Austin Butler’s “Elvis” Performance Could Have Been 'Career-Ending Rather Than Award-Winning,' Says His Acting Coach (Exclusive)

Howard Fine, who has coached names like Butler, Kerry Washington and Bradley Cooper, discusses the art of acting in his book, ‘Fine on Acting: A Vision of the Craft’

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Austin Butler’s performance as Elvis Presley in the 2022 film could have been drastically different, according to his acting coach, Howard Fine.

“It was a minefield of danger,” Fine tells PEOPLE. “If he had done an imitation of Elvis, that would've been career-ending rather than award-winning, and he could have just gone to Vegas and tried to get a job there as an impersonator. The entire key when playing somebody who's actually lived is not to impersonate them. It's to find a connection to them so that you find, ultimately, where it lives inside you.”

This is just one piece of advice that Fine, founder of the Howard Fine Acting Studio, has given out over the years. His book, Fine on Acting: A Vision of the Craft, which was republished on Nov. 21 with updated material, gives an inside look into the art from a renowned teacher in the industry. Over his 30 year career, Fine has coached some of the biggest names in Hollywood, from Brad Pitt to Salma Hayek.

“One of the greatest misconceptions about acting is the idea of creating a character,” says Fine. “How many characters do all of us play in the course of a day? Many. And they're all parts of us.”

<p>courtesy</p> ‘Fine on Acting: A Vision of the Craft’ by Howard Fine


‘Fine on Acting: A Vision of the Craft’ by Howard Fine

When it comes to his teaching process, Fine says that he looks for students who choose him, and who are willing “to roll up [their] sleeves and work.” One of those people was Butler, 32, who has worked with Fine since his days as a Nickelodeon child star.

“He, right off the bat, wanted to be a serious actor, but it wasn’t just lip service. That was his whole work ethic. And then he started to work, and he got The Carrie Diaries, he got The Shannara Chronicles,” Fine says. “But every time he had a break in-between gigs, he would be in class.”

Fine also recalls that Butler wanted to do a play, as “real actors really want to test themselves on stage.” He helped Butler prepare a successful audition for Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, opposite Denzel Washington.

Related: How Denzel Washington Helped Convince 'Elvis' Director to Cast Austin Butler as Elvis Presley

"Before Austin left town, he had all four hours perfectly committed to memory before the first rehearsal," Fine recalls of Butler's 2018 Broadway run. "And when he got there, who else had all four hours committed to memory right away? That was Denzel."

It was excellent training for what would become Butler's breakthrough role.

<p>Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection</p> Olivia DeJonge and Austin Butler in 'Elvis'

Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection

Olivia DeJonge and Austin Butler in 'Elvis'

“The audition material for Elvis was Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending,” Fine says. “And how smart of Baz Luhrmann because a non-actor cannot handle that material. But that’s Austin’s years of student-study classes, and then having done theater. He was in shape to do it.”

Related: Austin Butler Didn't See Family for 3 Years While Preparing for 'Elvis' : 'Wouldn't Talk to Anybody'

When preparing for Elvis, Fine says the pair researched the performer’s life beyond the script, and that Butler used his own personal experiences to inhabit the “Hound Dog” singer, rather than impersonate him. Fine also says Butler continuing to speak as Elvis, even after filming ending, is tied to a technique actors use.

“I did the same thing with Will Smith when he played Dr. Bennet Omalu in the movie Concussion,” Fine says. “Will would speak in that accent constantly until it became second nature.”

Fine has worked with an array of award-winning actors, from Bradley Cooper (“Another pleasure”) to Kerry Washington, who was referred to Fine by Diana Ross.

<p>Raymond Hall/GC Images</p> Kerry Washington

Raymond Hall/GC Images

Kerry Washington

“We were just sitting reading a scene together, and I looked up from the page and I thought, ‘Who is this?’ And you just thought, ‘Oh my God,'” Fine says of Washington. “Gifted. And humble, incredibly humble. I would give her a note and she would say, ‘Thank you so much.’” Fine also says that “the truly talented are surprised they do anything well and the ungifted are shocked that they're getting a note.”

Related: Why Kerry Washington Says She Refused to Play the 'White Girl's Best Friend' After Movie with Meg Ryan

One person Fine considers “consistently surprising” is Carla Gugino, who plays Verna in the Netflix series The Fall of the House of Usher. Fine doesn’t call her a student, but instead a colleague.

“She comes for coaching on every single thing she's done," he says. "She's already in the game, but she wants to be pushed and she wants to bounce ideas and to go to a new level, and we make each other better. She’s such a pleasure to work with because she ups my game.”

<p>Eike Schroter/Netflix </p> Carla Gugino and Willa Fitzgerald in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'.

Eike Schroter/Netflix

Carla Gugino and Willa Fitzgerald in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'.

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To Fine, acting class is not “a silly thing," as he feels it is often portrayed. Understanding human behavior is crucial, he explains, but at the craft’s core is hard work and “understanding where the character lives inside you.” Fine hopes his book will help give a more accurate picture of the acting (and coaching) profession. He also has some words of advice for those considering the craft as a career.

“It is probably the most unwise career choice anybody can make,” Fine says. “So I say, unless you’re passionate, if anything else makes you happy, do that. If only this makes you happy, then don’t take no for an answer.”

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