How Austin Butler Balanced The Bikeriders with Dune 2 5

Five years ago, Austin Butler’s memorable supporting role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood turned out to be his audition for leading man status, and he’s since become not only a leader on set but a leader on Hollywood’s new A-list. 

Coming off of Apple TV+’s Masters of the Air and a villainous role in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, Butler is now back on the big screen in Jeff Nichols’ long-awaited 1960s crime drama, The Bikeriders. And while Butler led the star-studded ensemble alongside Jodie Comer, he plays a character named Benny who absolutely refuses to take the reins of his Chicago-area motorcycle club as it loses its way into organized crime. Inspired by Danny Lyon’s photojournalistic book of the same name, Butler’s character was one of the few who wasn’t interviewed for the book nor was there an actual photograph of his face, so the Anaheim native had to fill in the gaps himself. 

“The thing with stoic characters is they might not say much, but it’s not because there’s an absence of thought or an absence of opinion,” Butler tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So I wrote out all his thoughts in those silent moments, and that way, I knew what his opinions were. His life needed to feel rich even in those moments of silence.”

When Butler embarked on the role of Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in Dune: Part Two, he knew he’d be filming The Bikeriders directly afterwards. But this soon presented a problem as Feyd — like his brother Rabban (Dave Bautista) and Uncle Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård) — is meant to be hairless. Well, Nichols, who’d already faced countless obstacles in bringing his sixth film into fruition, asked his lead actor if he could instead go the way of the bald cap, something Butler and Dune: Part Two producers ultimately obliged. 

But because of the back-to-back shoots in Budapest, Hungary and Cincinnati, Ohio, respectively, Butler found himself prepping both Benny and Feyd simultaneously. 

“I was getting used to those old motorcycles as I was doing the knife training and stuff for Dune, and then I put Bikeriders on hold for a bit as I got closer to Dune,” Butler says. “I shot for a month, and then I had two weeks off, and then I shot [Dune] for another month. So, during those two weeks off, I went and did motorcycle training [in the States], and then I went back to Dune.”

From Tarantino and Elvis director Baz Luhrmann to Villeneuve and Nichols, Butler’s impressive résumé of auteur filmmakers continues to grow by the day, and the newest addition to his filmography is Ari Aster and his upcoming A24 film, Eddington, co-starring Joaquin Phoenix, Emily “Emma” Stone and Pedro Pascal. 

“I’m a huge fan of Ari and Joaquin [Phoenix] and Emily [Emma Stone] and [DP] Darius Khondji and everybody involved. I don’t want to give much away as far as the story and character go, but it was a wild adventure that I got to go on. I got to play a character who’s very different from anything that I’ve done,” Butler shares.

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Butler also explains how The Bikeriders implanted the motorcycle bug in him, before offering his thoughts on Benny’s brazen manner of wooing Comer’s character, Kathy.

To understand the timeline, did you basically fly from Budapest to Cincinnati?

It was that immediate, yeah. I finished Dune: Part Two [in Budapest], and I flew straight to Cincinnati for The Bikeriders

Austin Butler as Benny in director Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders

Courtesy Focus Features

You strike me as someone who prefers to be focused on one role at a time, but did you basically have to prep Benny in between filming as Feyd?

Yeah, that was the tricky part to figure out. I knew that I was going to do both films before I started Dune, but I had to figure out how to front-load the prep on Bikeriders and start training on a motorcycle. So I was getting used to those old motorcycles as I was doing the knife training and stuff for Dune, and then I put Bikeriders on hold for a bit as I got closer to Dune. I got really invested in that, and then my schedule on Dune allowed me to come back to the States for two weeks between blocks. I shot for a month, and then I had two weeks off, and then I shot [Dune] for another month. So, during those two weeks off, I went and did motorcycle training, and then I went back to Dune. So once I got into filming [The Bikeriders], I felt that I had a grasp on that just to make it easier for us.

