Toni Basil on coaching Austin Butler for his breakthrough role: "A guy is auditioning for 'Elvis'? Cool. I know exactly what to do."
“Because I danced in the ‘60s, and I still can dance, I'm probably the only one alive that did dance in the ‘60s and can coach it,” chuckles Toni Basil — who, long before she had a huge ‘80s hit with “Mickey,” was dancing in Elvis Presley movies like Girl Happy, Viva Las Vegas (she was the iconic “girl with the red dress on” in that film), and Clambake.
In more recent years, Basil has become the go-to choreographer for retro movies like Tom Hanks’s That Thing You Do! and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. So, when Austin Butler — who’d had a small part in that latter period film — was up for the Oscar-baiting leading role of a lifetime, Basil was just the person to get him in pelvis-swiveling shape for his big Elvis audition.
Basil recalls getting a call from a vocal teacher about Butler. “I was told, ‘This guy is auditioning for Elvis. We think you're the one to work with him. Since you worked with the real Elvis, you'll be able to coach him,’” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “There were no instructions. But I didn't need instructions. ‘A guy is auditioning for Elvis? Cool. I know exactly what to do.’”
Interestingly, Basil recalls that two other actors hoping to landing the titular role in Baz Luhrmann’s fantasy biopic (“a real American musical, like the old days!”) were dispatched to her by the same vocal coach — but she can’t recall those actors’ names. (Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Harry Styles were some of the reported frontrunners in the casting process, but Basil chuckles, “Um, I certainly would've remembered working with Harry Styles.”)
“They all wanted the role really badly, but Austin just worked so hard. I think Austin encompassed the many things that it was going to take — because it wasn't just how you danced and how you popped your knees, you know? There was something much more to it. He embodied a lot of the talent, a lot of the pieces, of what needed to go into being Elvis,” Basil explains. “And I do think he captured Elvis — in his own way, and in Baz Luhrmann’s way.”
As Basil notes, “Elvis wasn't so subtle” when it came to his “signature moves that he always used. If you go back to his early days through his Vegas days, there were many signature moves — and it wasn't a lot of different moves.” So, encapsulating Elvis’s essence had to go deeper than just the basic choreography.
“There was also, of course, his face and his persona, which was part of his whole presentation,” says Basil. “And he went through several decades of Elvis’s life. When you are doing the life of someone like Elvis, who everyone can go back and see on YouTube or go back and see his films, that's really stepping in there. There's a real fine line of, ‘Is it going to be a caricature of this person, or a reality?’ You know, where is that fine line? Because Elvis was very broad.”
So, what did Basil tell Butler to do, when he was trying to channel the King, during their several meetings at her L.A. studio? “You don't tell,” she clarifies. “You can't tell someone. It's physical. But it's so easy to look at all of Elvis’s old early videos, late videos. There's so much material on him. So, we’d grab a song and begin to imitate Elvis's movement and put it on Austin. … First, we worked on the obvious movements. And he just took to the movement. In the beginning, it was foreign to him, but I never thought, ‘Ooh, I don't know if he's going to get this.’ He moved seamlessly. Moved through it by hard work.”
Would Basil say Butler was a quick study? “I would say he was studying quickly,” she quips. “That's for sure.”
Basil says she knew Butler had something special about him that made him perfect for the part, even if “he didn't physically look like Elvis,” because, she notes, “His face was similar in beauty. You know, Elvis was kind of drop-dead gorgeous, so they kind of needed an actor that embodied that vision, what Elvis was all about. And there was a beauty about Austin, like a James Dean or a Leonardo DiCaprio — you know, a star. The face of a star.”
Of course, Basil appreciated the actual Elvis’s undeniable beauty when she appeared in Clambake (in which she “had a little solo, leaping over this six-foot-high bush, running from behind it and jumping on a trampoline — boy, did I hold my breath!”); Girl Happy; and especially Viva Las Vegas, on which she worked closely with Presley and his co-star Ann-Margret as the assistant choreographer. But she claims that she was “absolutely not” attracted to Presley, even though her “girlfriends were all crazy about him.” She insists, “He was not my type! I remember the Rolling Stones were coming into town, and Mick Jagger was much more my type than Elvis. But I really liked Elvis. He was so kind.”
Basil laughingly recalls one act of kindness, when Presley offered to drive her and her choreographer boss, David Winters, from the MGM lot back to their jazz dance class, which had become popular with Hollywood’s “starlets and stars” of the ‘60s. (Viva Las Vegas director George Sidney had hired Winters and Basil after he’d dropped by to observe Ann-Margret taking the class.)
