November 22, 2023

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, masters of the air, dune: part two

Austin Butler drives Greg Williams back home.

November 13, 2023

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Today I am taking Austin Butler home. To Anaheim, California, where he spent his formative years. Or rather he’s taking me, in a beautiful off-white 1976 Alfa Romeo Spider.

Roof down as we power along Mulholland Drive, he tells me, ‘I’m excited, my God, we’re going to my old elementary school. And to see my teachers from kindergarten, first grade and fourth grade. That’s gonna be surreal’. Why no tutors from later in his academic life? Because Austin, as we shall see, didn’t have a conventional schooling.

Obviously, to open up about childhood, friends and family to someone who isn’t a relation or lifelong buddy requires a degree of trust. But as he later puts it to his old teachers: ‘Greg and I have known each other for years. We have a really interesting relationship, because he’s been witness to some of the highlight moments of my life. You know, like after the Golden Globes or after the Baftas, he’s the first person that I see, even before my family, because he’s right at the side of the stage, taking pictures.’ We have been discussing the idea of an “origin story”, where we visit his childhood home and school, for about 10 months and now it’s actually happening. I have long been inspired by Dennis Stock’s famous LIFE magazine photo-essay where he took James Dean back home in 1955, and hope to get a similar insight into Austin from this trip.

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So, we head off south of Los Angeles to Anaheim, I ask him about growing up in a small city that I know only from a single trip to Disneyland. He laughs. ‘We’re not going to Disneyland today. Maybe next time. I sort of grew up between the two theme parks. You got Knott’s Berry Farm and you have Disneyland and we were in the middle.’

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Does he have happy memories, I wonder? ‘Yeah, I do have happy memories. I was such a shy kid at that time. I really didn’t mix with other children. I spent a lot of time in my room playing the guitar.’ How does a budding actor overcome chronic shyness? ‘I was going to lots of acting classes from the time I was about 12. And I think the thing that made me want to explore acting in the first place was that it gave me techniques to be able to deal with certain emotions that I may have repressed. So, it gave me tools to cope with the shyness. It helped me to find ways in which I could go about in the world.’ Austin smiles as we pull away from some lights and he makes a gear change on the Alfa, it being, of course, a “stick shift”, a rarity on these roads. ‘Real smooth between one and two,’ he says with some satisfaction.

We continue down Interstate 5 and his sense of anticipation grows. ‘So, it’s been 20 years, maybe more, since I was here.

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‘What’s gonna be interesting is looking at the house that I grew up in. I don’t want to bother the people that live there now, I just want to see it out of curiosity, to see if it’s the same colour.’ He points to a sign for Ganahl’s wood yard as we make a right into his old neighbourhood. ‘I do remember this lumber spot. My father and I used to go here. My dad liked to build things out of wood.’

That was a hobby, though? ‘Yeah, he was a commercial real estate appraiser. So, he would appraise car washes, shopping centres, restaurants and so on. Before she had me, my mom Lori Anne was a dental hygienist, but after I was born, she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. So, she started doing day care out of the house. And the first kid that she ever looked after was my best friend growing up, Brad. His mom was my kindergarten teacher, Mrs Betts. We’re going to see them today, which is pretty special.’

He indicates the skeletal curves of a giant rollercoaster looping up into the sky ahead of us. ‘That’s Knott’s Berry Farm,’ he explains. ‘And that ride there, I think it’s called the Xcelerator. When it first opened, my mom took me out of school to go there and we waited in line and we rode it and she said: “Want to do it again?” So, we got in line a second time and then the same thing. Again? We ended up riding it seven times in a row. We just loved it so much.’

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My phone map tells me we are just over a mile from Austin’s elementary school. The reason we aren’t doing any time at his high school is that there isn’t one – his parents divorced when he was seven. They co-parented and he was home-schooled from the age of 12. ‘I started home-schooling right after elementary school, mostly because I didn’t want to go to high school. But it also coincided with my starting acting, so it fitted in with my schedule. Home-schooling allowed me the freedom to go on set.’

At which point we pull into the parking lot of Twila Reid Elementary School and Austin spots a group of people he hasn’t seen for close to two decades, including Brad, his boyhood friend, whom he hugs as soon as he is out of the Alfa. ‘Such a great idea to come here,’ he explains to Brad and a trio of his former teachers. 

