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Austin Butler: ‘How did I get into my character’s headspace? Death metal’

Austin Butler: ‘How did I get into my character’s headspace? Death metal’

Goth-pale, with the gnashers of a vampire and the blackened mouth of a man who probably gargles with bitumen, ‘Dune: Part Two’s Feyd-Rautha is Oscar-nominee Austin Butler as you’ve never seen him. Elvis has most definitely left the building and one of Frank Herbert’s most disturbing creations – the Harkokken house’s psychopathic angel of death and nephew of Stellan Skarsgård’s superbad baron – has entered.

Leaning forward to tackle my questions about his character, those Oscar experiences and his love of London slang, Butler is just about the least Harkonnen-y person you could imagine. He exudes both chill California energy and movie star charisma, with the soft west-coast burr of a man who doesn’t need to strain to be heard these days, an absurdly excellent head of hair and a YSL suit that really only he could pull off.

Butler has been acting since he was a kid, after being talent-spotted as a 13-year-old at California’s Orange County Fair. He’s 32 now and has the world at his feet, with that Oscar nod for his hyper-kinetic Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ putting him on the map, and a cool-as-ice Gary Cooper-like turn in Apple TV’s ‘Masters of the Air’, and now a key role in Denis Villeneuve’s epic ‘Dune’ sequel. 

Dune: Part Two
Photograph: Warner Bros.Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha with Léa Seydoux’s Lady Margot in ‘Dune: Part Two’

Denis Villeneuve has described your character as a cross between ‘a psychopathic killer and Mick Jagger’. Did you watch a lot of Rolling Stones videos in prep?
I’m a huge fan but that wasn’t a direct influence. It was more the essence of showmanship in the arena, toying with the audience. [Obviously] Faye’s version is more sadistic. I was actually looking more at animals: I watched the eyes of a great white shark, snake videos, the way a panther moves. Again, not it’s not a specific [influence] but I’ve always been inspired by Gary Oldman’s roles – ‘Léon’, ‘True Romance’ or ‘The Fifth Element’.

Which snakes did you look at? 
It was the movement of cobras, and the speed of black mambas. We didn’t know that it would work initially, but the idea for Faye’s black teeth and mouth was inspired by the black mamba. And we looked at images of geisha with black teeth and found that it was a sign of beauty and sexual maturity – Faye is vain, so for him it’s about vanity and beauty. Although he’s terrifying too.

Is there a Harkonnen WhatsApp group?
(Laughs) No, I wish, I love Stellan and Dave (Bautista) very, very much.

Dune: Part Two
Photograph: Warner Bros.Feyd-Rautha slays in the arena

You do an excellent Stellan Skarsgård voice in the film. Is your Letterboxd account full of his films now?
Yeah. He’s been in so many incredible films. I was a fan of the Lars von Trier collaborations before I even met him, and obviously the first ‘Dune’ helped me see this person who is my father figure in a way, which is an incredible gift as an actor. I didn’t even have to imagine it. 

You worked with an ex-Navy SEAL to put on 25lbs for the role. What’s that first day of training like? Did he go easy on you?
First day was almost the most brutal, because he’s seeing where your limit is and pushing you over it.

Can’t you pretend your limit is really low?
I would like to do that but I have this competition with myself, so I’ll keep going until I throw up and then the limit is set there and then he’s trying to push you past it every time. By the time I got on set I had energy.

Did music help you get into the headspace of this dark character?
I had three hours in hair and make-up every day, so I could listen to music and spend time in my imagination, heating up those elements that I’m going to explore that day. I listened to many different types of music, from chaotic classical to Miles Davis ‘Bitches Brew’ or heavy metal – this mixture that would percolate in the brain. 

What kind of heavy metal?
In a way, I don’t want to shout out any one band but there was some death metal. 

