When you’re playing opposite two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, you can put the lessons you’ve learned to good use.
And for Austin Butler, star of Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic “Elvis” (in theaters now), the first came in the form of an old-school manual typewriter, a longtime passion of Hanks.
“He came to my hotel room with a letter wrapped in there that had just been typed,” Butler, 30, says.
Hanks, 65, had written the letter as his character, Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker. He was not addressing Butler but Elvis. The message was clear: Write back as Elvis.
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This started a frequent exchange of messages between the two actors, a simple but effective means of dipping 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 about it a little bit in the letter, and then I’d send one back,” Butler says. .
“I’ve got a stack of letters now at home, from Tom as Colonel Tom Parker,” Butler says with a laugh. “It wasn’t part of the official rehearsal, but it ended up being an amazing way to put a man’s mind on paper. To have to condense who your character was into a short letter. It was such an invaluable process that helped me understand these two men.”
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Asked about his gift of the typewriter to Butler, Hanks is terse: “I just felt that every artist needs a hammer of words.”
Butler may be well known to fans of teen TV dramas like “Hannah Montana” and “Switched at Birth,” but his starring role in “Elvis” put him on a different Hollywood trajectory. He knew it was time to study.
Hanks “never gave me advice in a verbal way, it was more of just observing him on camera,” says Butler. “He was so justified in what he did as Colonel Parker that it even made me wonder, as Elvis, ‘I’m doing the right thing here, maybe he’s right?’ “
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Butler says he also took advice on close-up art, observations he says echoed the subtle movements of Brad Pitt, with whom Butler collaborated in his role as Manson family member Tex Watson on Once Upon a Time in” by Quentin Tarantino Hollywood.”
“Tom can say so much with so little, as can Brad,” says Butler. “You look at them and you really don’t see them doing much during the scene, but they know it’s their close-up. You just see something in their eyes light up and it changes everything.”
Hanks says Butler came into the role of Elvis well prepared. “He’s been an actor for a long time, he went through that Disney acting school and he’s done a few movies now, so he didn’t come into this by accident by any means.”
Butler is quick to return the compliment. “I can’t say enough about how kind, open and generous he is,” she says. “But as an artist, in addition to being a great leader on set, 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 swap letters as characters