They pore over photographs from school days and then take fresh ones to record the reunion (I shoot some to cover, just in case). Mrs Betts explains how Lori Anne looked after her Brad and other local kids (‘His mom was just the best’) and Brad shows off his childhood scars (by all accounts they were adventurous boys, building half-pipes in the garden and clambering over rooftops to hide). Austin points out the fourth-grade classroom where he was taught by Mr Payne, who, it transpires, can’t be at the gathering because of a First Communion commitment.

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I loved to play pretend in class – I could be someone else

The teachers, meanwhile, confirm to me that Austin was indeed a shy boy. Mrs Betts, who taught him in kindergarten, says: ‘He was very nervous when he came over to our house. He always brought his own supplies. He brought his own milk jug once because we didn’t have the right milk.’ Austin hides his face in mock embarrassment. Later, he will say: ‘I wondered, when you asked whether they thought I was shy, if they were gonna say “no, he was really outgoing”. Because you tell yourself stories in your mind all the time. So, I wasn’t sure if that was the reality. Turns out it was. It’s why I loved to play pretend in class – I could be someone else.’

The meeting is easy and relaxed and, apart from a touch of diffidence, that shyness is hardly in evidence, although he becomes quiet when he sits in a chair and leans on a desk in the old first-grade room. (He dwarfs both – Austin is 6ft tall and has long outgrown the furniture.) ‘I haven’t been in a classroom since I was here. I just think about how it shaped me so much. You know, the care and the love and just the amount of thought that they had for you. And the feeling that your ideas mattered. That’s what I felt as a kid here – the feeling of possibilities, all because you guys were such good teachers.’ His little audience beams in response, clearly proud and pleased to be a part of Austin’s story.

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Over in Mr Payne’s classroom, I ask Austin which of his childhood memories shaped his adult self. ‘Such a good question. I mean, everything from experiential things up. Remembering that the first time I had sushi was in first grade, when one of the mothers brought some in. Culturally, being a very shy kid, it brought me around other kids, so I had to learn how to socialise. And Mr Payne, he would go running with us or shoot baskets outside. He talked to us like we were adults. You know, you had that same sort of rapport and respect that I would see when other adults talked to each other.’

I wanted to know, given the games of pretend and the way Mr Payne engaged with the pupils, if acting was even on his radar at that point? ‘Only insofar as my dad watched a lot of films, so I’d go home and we’d watch a movie every night and he always loved watching classic films. 

The idea of being an actor didn’t feel anywhere within the realms of possibility. It felt very, very far from my reality.’ So, I ask, when did you realise it was a possibility for someone like you? ‘You know, I had just finished sixth grade by then. And my mother had remarried and I had a stepbrother who got scouted by a talent agent to do “extra” work. And we didn’t know what “extra” work was, so I just tagged along on the ride up to LA. And then they looked at me and said to my mom: “You got another kid? Does he want to audition too?”’

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And being a cripplingly shy youngster, you said..? Austin shakes his head at the memory, as if he can’t quite process it. ‘I don’t know what came over me that day. But I said: Yeah. And that was the turning point that got me onto a film set. Because then I began getting work as an extra. I was just a kid, but I started to feel the spark of the joy of the entire dance that is all these different departments and artists coming together to create one thing, you know? I just fell in love with that.’

Not every child extra makes it to acting and not every child actor makes that difficult leap to adult star. After a change of scene to the outdoor refectory area, I wait while Austin looks around, remembering the sights and smells of distant lunches, before I ask how Austin’s career progressed from being background talent to “proper” acting?

‘So, I was on a set with other kids and they all had managers and agents. I ended up getting connected to Pat Cutler, who became my first manager. And I owe so much to her because she got me into my first acting classes and had professional headshots done. She would coach me before auditions and she then set me up with my first agent. And then it was just a process of going to hundreds and hundreds of auditions.’

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

As with many aspiring actors, Mum was designated driver for this endless round of castings. Plus, I venture, there must have been the disappointment of many rejections?

‘Sure. Apparently when you are starting out you have to go to a hundred auditions before you expect to book one. And then you’ve got another hundred before you expect to book the second. At that time we were living here in Anaheim and so we would drive a lot. I mean, you got to see a little bit of the traffic today, but some days it’s two hours, three hours to get to LA. So, one way or another, we drove every day. We would drive to acting class and then go to an audition or sometimes I’d have two auditions in one day. And it just became a numbers game, where in a way, you’re auditioning for your career, not that particular job.’

