clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Austin Butler still sounds like Elvis, explained by his own vocal coach

Can a movie role change an actor forever?

a man in front of the word ELVIS in big shiny letters
Austin Butler at the UK Elvis premiere.
Neil Mockford/FilmMagic

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis follows the King from the cradle to the grave. We meet him as a teenager in Memphis, dressed in grandiose hot pink leisure suits, issuing a slew of rockabilly hits on acetate discs at the very dawn of pop music history. Two hours later, the audience finds a rotund, greasy, pill-addled Elvis in Las Vegas, belting out portentous Righteous Brothers covers at the twilight of his life. As the King, Austin Butler was required to embody the full scope of that story; possessed by Presley’s spirit throughout all the peaks and valleys. So, for three years, Butler was singularly consumed by the project. “I didn’t see my family,” he told Variety in an interview about his creative process last December. “I had months where I wouldn’t talk to anybody. And when I did, the only thing I was thinking about was Elvis.”

Shortly after that interview, on January 10, Butler finally earned his coronation. The Golden Globes awarded him the trophy for Best Actor, and Butler appeared onstage as a changed man. His voice, formerly a SoCal drawl, was deep and leathery and seemed to possess a furtive mid-South lilt. He rounded his vowels. He thanked his “mama.” In other words, Butler sounded like Elvis, as if those three years of ascetic research and training — all the takes, all the hunks of burning love — had permanently mutated his vocal cords.

The implications of this supposed transformation were both funny and slightly ominous. Nobody was sure what to make of it. Is it possible that by committing yourself wholly to a performance, your unconscious physical traits — like the tone of your voice — can become altered long after the wrap party? Accents, of course, are theorized to be the result of social bonding; a latent instinct to modify our vowels and consonants to better meld with a community from a very young age. They don’t go away easily. My dad has lived in America for 40 years, but there’s still a hint of London on his tongue. It certainly seems unlikely that Elvis could become embedded within Butler’s cadence, but stranger things have happened in Hollywood.

That is why I reached out to Erik Singer, Butler’s primary dialect coach during his Elvis odyssey. Singer is a master of his craft — logging work for Disney, Paramount, HBO, and Warner Bros. — but you might know him best for his YouTube videos breaking down the nuances of accent intonation, and how a brief lapse of tongue placement might desecrate, say, a west Texan drawl. (Singer is a perfectionist, after all.) “I was an actor; I trained in London and went to drama school for two years,” he said. “I gradually started shifting careers after having kids, and I always had a real interest in accents and voice. So I started doing teaching and coaching at graduate school programs.”

Singer told me that Butler first sought out his expertise before he even officially secured the starring role, because he wanted to put his own native California English through the wringer and achieve, in Singer’s words, “the degree of specificity, tracking changes over time, and the overall tonality of vocal quality” that would add up into a transcendent Elvis performance.

The pair frequently sessioned until Butler officially secured the part. Afterward, they engaged in what Singer described as “intensive work,” meeting three to four hours a day, five days a week, for nine months. It was there where Butler became fluent in the intricacies of Elvis Presley, which can only be accomplished bit by bit, as if he were mastering the subtle, reflexive muscle memory of a jump shot or a pole vault.

“Learning an accent is really hard, even before you get to the level of the idiolect” — a term that refers to the way an individual person speaks. “Making it so it’s textured, and detailed, and internally consistent and inconsistent in the way that real people are, and having it fully absorbed so you can live and react truthfully through that, takes a lot of time,” said Singer. “In a session, we’re going to be warming up the voice and the articulators, so that you’re not working from a base of habitual patterns, and creating a blank canvas to work with. And then you’re studying, very closely, the physical actions of the entire speech system. Once you have the basic pattern and the spine built, you’re grounding it in the specific reality of the story you’re trying to tell.”

Singer notes that when Butler was filming Elvis, he’d sometimes be asked to do multiple versions of the singer’s voice across multiple decades in a single day of shooting — embodying the wet-behind-the-ears heartthrob of the ’50s, the revitalized rock ’n’ roll crooner of the ’60s, and the immobile, deteriorating lounge lizard of the ’70s. In some sense, Butler was learning three different voices at the exact same time. “We needed to be incredibly clear about what the handholds were for each of those three periods,” said Singer. “We broke it down with an incredibly fine-toothed comb.”

All of that labor added up into a genuinely metamorphic performance. Elvis shattered box office records, and made Butler, with his down-home charm and ridiculous good looks, a star. When he toasted the Golden Globe patrons with his newfound sepia timbre, it almost seemed like the King was back. But what does Singer make of all of this? Can a cycle of intensive accent training reforge someone’s voice? Or even their own breed of charisma? The answer is much more nuanced than we might think. Yes, clearly Butler’s voice has changed, but Singer reminds us that he first became famous as a Disney Channel teen in the early 2010s. Nobody should be surprised that he sounds different as a 31-year-old man.

“A big part of that discourse is based on the change in his voice overall. The depth and resonance of his voice can be chalked up to maturity. His voice is getting deeper over time, because that’s what voices do,” Singer says.

Another major component of the shift, he explains, is the countless hours Butler spent singing over the course of his three-year Presley sojourn. If you spent entire days refining “Suspicious Minds” over multiple years, that’s going to “open” and “deepen” your voice, he asserts, regardless if you’re trying to replicate Elvis’s tonality. Singer also says there are elements in Butler’s accent that already resembled Presley’s speech pattern. Both of them — the King and the protégé — possess what linguists call “price smoothing,” where the vowel sound in words like “price” and “time” are reshaped to “Ah” instead of “Aye.” Butler got the role for a reason, after all.

All those factors aside, Singer does posit that it is possible that some of Butler’s accent training did shine through during his acceptance speech. He asks us to pay close attention to the beginning of Butler’s remarks, when he’s clearly overwhelmed by the moment and unleashes a very Elvis-ish interjection: “My boy, my boy.” It was an obvious echo of Elvis; a way to indulge the fans at home, much in the same way Matthew McConaughey tosses out an, “Alright, alright, alright,” in his charming-dirtbag drone. However, once you allow an accent you’ve mastered the slightest bit of oxygen, says Singer, you might find that it sticks around for a while.

“When you spend all of that time going that deep into Elvis, you’ve carved that groove really deep. The accent is eager to come out and play. You just have to push the right button. And when you start by saying, ‘My boy, my boy,’ you’ve created the conditions that say, ‘Come out and play,’” said Singer. “But even in that speech, you see it somewhere and not in other places. Yes, Austin shortens the vowel sound in the middle of ‘Hollywood’ in the same way Elvis would, but not the one at the end of ‘generosity’ — that one’s just Austin. There are little flickers coming out, but I think most people are reacting to the vocal change, which is mostly due to all of that singing.”

Singer does not believe that this vocal transformation is a particularly common occurrence. Butler spent an unusual amount of time working on his Elvis idiolect — especially with the Covid intermission that disrupted the film’s production cycle — and by all accounts, he was uniquely committed to conquering every unique nuance of the King. Butler basically said as much on the Golden Globes red carpet, when he compared the process of learning Elvis to living in a foreign country. “I’m sure there’s just pieces of my DNA that will always be linked in that way.”

I’m eager to see Butler attempt another magic trick in the future. Perhaps he could star in a definitive Springsteen biopic, and a Dylan one after that. He’s carved the grooves once; I’m sure he can do it again.

“The thing we’re most compelled by with actors is when they convince you that you’re seeing a full person, who talks a certain way, and lives a certain way, whose speech is connected to their soul and identity. That’s a massive act of the imagination,” finishes Singer. “So, an occupational hazard? Sure.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.