Inside Austin Butler's Transformation Into Elvis -- and How Ex Vanessa Hudgens Might Have Played a Huge Part

The actor recently won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the famed singer.

Austin Butler's incredible Elvis journey may have gotten started thanks to his ex. The 31-year-old actor dated Vanessa Hudgens for more than eight years, and the High School Musical star was one of the first people to suggest that her then-beau should portray The King.

Vanessa's role in Austin's massive career move was something she first revealed during an appearance on Live With Kelly and Ryan in August 2019, shortly after his casting in Elvis was announced.

"It's so crazy, because last December, we were driving along and we were listening to Christmas music, and then an Elvis Presley Christmas song came on," Vanessa told Ryan Seacrest at the time. "He had just dyed his hair dark -- he's a natural blonde -- and I was looking at him and he was singing along and I was like, 'Babe, you need to play Elvis. I don't know how, but I'm serious. You need to play him.'"

Vanessa mentioned the idea again the next month, when she came upon Austin singing and playing the piano.

"I'm like, 'I don't know how, but we need to figure out how you can play Elvis. I don't know how we get rights or what we do, but you need to play him. It is your calling,'" she said. "And then that next month we get a call saying Baz Luhrmann is doing the Elvis biopic and I was like, 'Babe, this is it.'" 

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Austin told the same story years later, during The Hollywood Reporter's Actors Roundtable, though he didn't mention Vanessa by name.

"I was looking at Christmas lights and there was an Elvis Christmas song on the radio. I was with a friend of mine and I was singing along and my friend kind of looked over at me and goes, 'You've got to play Elvis.' I said, 'That's such a long shot,'" he recalled. "... And then a couple of weeks later I was playing the piano. I never really sang for any of my friends or anything. That same friend was there. I was playing the piano. She said, 'I'm serious. You've got to figure out how you can get the rights to a script and write something and do Elvis' life.'"

Colin Farrell, who was participating in the roundtable for his role in The Banshees of Inisherin, was impressed by Austin's friend's role prediction and joked, "Who's this friend? I need the number," likely not realizing that he was asking for Austin's ex's digits. Austin laughed off the moment and the hour-long conversation got back on track.

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After Vanessa made the initial suggestion, another famous figure vouched for Austin to the film's director, Baz Luhrmann. That A-lister was Denzel Washington, who worked with Austin in Broadway's The Iceman Cometh in 2018.

"Denzel didn’t have to, he’s the king, he doesn't have to do anything for me," Butler told ET. "But he took it out of the kindness of his heart to call Baz and I just respect him so much and I'm so grateful for him."

Austin also had Brad Pitt in his corner, after co-starring with the famed actor in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

"For so long in my career, I was doing things I was grateful for, but it wasn’t the lane that I wanted to be in," Austin told ET. "Doing this play that I did on Broadway with Denzel, that was a thing that changed my career. And then, from there, getting to work with Quentin Tarantino changed my career."

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With all the support behind him, Austin thoroughly dedicated to the role, for which he told ET he felt "a weight like I never felt before." 

"There's so many things out there that have become these caricatures, so even talking about him curling his lip, it's something he didn't do as much as we think he did. He'd do it for a photo," Austin said. "It was finding how subtle can you go with things and still have the essence. It was this constant back and forth, and that's the tricky thing, going back and forth between incredibly technical things and then never losing the humanity. Like, that was the goal, always have his soul in there."

When it came to Elvis' dance moves, Austin said, "The thing with him is they weren't moves, they were coming out of the feel of the music. So, for me, it had to be about finding the feeling of the music, moving me in that way. That was really fun. It was liberating."

Hugh Stewart

Then there's Elvis' signature speaking voice. Austin got so into the role that, months after filming wrapped, fans noticed that the actor was still speaking with The King's twang.

"At this point, I keep asking people, 'Is this my voice?' because this feels like my real [voice]," Austin told ET in June. "… It's one of those things where certain things trigger it... When you live with something for two years, and you do nothing else, I think that you can't help it. It becomes a fiber of your being."

Six months later, when Austin accepted the Golden Globe award for his performance, the Elvis voice was still in full effect.

"This kid, Austin Butler, who played Elvis... appears to have turned into Elvis full-time now," Howard Stern joked on his SiriusXM radio show. "The movie's over... This kid changed his whole voice." 

As for why Elvis remains in his voice, Austin told the Golden Globes press room, "I don't even think about it."

"I don't think I sound like him still, but I guess I haven't noticed 'cause I hear it a lot," he said. "I think, I often liken it to when somebody lives in another country for a long time, and I had three years where that was my only focus in life, so I'm sure that there's just pieces of my DNA that will always be linked in that way."

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As much chatter as there was about Austin's changed speaking voice, there was equal praise for his work singing all of young Elvis' songs in the flick. In an Instagram post, Baz called the positive response to Austin's singing "tremendous."

Riley Keough, Elvis' granddaughter, reposted the same clip and praised Austin for his "beautiful" work and "remarkable" performance.

It wasn't just Riley that expressed her support for the actor. In fact, Elvis' former wife, Priscilla Presley, and daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, shared their approval of Austin's portrayal.

"I met her before we started filming, and then getting to see her after she'd seen the film, it was so moving to me. Because she's also dealt with all the misconceptions about Elvis since the day she met him," Austin told ET of Priscilla, who called his performance "outstanding." "I was so nervous when she was going to watch the film, because she knows him better than anybody. When I heard what she felt about it, it just was beyond words. I just felt so good."

On the Golden Globes' red carpet, Lisa Marie told ET that Austin's work was "truly mind-blowing," adding, "I hope he wins." Austin went on to do just that, and made sure to thank Elvis' family during his acceptance speech.

"Thank you for opening your hearts, your memories, your home to me," he said to Lisa Marie and Priscilla as they sat in the audience. "Lisa Marie, Priscilla, I love you forever."


Shortly after accepting the award, Austin was spotted kissing his girlfriend, Kaia Gerber, whom he was first linked to in December 2021, almost two years after his split from Vanessa.

The women have crossed paths before. There's a viral photo of Vanessa, who is 13 years Kaia's senior, shaking the model's hand at the High School Musical 2 premiere when she was just five years old. At the time, Kaia told The Insider that Vanessa's character, Gabriella, was her favorite one in the film.

The two posed together again in 2017, amid Austin's relationship with Vanessa.

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Now, Vanessa has moved on with MLB player Cole Tucker, while Kaia and Austin are better than ever. Before awards season began, the actor vacationed with the model and her family in Mexico.

As for how Austin stays grounded amid his continued success, a source tells ET that Kaia and her family make sure to carve out time each week to spend with the actor.

Watch the video below for more on their relationship.