Quite why Lori Anne looms so large in Austin’s memory and affections becomes obvious when he recalls that daily grind. ‘Every time that you have an opportunity to practise in a room that somebody else has paid for, it’s your job to just do the best that you can. And it’s not necessarily your job to get that job. It’s just to use every opportunity to grow. Those are the things that were instilled in me from a young age. I look back now and am amazed and grateful for the amount of time that my mom spent just driving to auditions and then waiting outside, before driving me to acting class and waiting for two hours and then picking me up and driving me back down to Anaheim. Trust me, I would be nowhere without her support.’

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

There are several moments where Austin turns away and stares into the distance, lost in thought. This is one of them. ‘Actually,’ he says eventually, ‘this is the first time I have been in Anaheim since my mom passed. Besides going to Knott’s Berry Farm once or twice and to Disneyland, I’ve never, ever gone back to the house that I was raised in and I’ve never come back to this school.’

There is another pensive silence before I ask him how the visit to his alma mater has been. ‘There’s something really comforting about it. A lot of feelings of nostalgia coming out. The smells of freshly sharpened pencils. Those are the same trees that were here back then and, you know, the sound of the leaves rustling reminds me of when I was a kid here. Those sensory things bring you right back. And it’s been nice to do it at this point in my career. To see it all afresh and remember those emotions. You sort of get on that treadmill of life and one day leads to the next. Taking a second to look back to where I came from, and remembering those memories, is kind of surreal right now. But really special.’

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

Taking a second to look back to where I came from, and remembering those memories, is kind of surreal right now. But really special

We take our leave of his tutors, but before we leave there’s time for a drink from the water fountain, a go on the swings and even some hopscotch. Playtime. ‘Baz [Luhrmann] always talks about that. Play takes you back to that feeling of just all those emotions that you go through as a child and being able to see it fresh and have that childlike play. He always talks about how it’s a screenplay. You know, you go and see a play. It’s all a state of play, that you’re trying to get back to that real creativity where you’re trying not to hold on to something too tightly. I think where I am now, is trying to figure out how to find as much freedom as I can in the work.’

Eventually we get back in the Alfa and head for the second stretch of Memory Lane – Austin’s old house. But the school hasn’t had its final say yet, as Austin almost explodes with surprise and joy when he spots Mr Payne driving by. They both pull over and embrace and it turns out Mr Payne is also called Greg and Austin recapitulates for Mr Payne how the teacher’s attitude to his pupils was a lifelong inspiration. After a few more minutes of recollections and reflection, we continue our drive until we and locate the single-storey, double-garaged 1950s house that Austin once lived in.

He lived here from the very start of his life – ‘this is the house I was brought home to from the hospital, you know?’ – and left when his parents divorced. ‘The front door used to be black. The house itself was blue. And there were hedges in front of the window. That tree is the same, though. Used to drop these purple flowers. We were always cleaning them up, but they were so beautiful, I didn’t mind.’

austin butler, hollywood authentic, greg williams, the bikeriders

So, what emotions does seeing the old home bring out? It all just reminds me of the child-like innocence I had back then. The time before any pain really hits you. It also brings back memories of the time before my parents got divorced. He bunches up his fist to emphasise the tightness of a family unit. ‘It’s weird, because it is 20 years or even longer, maybe 22, since I saw this place. But since then, in acting classes, I’ve come here in my imagination many times, you know, to bring out certain emotions from being a kid. But it’s amazing coming here as an adult and seeing the actual scale. Everything seems so much bigger when you’re a kid.’

As intended, Austin doesn’t disturb the current residents. Instead, we climb back into the Alfa to cruise the streets of his pre-teen life and he gives a running commentary on childhood lemonade stands and garage sales in the community. It’s beginning to feel like the kind of All-American suburban experience that Spielberg might have once created, a sensation confirmed when Austin suggests what we need right now is drive-thru at In-N-Out.

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The young assistant who takes the order for cheeseburgers, fries and Cokes is thrilled to see Austin. ‘This is not a drill,’ she says into her headset when telling her colleagues who the customer is. ‘Honestly,’ she confesses to Austin, ‘I was like dying to go home, but this is great. That’s $22.74. You wanna eat in the car?’ 

We do. And Austin salivates after the first bite. ‘Oh my God, it’s so good. These onions! When I was growing up, we didn’t have much money, so our version of a fancy meal was an In-N-Out burger or going to get a pizza or some other, you know, fast food. The taste of this burger takes me right back. And it’s still just as good as ever.’

‘Big fan,’ one of the other staff says. ‘You did a great job on Elvis.’ True. But it’s easy to think that Austin had a frictionless rise to superstardom, if you didn’t know about all those auditions or the many teen shows he featured in before fame found him. In fact, his dramatic breakthrough came not in film or TV, but theatre, in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh on Broadway in 2018, where he played opposite Denzel Washington.