To be frank, you’re a commodity now. Just the idea of you shaving your head for Dune: Part Two created potential complications for The Bikeriders. Thus, how much bikeriding were you actually allowed to do? Did you get to do enough on camera to where you understood its allure for Benny? 

Absolutely, and yes, there was a moment where I was going to shave my head [for Dune: Part Two]. And then Jeff said, “You’re going to be coming straight here [from Dune: Part Two] — can you not shave it?” And so Dune allowed that to happen. I started riding months before with [stunt co-coordinator] Jeff Milburn, who is our motorcycle expert on the film, and most of the bikes that you see in the film are his personal bikes. The one I’m riding is his personal bike. So he and I got together very early on, and we just became really good fast friends. He introduced me to his biker group, and these people who just live and breathe motorcycles. So it helped immerse me in that world and that love for the culture and that love for the feeling of freedom that you have on a motorcycle. When we finished the press junket yesterday, he and I went for a long ride together, and so I’ve definitely caught the bug.

Austin Butler as Benny in The Bikeriders

20th Century Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection

Benny is a closed book, so how did you find your way into a character who doesn’t let people in?

That’s a really good question, and it’s interesting because Jody had about 30 minutes of audio of the real Kathy speaking. There’s all these interviews in the book with most of the other characters, but Benny was never interviewed and his face also wasn’t photographed. You only see him from behind or the top of his head as he’s leaning over a pool table. So, for me, it was a lot of conversations with Jeff Nichols, and then you kind of work in reverse. I see where he is in our story, and then I work backwards to figure out what type of childhood he may have had that would lead him to be this person. It was a lot of imagination as to how his relationship with his father would be and stuff like that. He’s also one of the youngest members. So it was a lot of time and imagination in figuring out what makes him tick. The thing with stoic characters is they might not say much, but it’s not because there’s an absence of thought or an absence of opinion. So I wrote out all his thoughts in those silent moments, and that way, I knew what his opinions were. His life needed to feel rich even in those moments of silence. 

You’ve worked with a who’s who of directors now, so what makes Jeff Nichols Jeff Nichols? 

Jeff Nichols is just such a wonderful person and he’s so lovely to be around. On top of that, he has this wonderful humility mixed with confidence. He’s seen the movie in his mind, but he has enough humility and confidence and faith that he is willing to explore things on the day, as well. And that’s what he told me early on, too. He said, “We can always fall back on the movie I’ve seen in my mind, but let’s also explore many other options of how we may approach a scene.” So he is not rigid in that way. He’s also got this poet’s heart and a philosopher’s soul. The way that he talks about humanity, the way that he thinks about human behavior and the themes of masculinity and love and desire for freedom, he’s such an enriched human being. So we had wonderful conversations about all of that, and I felt like I was in such safe hands with him.

Director Jeff Nichols and Austin Butler on the set of The Bikeriders

Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features

As kids, we have all these communities that we can belong to, such as Boy Scouts, little league, AYSO, etc. I even remember doing these social etiquette courses called cotillion and supper club.

Oh yeah, you did cotillion? I remember hearing about that.

But, as adults, these opportunities are harder to come by for a lot of people. So, while the ‘60s were a completely different era, do you think that childhood need for belonging is partially why these guys maintained this motorcycle social club? 

That’s a good point that you made there, and as human beings, we definitely thrive when we find ways that we love to kill time with like-minded people who have similar passions. I was talking to Jeff Milburn yesterday, and he said, “When you’re on a motorcycle, your life is in your hands.” And I hadn’t really thought about that and how empowering it is to feel that sense of self care where you’re putting yourself in a dangerous situation. It’s in your hands, but it’s exhilarating and empowering. So a bunch of like-minded people get together, and they have that similar mentality where they’re willing to do the dangerous thing that brings them into the present moment. You have to be incredibly present when you’re on a motorcycle because there’s cars constantly driving out in front of you, and if you have speed, then you’ve got to deal with the conditions all around you. So it brings you right into this present moment, and when you’re doing that in a community, it’s enlivening for sure.

