“Unlocking the Secrets: The Woman Who Transformed Austin Butler into Elvis Presley’s Doppelgänger”
Elvis Presley, Freddie Mercury, Whitney Houston – Polly Bennett is the woman behind the transformations of Austin Butler, Rami Malek and Naomi Ackie into three of the world’s greatest music stars. Ahead of the Oscars, she tells Sky News why the role of a movement coach is so important.
When Elvis star Austin Butler arrived at this year’s BAFTA Awards, it wasn’t his model girlfriend Kaia Gerber who accompanied the actor as his plus-one.
Instead, Butler attended the ceremony with Polly Bennett, the movement coach who spent months working with the star to help him transform into The King.
When the camera panned to his seat after his name was called out as the winner of this year’s best actor award, it was Bennett he was hugging; on stage, she was his first thank you very much: “I could not have done this without you and I love you so much.”
Bennett, a British movement director and choreographer who is based in London, is the go-to woman for transformations when actors need to portray very famous real-life people.
After working on the London 2012 Olympics and later as an assistant choreographer for Steve Coogan and John C Reilly for 2018’s Stan & Ollie, she landed the job as the chief movement coach behind Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. Taking on the royals for The Crown soon followed, and this year she completed her “musical icon trilogy” with British actress Naomi Ackie’s metamorphosis into Whitney Houston in I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
With millions watching their every move, actors are used to being scrutinised, critiqued and criticised. But playing an icon, knowing your performance is going to be compared with the much-worshipped real thing, is perhaps one of the hardest jobs in the business.
“I think it’s a massive task because people have such an affiliation for Elvis,” Bennett tells Sky News. “People know him, people know the performances, so it didn’t slide past either of us that it was quite a big deal.”
Bennett’s planned six months working with Butler for the Baz Luhrmann production, which was filmed in Australia, ended up turning into a year-and-a-half, on and off, in part due to breaks during the pandemic. They worked together for several hours every day.
We have met at a dance studio in central London, and Bennett demonstrates her methods for conveying movements to make them real. It’s not simply “shake your hand”, but “reach out to show off your wedding ring” and shake “as if you’re taking off a glove”. For the Elvis leg shake: “I’d like you to imagine you’ve got a little mosquito on the back of your kneecap. So it’s not coming from your hip, it’s coming from your knee.”
This is where it all comes from, she says. “There’s so many ‘isms’ that people think [Elvis] does, and it’s all based in a truth, it’s all based in an understanding of something. But actually, the more footage I watched, the more research I did, the more books I read, the more interviews I saw… actually, it’s not really his hips that are the first thing that move, it’s his feet, it’s his knees.”
Luhrmann’s Elvis charts the singer from his teenage years until his death at the age of 42, so Butler, now 31, had to learn different Presleys as he aged. “We had to keep him flexible in that sense because the filming schedule was out of sequence. He’d be in the ’50s one day and then the next day he would be in a jumpsuit [in the early ’70s] on stage.”
Bennett also used Presley’s heritage to teach Butler. “His mum used to tap dance and do the shuffles and the bops in their house. That’s what Elvis grew up around – a mum who was quite effervescent, and moved. So rather than just looking at one piece of footage and going, that’s how he moves now, it’s trying to rewind and go, where did he get this from? That’s so much more helpful for an actor than just copying.
“We’re trying to understand the difference between imitation and embodying. And obviously Austin, as much as he tried, isn’t an exact replica of Elvis; his arms are different lengths, his body is a different shape. So you have to try and find the essence of a person rather than try and do everything exact, because everything exact actually doesn’t sit right in Austin’s body.”
Working with Butler was different to Malek, who was not such a natural mover. “We had to do a lot of work of just understanding music, hearing beats in music, hearing accents, being able to hear the half counts… at that point he wasn’t a performer that had ever been on stage himself. So I made Rami walk up and down Oxford Street with his microphone above his head, while he was training, to get him used to the idea of people looking at him, and wanting people to look at him.”
Mercury boxed as a child, she says, which is reflected in the way he performed. “[I said to Rami], what do you see in his stage performances that feels similar to that? And Rami was like, ‘he does the fist raises’. He’s not just doing it because it feels good, he’s doing it because it’s something that he’s worked on his whole life.”