By every definition of the word, Austin Butler is a true artist. At 24, he’s already dabbled in acting, modeling, and singing. In his free time, he’s busy playing guitar and experimenting with photography. He enjoys nature, has an eclectic sense of fashion, and centers his life around the concept of gratitude. Essentially, he is the full package. But while he dabbles in an array of trades, Butler feels most at home in front of the camera.
Though he comes across as cool and collected on screen, Butler says that behind the scenes, he’s more of a shy and private person. He admits that the media attention that follows both him and his girlfriend, Vanessa Hudgens, can be a bit overwhelming at times but is quick to explain that he loves every minute of what he does for a living and is eternally grateful for his fans. He can relate, after all, as he’ll be the first to tell you that upon meeting Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis, he was beyond star struck himself. The Anaheim, California native credits his profession for helping to bring him out of his shell as a child. “I found that when I was a kid, I would hide behind playing pretend,” he explains. “I ended up stumbling into acting. It was the one thing that I found a passion for.”
Since launching his career as a background actor in 2005, Butler has played the bad boy (The Carrie Diaries), a celebrity-obsessed kleptomaniac (The Bling Ring), and a teenage extraterrestrial hunter (Aliens in the Attic). He then went on to star alongside Johnny Depp and daughter, Lily-Rose, in Kevin Smith’s comedy-horror Yoga Hosers, which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was an experience Butler deems magical, as he cites the Pirates of the Caribbean actor as being a huge inspiration to him. “Watching him work is the most surreal thing!” says Butler. “He’s been my favorite since before I even thought about acting.”
Next, the budding star is gearing up to show us his adventurous side as he tackles the role of Wil Ohmsford in MTV’s upcoming fantasy/science fiction series The Shannara Chronicles. The show, which premieres on January 5th, will follow Butler, Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton), and friends as they set off on a quest to protect their beloved Four Lands in a post-apocalyptic Earth. In the Shannara world, Butler will appear as a half-human/half-elf whose long blonde locks part to reveal his pointy ears, is armed with an arsenal of sword-fighting skills, and gallops around on a horse named Cricket. He also tangos through a love triangle between elven princess Amberle and the mortal beauty Eretria (Ivana Baquero).
In addition to already becoming a fan favorite with the Shannara audience, Butler has made quite an impression on his newest co-stars:
“Working with Austin was very special. He has a very warm and welcoming energy and has the ability of making you feel comfortable and at ease,” says Baquero. “His caring nature doesn't go unnoticed, everyone around him loves him and enjoys working with him.” Marcus Vanco, who plays Bandon in the series, says that after watching how present and attentive Austin was on set, he has no doubt that the young actor will go far in his career. “I thoroughly enjoyed working with Austin as he was open to any sort of process brought by another actor, making the scenes more of a fun collaboration than a tricky dance. I will not be surprised if his career takes off even further than it already has,” he explains.
Austin Butler: The humanity of the characters. I hadn’t really played a character who really doesn’t know what he’s doing. He starts out very naïve and he’s very much a fish out of water. He’s then told he has to save the world and he’s got to go on this epic quest so he has to find the hero within himself. I love that because it’s something that comes up in real life, when some challenge arises and you have to find the hero in you that can overcome that. When I read the script and I first realized what Wil is going through, it reminded me a lot of myself, having to sometimes fake it until you make it. And that’s kind of what he does when he doesn’t know what he’s doing. And so even learning along the way, being out in New Zealand by myself and finding where the boy is inside of me and where the man is and growing into that, it was cool how art imitates life in that way.JJ: We hear that there’s a complicated love triangle that your character will be wrapped up in. Was it fun to play in that world?
AB: There is hardly anything more confusing than a really strong-willed woman and when you are surrounded by two of them in the midst of trying to save the world, it really adds to some drama!JJ: Did you get to have any fun adventures while filming over in New Zealand?
AB: Being out in New Zealand was incredible. I didn’t have very many days off but on my days off, I would rent a car and drive off. I’d go hiking and swim in a waterfall. They had all these black sand beaches with nobody on them. I found all these cool things to do out there.JJ: Speaking of adventures, word on the street is you had one of your own while learning to reconnect with horseback riding.
AB: My grandpa was a cowboy. He roped cattle out in Texas and Arizona. Growing up, I’d see him maybe once a year and he’d always get me on a horse at some point. But each time I’d have to learn again. So I felt very very new. But I got out to New Zealand a month early and I spent every day with my horse. It was incredible to get to have that time to get to know how to ride and how to saddle the horse.JJ: There is a lot of action and fighting in this series. Did you pick up any crazy new skills while training for the role?
