Austin Butler talks like Elvis. He used to not talk like Elvis, and then he played Elvis in the movie Elvis, and now he does. You can have your opinion on this, and many certainly do, but it’s undeniable, much like how the sun rises in the East, or how dogs somehow always know when it’s time for their dinner.
Butler’s singing coach for the film, Irene Bartlett, who worked with him starting in 2019, has declared the actor’s Elvis voice to be “genuine.” (Bartlett did not respond to Bustle’s request for comment.) Butler himself does, too: At the Golden Globes in January, the California native told reporters, “I don’t think I sound like him still, but I guess I must because I hear it a lot.” In an attempt at explanation, he added, “I often liken it to when somebody lives in another country for a long time. I had three years where [Elvis] was my only focus in life.” But more recently, the actor announced his intention to shed the accent, probably because everyone keeps telling him that it’s insane to keep talking like Elvis when you are not, in fact, Elvis.
On its face, this seemingly permanent voice change defies reason. People are weird, sure, and the mind can generate some pretty nutso ideas (Cotard’s syndrome! The Fregoli delusion!) but Butler’s predicament is somehow even stranger. Butler has developed a psychological condition that spares his brain, afflicting only his vocal cords: He seems to have a solid grasp on reality, and certainly knows who he is — otherwise, he wouldn’t know to head to the stage after winning an award for Elvis — but there’s just one, very noticeable piece that doesn’t fit.
Sure, there are other examples of people purposely changing their voices, like erstwhile girlboss and convicted fraudster Elizabeth Holmes, but there’s always a decipherable reason for that change (in Holmes’ case, so she could come off more commanding and less feminine). There is no such reason for Butler adopting Elvis’ accent after he’s no longer playing him. If anything, all the headlines about his bizarre vocal transformation are hurting his career — I can’t be the only one who’s genuinely concerned that Butler will saunter onscreen in Dune: Part Two with a bouffant and challenge Paul Atreides to a guitar-off rather than a duel.
Even more concerning, by forging ahead in this way, Butler demands that the public accepts him and his newly acquired Elvis accent. But to do so, would we not be ceding our own reality, accepting an Elvis-ified one in its stead? Could this not be the first of many glitches in the matrix that Butler and his ilk ask us to accept, a crack in the Overton Window that’ll spread until what remains of our agreed-upon, shared world breaks? The more I thought about it, and the more I listened to him saying, “I can’t really reflect on it too much, I don’t know the difference” in a Graceland drawl, the more I felt my fundamental assumptions of perception and identity fraying, my gray matter threatening to liquefy and spill out my ears. So in the interest of self-preservation, I did the only thing I could think of: I called up a series of highly intelligent people and made them answer my dumb questions.
First on my list was Rébecca Kleinberger, an assistant professor at Northeastern University who studies the voice as a means of expression, building on the findings from disparate fields like psychology and computer science. She assured me that our voices are fluid and always evolving — nothing to panic about. “We’re not the same person from one day to another day, from a certain age to another age,” she says. “And that’s also reflected through the voice.” Generally, this is a slow, nonlinear process, and people can and do permanently alter their voices — maybe to shed an undesired regional twang, as a part of a gender transition, or to evade sexist gripes about “shrillness.”
It definitely requires self-aware effort at the beginning. “We process our own voice completely differently from the way we perceive other people’s voices,” Kleinberger continues. “It’s a completely different neural pathway, and our body has many different ways of filtering out the sound of our own voice.” Theoretically, if you do accomplish a vocal shift, you should be able to largely unwind it, but Kleinberger wonders if stress or a similar emotion has also hindered Butler’s return to normal. “Your mental state and strong emotion and cognitive load might actually reduce our ability to control our voice. And in that case it might be even harder to consciously decide,” she says. “Really whatever comes out, comes out.”