“Elvis drove down there with us, dropped us off, we started the class… and then all of a sudden, about half an hour in, Elvis came and stood in the doorway. Well, the vibe of the class changed! Everybody kept dancing, but you can imagine, seeing Elvis standing in the doorway was kind of a surreal moment,” Basil chuckles. “[The students] realized, ‘Oh my God, it really is him! Toni and David really are choreographing this film!’ It was pretty, pretty amazing. And I said to David later, ‘Hey, why did Elvis come up?’ And David said, ‘Well, I think he was kind of eyeing Sue Lyon!’” — the blonde-bombshell Lolita actress who took attended their class that day.
Basil remembers that Presley was a great student himself, just like Butler. “Elvis, like all big stars, worked very, very hard. The work ethic was there, and if the work ethic is not there, it just doesn't happen. And he worked extremely hard,” she says. “He was extremely generous with his time if you needed to work with him on a piece. … And we would work with Ann and Elvis separately. We always taught Elvis what he was going to be doing, and then Ann separately in her trailer or in the studio, so when we finally brought them together, they weren't nervous about: ‘Oh, am I not going to learn this step quick?’ They were already rooted in the choreography, so when they came together, the rehearsal days ran very smoothly.”
Butler will be showcasing his stage skills at the Oscars ceremony on March 12, where he will appear on a music-packed night that will feature performances by Rihanna, Lenny Kravitz, and Basil’s dear friend David Byrne — whose “This Is a Life,” from the 11-time-nominated Everything Everywhere All at Once, is up for Best Original Song. Basil and Byrne worked together more than 40 years ago on two of Talking Heads’ most groundbreaking music videos, “Once in a Lifetime” and “Crosseyed and Painless,” so for Byrne to be nominated in the same year that Elvis is up for eight Oscars makes this year’s ceremony a full-circle, career-spanning event of sorts for Basil.
Basil recalls “hanging out” with Byrne and Brian Eno they were recording their collaborative album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, at a time when music videos were still a very new phenomenon. “I had already started to do my music videos, but there was no MTV,” she says. “I was doing my video for a European company, and I showed them to Brian and David.” Later, an impressed Byrne called her to collaborate on the “Once in a Lifetime” video — and, just like Butler and Presley, he was a hard worker and diligent student.
“He wanted to start research before anything. He wanted to research physical movement, but not dance movement per se,” Basil recalls. “So, he started to research people in trances, all sorts of pedestrian or physical ideas, more like a performance artist might. And we went to UCLA, because there was no YouTube at the time, to look at a lot of films. We looked at a lot of footage, and he got a lot of ideas, so I kind of just let him develop physicalities. He's not going to dance like me; he's an artist, and he's going to develop his own concept. So, I would go, ‘Yes, no, maybe this, maybe that.’ He also said, ‘I have some footage that some people sent me from Japan of these kids chopping at their arm.’ So, it was his idea to incorporate and imitate that footage. I actually ended up storyboarding with him and co-directing the shoot, and David ended up really choreographing it.”
For “Crosseyed and Painless,” however, Byrne let Basil have complete creative control as that video’s director, after she showed him footage she’d filmed of the Northern California street dance crew Electric Boogaloos. “He said, ‘Can you use those guys for this song?’ I said, ‘OK, what do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Anything you want.’ And I said, ‘Are you going to be in it?’ He said, ‘No, just shoot it. Send me something.’ So, that was mine from scratch. And that was a field day,” Basil marvels. “There was no one to get in my way. I just could go. David said, ‘Do what you want to do — what you think is right.’ I mean, God… for somebody to send you money to shoot something, and have you do what you want and trust you? Thank you, David Byrne. Thank you a lot.”
Basil will be rooting for both Butler and Byrne at the Academy Awards this weekend; the former has already won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, a People’s Choice Award, and various regional film critics’ awards for his breakthrough in Elvis, and Basil finally had a chance to congratulate the young Best Actor Oscar nominee when she attended the recent Costume Designer Guild Awards — where her longtime friend and choreography client, Bette Midler, was presented with the Distinguished Collaborator honor — and ran into him. (Luhrmann’s costume-designer wife, Catherine Martin, won the Excellence in Period Film award that night for her work on Elvis.)
“I hadn't really seen Austin since all of this happened,” Basil says. “Well, he saw me — I was talking to one of the women that also worked on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood — and he turned around and said, ‘Oh my God!’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess you got that role. It worked out!’ And he said, ‘Oh God, yeah. It worked out.’”
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
• Baz Luhrmann, 'Elvis' cast talk cultural appropriation and Austin Butler's star-making performance
Toni Basil gets her 'Mickey' acclaim — and copyright — 40 years later: 'I really thought I should put my foot down and receive money for it'
• Austin Butler says he's finally 'getting rid of' his Elvis accent
• Bebe Buell recalls John Travolta's secret audition to play Jim Morrison in 'The Doors': 'He channeled him like nothing I'd ever seen'
• 'Head' trip: How the Monkees and Jack Nicholson shattered the 4th wall and the Hollywood mold 50 years ago
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A portion of the above interview is taken from Toni Basil’s archived two-part appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on the SiriusXM app.