Austin Butler Interview

The Bikeriders is about to be released in Australian cinemas and while he was here for the Sydney Film Festival, I spoke to star Austin Butler about the project…

Matt:  It wasn’t that long ago you were here in Queensland as a lesser-known actor shooting Elvis. Now, you’re an Oscar nominated star who also had a key role in the biggest box-office hit so far this year – Dune: Part Two.  What changed most in terms of your life over the past few years?

Austin:  I’ve had these opportunities to work with people I’ve always dreamed of and I feel very grateful right now. 

Matt:  Here in The Bikeriders you play Benny – folks gravitate towards him but at the same time, his wife describes him as “having no feelings”.  What was your approach to playing such an insular character who doesn’t voice every thought going through his head?

Austin:  Jeff Nichols talked about the character as being “an empty glass that everyone wants to fill with their own expectations and responsibilities.”  The reality is that he can’t be filled.  He’s a lone wolf.  For me, it was figuring out what he’s thinking in those silent moments, and also getting on a motorcycle for many months before the shoot and experiencing that feeling of freedom.

Matt:  I’m not sure of your background when it comes to motorcycling but was there any training required in riding these vintage bikes that existed in the 1960s and 70s?

Austin:  I knew a bit but nothing like this.  When I was 15, my dad took me to a parking lot and taught me how to ride a motorcycle.  So, I’d ridden a bit but never on an old bike like this.  I was on a 1965 Harley, and I found each bike had its own personality.  It was about learning the idiosyncrasies of each bike and understanding the broader spirituality of motorcycle culture.

Matt:  A lot of films are based on intricate novels, but The Bikeriders was inspired by a photobook assembled by Danny Lyon and first published in 1968.  When you became involved with the project, what struck you about those photos and that world in term of building your own performance?

Austin:  Yeah, absolutely.  The amazing thing about that book is that the images give you so much.  There’s a romanticism with the beautiful black and white imagery and you feel immersed in the aesthetic of that world.  In addition, the back of the book has interviews Danny conducted with most of the motorcycle club members and you get to hear how they felt about things in a raw sense.  The character I play was one of the few who wasn’t interviewed and he’s more of an enigma.  The book helped me understand the world and then I had my own creative latitude given I was playing a more mysterious character.

Matt:  Was there other research you needed to do to get a clearer understanding of motorcycle clubs and the types of people who became members?

Austin:  Yeah.  I did everything from reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Hells Angels to watching documentaries from around that time period.  I also hung around a lot of people who live and breathe motorcycles and philosophically understanding what draws them to that lifestyle.

Matt:  You worked here under the guidance of director Jeff Nichols who I’ve been a fan of going back to Take Shelter and Mud.  How would you describe his directorial approach?

Austin:  Jeff is an amazing human being and an amazing director.  Just like you, I’ve been a fan of him since his first film Shotgun Stories.  He’s a brilliant writer-director, a wonderful collaborator, and we had a great time together.

Matt:  And you also had the chance to work alongside one of my favourite actors, Tom Hardy.  What’s Tom like behind the camera?

Austin:  Where do I begin with that man?  He’s so dynamic.  I’ve idolised him for many years.  I remember when I first got the DVD for Bronson and I watched it over and over.  I’ve been enamoured by all the work he’s done since then.  He’s powerful.  I was fortunate to have this character who is like a brother to him, and it bonded us really quickly.  He’s a tough guy with a lot of intensity but I was struck by his sense of humour and his big heart.  We had a good time together.

Matt:  Every role throws up its own challenges.  Was there a particularly hard part to this one?

Austin:  This was a fun character to play but the biggest challenge was getting accustomed to the technical elements of these old motorcycles.  There were safety concerns as we were riding around with no helmets and we had to be incredibly careful but at the same time, you wanted to ride fast.  Altogether, it was such a great group of actors and I’ll give a shout-out to Jodie Comer and her performance because she carries the film and is brilliant.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Austin:  I just finished a movie directed by Ari Aster with Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, and then my next thing is with Darren Aronofsky.