When you play against two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, you can count on taking lessons.
And for Austin Butler, star of Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic “Elvis” (now in theaters), the first arrived in the form of an old-fashioned manual typewriter, an old Hanks passion.
“It came to my room at the hotel, with a letter rolled up that had just been typed,” says Butler, 30.
Hanks, 65, had written the letter as his character, Elvis manager Colonel Tom Parker. It was not addressed to Butler, but to Elvis. The message was clear: write back like Elvis.
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That started with a frequent in-character exchange between the two actors, a simple but effective means of diving into their respective alter egos.
“Tom would write something like Parker, like, ‘Dear Elvis, I saw your movie ‘GI Blues’ tonight,” and then he’d talk a little bit about it in the letter, and then I’d send one back,” Butler says. .
“I now have a stack of letters at home from Tom as Colonel Tom Parker,” Butler says with a laugh. “It wasn’t part of the official rehearsal, but in the end it was a great way to put a man’s mind on paper. To have to condense who your character was in a short letter. It was such a valuable process that helped me understand these two men.”
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When asked about the typewriter gift to Butler, Hanks is succinct, “I just felt every artist needs a word hammer.”
Butler may be known to fans of teen TV dramas like “Hannah Montana” and “Switched at Birth,” but his star turn in “Elvis” landed him in another Hollywood job. He knew it was time to study.
Hanks “never gave me spoken advice, it was more like observing him in front of the camera,” Butler says. “He was so justified in everything he did as Colonel Parker that as Elvis I even wondered, ‘Am I doing the right thing here, maybe he’s right?’ †
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Butler says he’s also received tips on the art of close-up, observations he believes reflected the nuanced moves of Brad Pitt, with whom Butler worked in his role as Manson family member Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
“Tom can say so much with so little, just like Brad can,” says Butler. “You look at them and you don’t actually see them doing much during the scene, but they know it’s their close-up. You just see something light up in their eyes, and it changes everything.”
Hanks says Butler has come into the role of Elvis well prepared. “He’s been an actor for a long time. He got through that Disney acting school and he’s done some movies now, so there’s no way he got here by accident.”
Butler is quick to return the compliment. “I can’t say enough about how friendly, open and generous he is,” he says. “But as an artist, not only is he a great leader on set, but he has such a mastery of his craft. I had so much to learn from him.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Elvis’ star Austin Butler, Tom Hanks exchanged letters as characters