AB: Yeah. I did a lot of sword fighting training out there. And I don’t get to show it off that much in this season. But I had done Kali as a kid, which is Filipino stick fighting. So I kind of have a background in it and I ended up learning how to do all these cool things. So maybe if we do another season, I’ll get to show those off a little bit more.JJ:: Were the elf ears uncomfortable? What’s the secret to rocking those?
AB: The elf ears you get really used to. They take about 45 minutes to put them on. So I would get picked up at my apartment at like 3 a.m. because you have to get on set early before the sun has risen. So that was the hard part. I’m not much of a morning person so I’d have to get up extra early for that. But the ears, you get really used to them. It was amazing how well they stuck on because I had to do scenes where I’m swimming or I’ve just fallen off a horse or I’m in a lake and the ears stayed on. It’s amazing what they can do with prosthetics.
AB: I’ve always been a fan. I find that with fantasy, you lose yourself in it a lot. It’s great to be able to go into a dark theater or turn off the lights in your house and just get sucked into this world. I remember watching Star Wars when I was a little kid when they did the re-release of all the originals. I couldn’t even read yet but my uncle took me and he would read me the opening as the words were coming up on the screen. I just remember being so sucked into that and thinking, “I want to be Luke Skywalker.”JJ: Growing up in California, did you always want to be an actor? Or did you just kind of fall into it?
AB: I was always really shy. That’s why being in front of cameras like this is uncomfortable. I found that when I was a kid, I would hide behind playing pretend. That’s when I would come out of my shell. I would dress up as an old man or something and go out onto the street with my mom. I would come out of my shell that way. So I ended up stumbling into acting. It was the one thing that I found a passion for.JJ: Is it true that you got you start after being scouted by an agent at the Orange County Fair?
AB: So the Orange County Fair story, that is a slight shift on the truth. My stepbrother actually was scouted. He was a white kid who wanted an Afro and his dad was a hairdresser. So he gave him this really tight pin-curled Afro and he permed his hair. He was at the Orange County Fair and this background talent agent came up to him and said, “You’ve got such a unique look. You should come up to LA and audition to be an extra.” And so I went with him and I wasn’t planning on doing anything and they said, “You should do it as well!” And that’s how I ended up doing extra work as a kid. I owe it all to my stepbrother’s Afro!JJ: Hannah Montana was such a pop culture phenomenon. Was it wild to be a part of that show?
AB: Yeah! I was a kid when I did Hannah Montana. That was one of the first things I ever did. We were all young – Miley [Cyrus] and Mitchel [Musso]. There is a nice quality about being young and acting because you almost don’t realize what you are doing; you are just playing with other children in a way. That’s why sometimes when I watch really little kids, like 3-year-olds, it’s incredible. It’s almost like watching an animal or something. They don’t know what’s going on and they are really so immersed. That’s why often those tiny children are scene-stealers. But I started a little after that so I did have those nerves. I saw that Hannah Montana episode at one point and I was so terrible in it. I just remember being so nervous.JJ: You recently did Yoga Hosers. How is it different working in film vs. television?
AB: Both television and film have their charm. With TV, you get a new script every week and so you don’t know where you are going and there is this mystery involved and you’re constantly doing something new each week. But film has such a close place in my heart because of the fact that you know the beginning, middle, and end. So you can really map out a character more. I liked it.
AB: It depends on what mood I’m in. Sometimes I just want to wear loose clothing and be really comfortable. Guys like Johnny Depp, when you see the way he wears clothes, it’s just incredible. But the guys that I always go back to are Paul Newman and Steve McQueen and James Dean. I think because I have long hair right now, I tend to dress more in the place of Johnny or those guys when they wear their loose clothes.JJ: You’ve worked with so many iconic names in the industry. Who is one actor that you worked alongside of that you were just completely spellbound by?
AB: Johnny Depp. Watching him work is the most surreal thing. He’s been my favorite since I was very young, before I even thought about acting. So watching him on set and just the variety of how he works and his professionalism is unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. He not only knows the words on the page inside out, but then he can improvise like it’s nobody’s business. It’s like watching close up magic. It’s so impressive. You can’t see where the card goes. It gives me chills doing it.JJ: In addition to acting, you have a musical side. Will we ever see you release an album?