Okay. But actors adopt fake accents for roles all the time, and they almost never pull a Butler. (And thank God: Imagine Kate Winslet walking around with a Mare of Easttown-esque Delco dialect for the rest of her life. We’d have to lock her in a Wawa.) Clearly, something is different about his case. And maybe, I thought — as my own mind, now unplugged from its source code, wobbled like Jell-O on a jackhammer — the issue was in his head, having metastasized and spread from his voice box.
Enter Kateri McRae, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver who co-hosts a podcast called The Actor’s Mind with an acting professor, in which the two explore what psychological principles might be involved in certain acting techniques. She’s identified two reasons why Butler might be all, “Thank you, thank you very much.” First, simple muscle memory: The brain makes shortcuts for actions you repeat over and over, so you can allocate attention elsewhere. And second, a conscious desire to disassociate. “Some actors are like, ‘That’s my goal, that I lose myself,’ and some people say that’s what good acting is, when you can’t tell the difference,” she says. “I would disagree. I actually think a really skilled actor is one who perfectly knows the difference and who can just be really convincing in their portrayal of the character.” (Daniel Day-Lewis found dead, cold hands clamped around his Oscars.)
Butler did fully immerse himself for the role. “I had months where I wouldn’t talk to anybody. And when I did, the only thing I was ever thinking about was Elvis. I was speaking in his voice the whole time,” he told Variety. But even his fellow Method actors don’t retain their characters’ accents (see: Daniel Day-Lewis, dead with his Oscars). Maybe, I realized, I was barking up the wrong tree, trying to find the logic in something inherently illogical. Maybe I just needed to understand this particular Hound Dog brand of illogic — and if so, I needed to grasp it quickly: My own fluffy little dog had begun staring at me with increasingly worried eyes, intuiting the acceleration of my mental distress.
So I called up Peter Schwardmann, an assistant professor and behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University. He studies self-deception in depth, and lists several coherent reasons why people might lie to themselves. “The average person thinks that they’re slightly more able, slightly more moral, and slightly more good-looking than they actually are,” he explains. This, apparently, helps us feel better about ourselves and our uncertain futures. It also helps us convince other people that we’re more able, more moral, more good-looking than we actually are. “Some people might be quite decent at picking up on us lying to them [so] if we have to fake it, we might get found out. But if you believe it, you’re not faking it anymore,” Schwardmann says. How could this apply to my good man Austin Butler? “If an audience has some lie-detection ability, has some sense of, ‘I don’t think this person is truly believing what they’re telling me,’” he says, “then it pays for the person who wants to make you believe to first believe it themselves.” What is acting, after all, if not an artistic license to lie?
This explanation felt useful, perhaps the closest I’d come to finding a raft in this stormy, Elvis-shaped sea. But just as I reached for it, it floated away: It dawned on me that I had failed to see the easy solution. I’d assumed that Butler and I occupied the same reality, which we clearly don’t. None of us do, really; we’re all just bumbling around, taking in information with our differently calibrated senses and mixing it up with all our preconceived notions and logical fallacies, right? If Descartes thought, therefore he was, can’t Butler think he talks like Elvis, and therefore simply talk like Elvis? If it’s true in his mind, it is true.
With the nature of truth and reality on the line, it was time to call in the big guns: a philosopher. I spoke to Alfred Mele, a professor of philosophy at Florida State University who patiently kept me on the rails, even though I was kind of determined to come off of them. Mele, you see, is not a big fan of our so-called “post-truth era,” where everyone gets to nurture their own little pet truth and carry it around in their pocket like a Tamagotchi. “I think if you’re doing science, you have to assume there are facts,” Mele says. There’s only so much room for error in interpretation, he explains. “If our beliefs were not largely true, I think eventually we would just die.” Kind of like a Tamagotchi, if you chose to believe it didn’t need to eat.
Alright, but then what about... I sighed. My eyes crossed. And as the final glop of brain goo slid out my ear, so did my worries. Only Austin Butler’s voice remained. I don’t think I sound like him still, but I guess I must because I hear it a lot…