first Golden Globe for his starring role in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
It takes a lot to become The King: You need the good looks, the gyrating hips, and the sultry Deep South accent. Although Butler didn’t carry a ton of star power at the time, his Elvis audition edged out A-listers like Harry Styles, Ansel Elgort, and Miles Teller — a noble achievement that he’s evidently really, really wearing with pride, because even months after wrapping production, he can’t seem to let that damn voice go. Ever since the Elvis press junket began, Butler, a native of Anaheim, California, talks like he learned English at Graceland.
Talk about method acting. Below, we dissect the evolution of Butler’s bizarre Elvis voice over the past decade.
2012: Rags to Riches
Before you hear post-Elvis Butler, it’s important to remember where he came from. One of his first major “grown-up” roles was in The CW’s short-lived Sex and the City prequel series The Carrie Diaries, where he played Sebastian, a high school beau to Carrie Bradshaw. In this interview from the show’s 2012 premiere, Butler speaks in an effortless, nondescript accent, although it is pretty naturally low. When he’s asked which of Adult Carrie’s lovers Sebastian is most in-line with, he answers Mr. Big, who’s about as metropolitan as they come.
2019: He’s Austin, But He Ain’t Texan
Butler’s big break finally came when he was cast as the seemingly innocuous, horse-riding Manson Family member Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. The real-life Tex Watson was born in Dallas and remained in north Texas until his move to Los Angeles; as a Texan expat herself, this author was impressed with Butler’s country boy drawl. You can hear it for yourself in the clip below around the 1:30 mark.
2019: Big Blue Suede Shoes to Fill
Perhaps playing Tex is partially to blame for Butler’s voice now. When Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood premiered, Butler had just been cast as The King. For one, his voice has certainly gotten lower, although he was already a full-grown 21-year-old back when The Carrie Diaries premiered. Secondly, you can catch blips of his down-south persona poking through. Paired with his dark hair, it feels like the ghost of Elvis is creeping up on him already.
2020: The King of the Whole Wide World
As easy as it is to make fun of him, we gotta hand it to Butler — he did a pretty good job as Mr. Presley. Production on Elvis began in early 2020; here’s some test footage Warner Bros. released of Butler getting into character, singing and playing guitar. Near the end, he proudly tells the crew: “I broke my pick!” in a heavy twang. Sure, he probably just didn’t want to break yet, but it’s a foreboding signal of the unshakeable accent to come.
Production on Elvis paused in March 2020 after co-star Tom Hanks tested positive for COVID-19. Did our leading man speak like Elvis the entire lockdown period? Our guess: Uh-huh-huh.
2022: Puppet on a String
By the time he started doing press for Elvis, it was hard to tell where Butler ended and where Elvis began. He made the rounds on late-night television and countless publications’ YouTube channels, but we don’t think answering questions over and over again is the cause of his sudden rasp. While pre-Elvis Butler’s voice was perfectly clear, he now sounds like he’s been smoking a pack a day since he guest starred on Hannah Montana.
2022: Can’t Help Falling Into Character
Butler had the honor of hosting the 2022 Christmas episode of Saturday Night Live, and did you really think the episode would come and go without poking fun at his Elvis voice? His opening monologue dove right in, with the actor directly addressing some disparaging comments he’s received: “There’s people out there who say that ever since I played Elvis my voice has changed,” he said. “That it got deeper. More Elvis-y. But that’s not true, I’ve always sounded like this and I can prove it.” The episode then cuts to that Carrie Diaries interview from 2012 with Butler’s voice pitch-shifted to Alvin and the Chipmunks heights — a humorous way to beat around the bush.
On a serious note: Butler did a good job on SNL, and his tribute to his late mother made us teary-eyed. He also showed us that Elvis isn’t the only voice he’s mastered, flaunting his spot-on Gollum impression. However, he doesn’t talk like a Lord of the Rings character in every interview.
2022: Shake, Rattle, and Roll Out the Red Carpet
At last, award season is upon us, and all those hours Butler spent impersonating The King paid off. In a heartwarming underdog victory last weekend, he took home the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama, beating fellow nominees Brendan Fraser, Hugh Jackman, Bill Nighy, and Jeremy Pope.
After thanking Elvis himself during his acceptance speech, backstage reporters at the Globes prodded the actor about whether or not he naturally speaks like the singer now: “Still?” Butler scoffed. “I don’t think I sound like him still, but I guess I must, ’cause I hear [people say I do] a lot. I often liken it to when somebody lives in another country for a long time, and I had three years where that was my only focus in life, so I’m sure there’s just pieces of my DNA that will always be linked in that way.”
Butler must feel good about getting recognized for his hard work. And, if Elvis is his metaphorical “other country,” it must feel even better to come home, ditch the Elvis voice, and move on to his next prestigious role.
Really, Austin. You did it. You can turn the accent off now.
Austin Butler on his #Elvis voice sticking with him after the film: "I don't think I sound like him still, but I guess I must because I hear it a lot." https://t.co/obwVD3aG1a pic.twitter.com/qb1M4yWC9PAdvertisement
— Variety (@Variety) January 11, 2023
2023: Finally “Getting Rid of the Accent”
In an appearance on BBC One’s Graham Norton show (via EW), Butler offered an update, saying, “I am getting rid of the accent.” He added, “From all the singing, I probably destroyed my voice a bit,” while noting, “One song took 40 takes.”
Butler also said that all the attention on his voice “really made me self-conscious for a second, because I thought, ‘Am I being phony? Is this not my voice?'”