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.”
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Elvis. Pic: Warner Bros
Pic: Warner Bros
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.”
‘Imagine you’ve got a mosquito on the back of your knee…’
Choreographer and movement director Polly Bennett on the set of Elvis with star Austin Butler. Pic: Ruby Bell
Pic: Ruby Bell
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.
The Butler she met before their rehearsals started was “a really musical guy” already; he played the piano, had played guitar to a certain level, “and was a sort of closet singer”. The groundwork was there. They practised swing and tap dancing to get the feel of Presley, and recited his lyrics as poetry.
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.”
‘I made Rami walk up and down Oxford Street with his mic’
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.”
Ackie’s transformation into Houston was just as impressive, says Bennett, despite the film falling a little under the radar in comparison with the other two. They worked on her background as a gospel singer and also the fact she was a tomboy growing up, very different to the glamorous superstar people came to know.
“When she was a kid, she didn’t wear dresses, she was wearing dungarees and hanging out with her brothers, and she was exposed to drugs very early. We spoke a lot about a boy in a dress, as Whitney. So the idea that she was a little boy, and she’d put a dress on, so she’s sort of acting feminine, rather than inherently being what we understand as feminine.”
Will Butler win the Oscar?
With a BAFTA and a Golden Globe already under his rhinestone belt, Butler could well find himself following in Malek’s footsteps and making a winner’s speech on Oscars night, too (it appears to be a two-horse race between him and The Whale actor Brendan Fraser).
Win or lose, Bennett says she is proud of what they have achieved. “I mean, the fact that there’s nobody going, ‘he doesn’t look like Elvis’ or ‘he doesn’t sound like Elvis,” she laughs. “It’s quite nice that we’ve achieved that for the fans, for the family, and for the people involved in telling the story.”
For an actor playing a real person, those behind-the-scenes roles – the hair and make-up artists and vocal trainers, as well as movement coaches – play a huge part in winning those awards.
Bennett agrees and laughs. “I’m not trying to go, look at me, look at all the amazing things I’ve done. But I do love the idea of people being recognised for the work they do, because it’s not just people out there on their own, watching YouTube late at night, thinking about how to play Elvis Presley.
“It was amazing to go with [Butler] as his guest to the BAFTAs because that’s also him acknowledging that people in my position – choreographers, movement directors – we don’t have awards, we’re not part of that circuit.” She pauses and gives a wry smile. “Which is a shame.”