Benny has multiple opportunities to lead the club, but he declines to accept the responsibility. You’re now leading sets as number one on the call sheet. You have to set the tone amongst the rest of the cast. Is that a role you’ve cracked yet?

There’s always things to learn, and I love having conversations with other people who’ve been in these positions for much longer than I have about the best ways of communicating with others and how to set the best tone on set. I’ve found ways over time from watching directors or actors that I admire and how they do it, but I’m definitely still learning. I just love creating an environment where people can feel safe, personally and creatively. I want to create an environment where they can take risks and feel that they belong and trust that they can go to the very edge of their limits. That can be a very vulnerable feeling. I also love an environment where you don’t have phones on set. Film lasts forever, but the experience is temporary. So I love sets where you really immerse yourself in that world, and you just let the rest of the world fall by the wayside while you’re creating this vision together.

Jodie Comer as Kathy and Austin Butler as Benny in director Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders

Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features

I’ve seen some grand romantic gestures in my day, but I’ve never seen anything quite like Benny’s act of chain-smoking all night outside Kathy’s (Jodie Comer) house until her boyfriend waved the white flag. 

(Laughs.)

What’d you make of his psychology there?

​​I remember reading that in the script and just loving that moment. It’s such a combination of patience and nonviolence, but yet, at the same time, it’s quite invasive to sit outside the house of another man who is with this person that you really want to be with. It shows such patience and confidence: “If I just wait long enough, I know that we’re meant to be together.” So that’s kind of how I see it. He would wait until the end of earth for her, but he is not the type of character that needs to bray and do this whole mating dance in a way. He doesn’t need to be violent, but it is a stoic philosophy of just being able to wait out the storm in a way and know that she will be there eventually.

Earlier on, I alluded to the who’s who of directors that you’ve now worked with, and  you recently added another name to the list. Can I ask how Ari Aster’s latest movie, Eddington, went?

Yeah, I’m a huge fan of Ari and Joaquin [Phoenix] and Emily [Emma Stone] and [DP] Darius Khondji and everybody involved. The entire team was incredible to work with. I don’t want to give much away as far as the story and character go, but it was a wild adventure that I got to go on. I got to play a character who’s very different from anything that I’ve done. Ari and I have been friends for a little bit, and it was great to see him on set. He is such an incredible filmmaker, and he has such confidence and such a sense of humor and wild imagination. I truly loved working with him.

Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen in Dune: Part Two

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

I spoke to Stephen McKinley Henderson recently, and he was pretty zen about his Dune: Part Two experience. 

I love Stephen.

He basically said, “I got to have lunch with Christopher Walken, and work with Austin and Stellan and Timothée.” He still had all these highlights regardless of how the cut shook out for his character. For him, it was all about the experience as you mentioned earlier. So what was your ultimate highlight from that experience?  

That was such a remarkable set to be on. Just like what you said with Stephen, the breadth of talent that I was surrounded by was awe-inspiring. I’ve had such an embarrassment of riches with the directors I’ve been able to work with recently, and I got to see Denis Villeneuve work and how he and [DP] Greig Fraser would frame shots and talk about filmmaking. I have so many fond memories and moments from that set with Josh Brolin and Christopher Walken and Javier Bardem. Me, Timmy [Chalamet], Zendaya and Florence [Pugh] would go out to dinner. So watching all of that talent in front of my eyes and learning from everybody was just an incredible experience. Stephen and I also had a lot of great conversations, and what a talented man he is. I’m such a fan of his, and I loved everything he did in that film. So it was truly a great time. I’ve also got to mention Stellan Skarsgård. He cracked me up, and I loved getting work with him. He has such a great sense of humor and such a powerful presence.

First, you mastered the air, and now you’ve mastered the land via desert and highway. Is the sea up next?

(Laughs.) I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s a good idea.

***
The Bikeriders opens in theaters on June 21.

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