Courtesy of Warner Bros. PicturesButler was Oscar nominated for his performance in ‘Elvis’

What is it that makes a great movie villain?
The element that sticks out for me is when you’re not judging them as bad; when you see someone doing something evil and they think they’re doing the right thing. One of my favourites is Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight’ and the amount of play that he has, toying with people like a cat with a plaything. 

Are people coming up to talk to you about ‘Masters of the Air’?
Yeah, it’s been really moving. Particularly hearing from the veterans and the actual guys who were in (the US bomber unit in the show) the Hundredth. They’re over a hundred years old now and hearing what it means to them to see their story up on the screen is really impactful.

I love Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight’. He’s like a cat with a plaything

You filmed it in London and it sounds like the city came at an important moment in your life.
It feels like a second home now. In London, I had this community of friends that will feel like family forever. In a way, I’d put my life as Austin on pause for three years and London provided this amazing time where I started to find myself again. I’ve travelled so much since I was very young and inherently, when you’re making films you get very close with the people you’re working with, they become a family and then the family breaks up, and then you go and make a new family. 

Did you pick up some slang here? Is ‘wanker’ part of your lexicon now?
Wanker, yeah. It’s those little things like ‘innit?’. ‘Bollocks’, too. I call people ‘mate’ now.

Masters of the Air
Photograph: Apple TV+As Major Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven in ‘Masters of the Air’

You cycled a lot here. Any tips for wannabe cyclists?
(Laughs) Don’t get hit. I did think about my contract and I’m sure insurance wouldn’t have liked me cycling as much as I did. I’d cycle from Shoreditch to Notting Hill, and I had some close calls with buses. 

Which London spots inspire you?
My very good friend, Jonah Freud, has a library called Reference Point in 180 The Strand that’s full of rare art and poetry books, and it’s a great community of artists and creatives. His idea was democratising these rare arts books that you’d normally need white gloves to handle, but now anyone can go in. I found so much inspiration there. It’s very sacred to me.

You’ve formed a friendship with Ruth Rogers, the owner of The River Café. How did that come about?
A friend took me there and Ruthie ended up coming to sit down with us. My friend had some dice and Ruthie and I were on the same team and we kept winning, so she still calls me ‘my dice partner’. We ended up bonding and we got very deep that first day, and we started playing cards – this game called Tic that I’d never heard of – and we played every Sunday for a year. 

I’d cycle from Shoreditch to Notting Hill. I had some close calls with buses

Are there any other London restaurants that you love?
Brat is great. There’s a lot of spots.

There’s two Elvises out there now. Have you met Jacob Elordi, who played him in ‘Priscilla’?
I’ve met him, but I haven’t seen the film and I haven’t had that conversation.

Would it be fun to chat with him about it?
I haven’t thought about it. It was such a special time and a long period of my life, and it was truly life-changing for me – I hope it was special for them. 

The Oscars are coming up. You’ve been through that whole experience with ‘Elvis’. What’s the day after like?
I’d been working non-stop, from finishing ‘Elvis’, immediately going to ‘Masters of the Air’, preparing ‘Dune’, promoting ‘Elvis’, filming (Jeff Nichols’) ‘The Bikeriders’, doing ‘SNL’ and then all the awards season press. The day of the Oscars was when I told myself that I was taking some time off. The day after I remember this feeling of peace and gratitude and presence. I took months off and just disappeared.

Denis Villeneuve mentioned that you’d stick around the monitor on set rather than heading back to your trailer. Is that you prepping to direct something?
Absolutely. I love the process of making movies, so I leave my phone and don’t look at it all day and get immersed in the world that we’re creating. I’ve been very fortunate to work with these directors I’ve admired and learned a lot from.

What’s next for you?
There’s a few films that I can’t talk about yet, but I’m sure we’ll be hearing about soon, and I’m looking for a play to do. I’ve been craving the experience of [being] on stage.

Read our review of ‘Dune: Part Two’ here.

Our verdict on Austin Butler’s new World War II epic, ‘Masters of the Air’.

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