Interview – ‘Elvis’ star Olivia DeJonge on playing Priscilla Presley

From Oscar-nominated visionary filmmaker Baz Luhrmann comes Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “Elvis”, starring Austin Butler and Oscar winner Tom Hanks. The film explores the life and music of Elvis Presley (Butler), seen through the prism of his complicated relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Hanks).  The story delves into the complex dynamic between Presley and Parker spanning over 20 years, from Presley’s rise to fame to his unprecedented stardom, against the backdrop of the evolving cultural landscape and loss of innocence in America.  Central to that journey is one of the most significant and influential people in Elvis’s life, Priscilla Presley (Olivia DeJonge).

Thanks to Warner Bros. Australia, I got the chance to sit down and chat with Australia’s own, Olivia DeJonge (The Visit, Netflix’s The Society) about all things Elvis, working with legendary director Baz Luhrmann, and the challenges of portraying a real person on screen.

Nick: Olivia, thank you so much for your time today! I just wanted to get out of the way at the start because we have a mutual connection!

Olivia: Oh, really?!

Nick: Yes! Your co-star on The Society, Alex Fitzalan and I used to work at Blockbuster Video together back in the day!

Olivia: No way! The ‘Fitz’! Humble beginnings, humble beginnings. That’s amazing!

Nick: Right! The humblest of beginnings. We also made a few short films together, he was the star of course. But it’s been so exciting as fellow Australians watching the trajectory of your careers, the work Alex has done, and your work like The Visit and Better Watch Out, which I am a huge fan of.

Olivia: Thank you so much.

Nick: And then Elvis comes along – this huge Hollywood production. I’d love to know what your initial feelings and reactions were when you got the call saying you were going to play Priscilla Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis?

Olivia: I mean, I found out at dinner with my agents. I asked them about the project as I had sent off an audition tape months ago and hadn’t heard much about it! We got a text message at that dinner that I had got the role, but we couldn’t tell anybody! So my agents were running around, grabbing wine and oysters to celebrate! It was crazy, it was a huge rush of adrenaline and happiness!

Nick: When you step on set, and you’re in Australia, but it’s been transformed into Memphis or Vegas during the 50s and 60s. Is there this sense of wonderment in seeing this entirely new world before your eyes? How does that help your process as an actor?

Olivia: For sure! How the whole production really pulled off transforming the Gold Coast to 1950s, 60s and 70s America was pretty insane! But, at the same, it’s so intergral to pulling this movie off. I feel it’s one of the greatest things about working with Baz, is that he has such a high standard of working and that everybody around him understands that. And sure, stepping onto these sets was like stepping into another world. It was only when someone would call ‘cut’ that, you know, people would start talking in Australian accents again, that actually weren’t in the 1950s still!

Nick: You mentioned Baz’s work ethic there, and I feel like that energy he has is definitely manifested on to the screen. However, there are many quieter moments throughout the film in which your performance as Priscilla showcases the importance of “seeing, not hearing”. So much context is given through the emotional physicality of Priscilla – what are some of the challenges of trying to show love, compassion or heartbreak without actually being able to say anything?

Olivia: I think it comes down to the full immersion of this project. The importance of listening, on any set, but particularly on this job was really paramount. By the time we ended up shooting, I had been sitting with this character for over a year… obviously not physically [laughs]. So I had a hell of a lot of love for her, and empathy, and a deep, deep care for her as well. By the time we got to set, it didn’t feel like a vast stretch to really understand the set of circumstances she was under.

Nick: During that year when production shut-down and you had some time to spend with the characters, what revelations did you discover about yourself in that time? Because that’s a long time to spend by yourself with the character. Did you find any catharsis during that time?

Olivia: Absolutely! Prior to the job, I was definitely different. I think we were all different pre-pandemic. It was such a universal experience we all shared, a group trauma that we all experienced. But stepping away from the job, the one big thing I had sort of learnt from Priscillal was strength in softness. I think her femininity was something as a young woman hadn’t yet fully found in myself. I worked with our movement coach, Polly Bennett, actually to manifest a lot of that physically. And I’ve definitely carried a lot of that with me in my young adult life. I’m so thankful to Priscilla for being who she was, and so thankful to Baz for letting me step into her shoes.

Nick: And speaking of Priscilla – I’m guessing there is a level of nervous excitement when portraying someone who is, you know, a real-life human being. Did you get to spend much time talking with Priscilla Presley in the lead up to filming or during filming?

Olivia: No, unfortunately it just didn’t work out with COVID and everything. I can’t imagine having had a whole life like she had, and then learning that some bizarre Australian girl is going to play you in a Baz Luhrmann film about your life and your marriage to Elvis [laughs]! Once she had seen the film, she understood the place that we made the film from and the love and respect we had for her and Elvis, and his legacy. I didn’t really get to touch base with her throughout the filming, but now she’s seen it she is really rallying around us and supporting the film. There is so much love around it and it means a lot.

Nick: Especially after seeing her social media posts after seeing the film, and the love she showed for yourself, Baz and Austin really shows what great work you all have done with this film.

Olivia: Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much, Nick.

Thank you again to the amazing team at Warner Bros. Australia for giving me the chance to chat with Olivia! Elvis opens in Australian cinemas on June 23.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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