Washington, of course, is famous for his support of young talent – he paid for the late Chadwick Boseman’s acting classes. He was equally generous with Austin, who had already sent Baz Luhrmann an audition tape of him singing Unchained Melody (during which, as he has admitted, he was thinking of Lori Anne and channelling Elvis’s pain about the loss of his own mother, Gladys, also at the age of 23). Luhrmann has said: ‘I then got a call from Denzel Washington, a cold call,’ he recalled. ‘I did not know Denzel. And he said, “I’ve just worked with this guy on stage. I’ve never seen a work ethic like it”. And I’m like, “OK, I must see him”.’

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We drive back to LA with the sun dropping in the sky, casting darker shadows, the light much better for shooting. We pass the Warner Brothers lot and Austin’s grin breaks out again. ‘I spent so much time there. They’re like family now after everything with Elvis. I love how the studios haven’t changed in style.’ He points to a giant billboard of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. ‘You can just feel the history when you’re in there.’

He points out Oakwood – now renovated and re-branded as Falls Green – a complex of more than 1,000 apartments, where young hopefuls trying to break into the business would stay, especially during pilot season, usually with their families or a guardian. ‘In my time it was the place where all the young actors who would come out from Texas or Georgia lived, hoping to make it. So as a kid this was where you would go for house parties and things. Short-term leases, everyone doing what they could to make the rent.’

Talk of struggling actors triggers a memory. ‘I remember when I was 17, that was the last time that I had this moment where I looked at my bank account and I saw I was not going to have enough money in about a week to pay for any gas or for my rent. And then I got cast in this job. And it allowed me the freedom to pay for my gas and a couple more months of rent and then I just kept working. Of course, you end up having to take certain things you might not want to. I’m so grateful for the work so I don’t want to downplay the gratitude that I feel towards those jobs at that time in my life. But sometimes there’s certain creative depths that you want to go into that maybe the material isn’t supporting. And so, I moved to New York when I was about 20 years old.’

And that was when theatre entered the equation? ‘Well, in LA, theatre wasn’t really part of the culture. But in New York, I started watching plays and I saw Mark Rylance on stage doing Richard III and Twelfth Night. He gave these incredible performances that just shattered any idea I had about acting. 

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The imperfections are where the juice is. That’s where you capture lightning in a bottle

I started going to a play every night, sometimes I’d go to two plays a day. And that’s when I knew that I had to do theatre, because all my favourite actors, you know, De Niro, or further back to Brando, they all cut their teeth on stage, because you’re only as good as you are that night.’

His embracing of theatre coincided with a fresh determination about the direction of his career. ‘There came a point where the material I was getting just didn’t feel fulfilling to me. I did a TV show when I was 23 right around the time that my mom passed away, she passed and the very next week I had to leave to go to New Zealand. It really started to shift my priorities. I said I would rather not work than take jobs where I’m not digging into the parts of myself that I want to explore. I ended up not working for about eight or nine months. I was still grieving for my mom, I didn’t have a job – as an actor you begin to wonder about your place in the world at times like that.’ I suggest it takes a lot of inner strength not to work for close to a year and to turn down job opportunities, even if you don’t think they are right for you. ‘And in the midst of it you don’t know if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. But that I guess is what having faith is, right? So I took a lot of time off. But then my agent called and told me that Denzel Washington was doing The Iceman Cometh on Broadway. That changed my whole career.’

Austin speaks warmly of Washington both as an actor and a person. What did he learn from the older man? ‘From day one, that there’s no one right way to do anything artistic. When you’re acting sometimes you can have this idea that there’s a perfect way for the scene to go. But as you and I have talked about so much, the imperfections are where the juice is. That’s where you capture lightning in a bottle. It also proved a lot of things to myself, because I had to really go far outside my comfort zone. It pushed me to the edge of my capabilities. Anytime that I talk about acting I always have this hesitancy because it can very easily verge on pretentious or self-important. But when acting is not truthful, it feels like nails on a chalkboard. It’s so painful when you are not finding the truth. You go home and feel awful, you know? So for a shy kid to suddenly be on stage with these powerhouse actors was terrifying. But it’s like playing tennis with the greatest tennis players. You just have to get better. And that’s incredibly exhilarating.’ 

Photographs, words and video by Greg Williams
Austin Butler can be seen next in Masters of the Air in January and Dune: Part Two in March. The photos, interview and video pre-dated the SAG-AFTRA strike

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