AB: Well I’ve played guitar and piano since I was quite young and that’s always been the thing that is closest to my soul I think. So I tend to do it very much almost as therapy. But I don’t know what the future holds. At some point maybe.
AB: Radiohead is one of my favorites, The Beatles. I have a very eclectic taste. I also love Sigur Rós and I’ve been getting into a lot of Icelandic musicians like Björk and Olafur Arnalds. So I like that sort of experimental, very soulful ethereal music.JJ: So if you made an album, you could cover everything and basically be a one-man band.
AB: Yeah. I would need a drummer. That’s what I’d need.JJ: You and Vanessa recently took a road trip across the US. How amazing was that?
AB: Oh it was amazing! We went from New York to LA. I got to meet so many unique people that I would have never gotten to meet otherwise. And I noticed that when I’m road tripping, I have the sense that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. And I think it’s symbolic in a way and it teaches so many lessons to me just to carry in life. It’s just glorious.JJ: Did you guys have any crazy adventures along the way?
AB: Yes! Our tire blew out at one point and I had to change the tire and you’re on the side of the road in the South West and there are cactus everywhere. It was amazing.JJ: What inspired the trip?
AB: Maybe Jack Kerouac I think.JJ: What were some of your favorite highlights along the way?
AB: I’ve come to the conclusion that I pack light and then if there’s anything that I need, I just get it along the way at a little shop or something. We would go to these little vintage stores and you would find a shirt for $2 or something. I still wear them. I love it. I found cool Native American jewelry. In Madrid, New Mexico, there is a spot where it’s a mineshaft tavern and you go down and there’s a bar down there and it’s apparently haunted. You go in and they’ll tell you these ghost stories and you can play pool and get some whiskey if you want to. It has such rich culture there, I loved it.
AB: When you’re at dinner with somebody and they are on their phone. I think there’s that lost art of conversation and so I just always try to keep my phone far away from me when I’m with people.JJ: What is your guilty pleasure?
AB: Chocolate covered almonds with sea salt. I just go crazy!JJ: Do you watch your own work or is it hard?
AB: I really don’t like watching myself and for the most part I will never watch myself. I worked with Kevin Smith on Yoga Hosers and I really respected the way that he directed. He told me, “It’s very important to watch yourself.” So he would direct by going, “Hey come over to the screen and watch this scene.” And so it was very uncomfortable for me to have to watch myself but then he talked me through the process of that and it was very helpful. So in instances like that, it can be a useful tool but for the most part I stay far away from any screen that I’m on. I normally pick apart the authenticity of each moment where I go, “Was that authentic at all?” and often I’ll remember the day that we were filming and what was going through my mind in that moment. But when you’re playing pretend for a living, I just want it to as authentic as possible.JJ: What’s one thing about being in the public eye that you find difficult?
AB: It’s just the overall lack of privacy. I’ve always been a very shy person and so it invades that a lot. It goes with the territory so I’m very grateful to be able to do what I do. I love it and I love acting. I love being on set. I love the whole practice of filmmaking but the lack of privacy is hard. Fans are amazing because for the most part it’s just love that they are sending to you. It’s beautiful. I know when I watch certain actors or if I watch Thom Yorke sing on stage, I’m affected by it emotionally. I guess that’s what we are all striving for in art but that’s such a beautiful thing that happens between two people that may never even meet. So when you do get to meet someone who was affected in that way, it’s awesome.JJ: Is there one particular artist/actor that you personally met and fanboyed over?
AB: Yeah. Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis were the two for me that I was most starstruck by. And just to tell them how much they have affected me over the years and what an inspiration they are, it’s a hard thing to get the words out when you respect somebody that much. But they both have this glow about them that’s incredible.JJ: Are there any fun holiday traditions in your family?
AB: I’ve always been part of a family that either wants to or does believe in magic in a way. So I believed in Santa Claus until I was quite old. I don’t know when I finally made the decision not to but I think I wanted to believe so much that I may have been 11 or 12. My mom started this tradition where we throw reindeer food the night before Christmas and it’s basically oatmeal that has glitter in it. I’ve done that since I was a little kid. And so you throw that the night before and it’s supposed to attract Santa’s Reindeer. That’s one of my favorites.JJ: What are you most looking forward to about 2016?
AB: I love New Year's. I love the feeling of freshness that comes along. This year, I just want to focus on enjoying each day as much as I possibly can and really creating as many magic moments as I can. Because I feel at the end of your life, those are the things that you really remember.