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Strength in Softness: Olivia DeJonge on Elvis

Director/writer/producer BAZ LUHRMANN, OLIVIA DEJONGE and AUSTIN BUTLER on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama “ELVIS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

It was a mere eleven years ago that Olivia DeJonge made her remarkable film debut in Maziar Lahooti’s prize-winning short, “Good Pretender,” which is well worth a look on YouTube. Since then, she has built an impressive array of credits on screens both big and small, perhaps most notably in two horror comedies that paired her with the ever-unpredictable Ed Oxenbould: M. Night Shyamalan’s best film of the past two decades, “The Visit,” and Chris Peckover’s gleefully perverse “Better Watch Out.” Yet 2022 is proving to be a watershed year for DeJonge. She is among the flawless ensemble in Antonio Campos’ spellbinding HBO miniseries, “The Staircase,” where she plays the biological daughter of Kathleen (Toni Collette), whose sudden cause of death serves as the program’s central mystery. 

Now DeJonge is tackling the role of a true icon, Priscilla Presley, in Baz Luhrmann’s long-awaited biopic, “Elvis,” which earned a staggering twelve-minute ovation at Cannes last month. Austin Butler delivers Oscar-caliber work in the title role, and DeJonge is every bit his equal in their scenes together, charting their relationship from the bloom of infatuation to the years following their divorce, in which they remained fiercely devoted to one another. The musical performances recall the exhilaration of Luhrmann’s 2001 masterpiece, “Moulin Rouge!”, as the director illustrates how Elvis awakened the sexuality in his screaming fans, with the camera thrusting toward his swiveling hips just as it flew up the dresses of the can-can dancers. 

Amidst the film’s eventful press days in Memphis, DeJonge took time to speak via Zoom with RogerEbert.com about what she learned from researching Priscilla, the definitive qualities of Luhrmann’s work and her experience of falling head over heels for the film itself.

Growing up in Australia, what do you feel distinguishes the work of Baz Luhrmann, and what is his importance to you and your fellow actors?

We look up to him. When we were in Australia, they actually referred to him as “Australia’s son.” I think we all respect and cherish his work. I actually studied his “Romeo + Juliet” in ninth grade in media class, so being in “Elvis” is a strange full circle moment. He’s really very special and the films he makes are equally just that.

Both Caitlin Atwater in “The Staircase” and Priscilla Presley in “Elvis” are in danger of being pushed to the background of the narratives they inhabit, and you succeed in making them multi-dimensional and wholly compelling on their own terms. What is the added responsibility as an actor of portraying real people?

Thank you! I think that is true oftentimes with women. The thing that I really worried about was Priscilla coming off as two-dimensional in some regard because her aesthetic was so much of what she has been an icon for, which is so special and interesting to investigate in itself. For me, it was important to strip away the visual element and show how Priscilla and Elvis were, at the end of the day, a girl and a boy who fell in love. The hair and the makeup and the clothing was all taken care of, so once you’ve focused on the accent, then it’s just about finding nuance. 

Before I was aware of Priscilla Presley’s connection with Elvis, I knew her as a brilliant deadpan comedian in the “Naked Gun” films. 

I loved watching “The Naked Gun.” Another of my favorite things to look at was her book, Elvis and Me, in which she talks about how there was some crazy fan waiting outside in front of her house. She was so sick of it that she went out and was ready to throw hands with this woman. There’s this sort of dynamic to her which I feel oftentimes is overlooked, and it gave me leniency when it came to certain scenes to sort of bring the energy up. I made it a little bit more heightened or a bit more playful or in those last scenes, I got a bit more aggressive with it as well. 

What was it like working with four-time Oscar-winning costume and production designer Catherine Martin?

Oh my god, I walked away from that job with a whole new respect for fashion, just full stop. Her attention to detail and appreciation for fit and cut and style was incredible. I didn’t realize the intricacies of the process that results in bringing a beautiful garment to life like that. 

You mentioned in Cannes that “Elvis” was one of the best films you had seen. How would you describe the particular special quality of Baz’s work?

There are very few directors that within the first few frames of a film, without knowing who made it, you can tell exactly who it is, and I think that’s such an homage to his authenticity and his sort of unapologetic nature. It is so special, and this is truly one of the best films that I’ve ever seen. The first time I watched it and it finished, I had a panic attack out of excitement because of how much I loved it. The honor that I felt to be even a small part in this huge film was overwhelming. It’s one of my favorite films that I’ve seen in a very long time. 

I told the publicist upon leaving the press screening that no one really knows how to viscerally stage a musical sequence quite like Baz.

I completely agree. I think Baz is as talented of a filmmaker as he is a musician. I think he has an incredible ear and obviously with a story like this, you need to have that. I think that tied with the visual storytelling element of it, which Mandy Walker handled so beautifully. It is a visceral experience that you can taste and you can touch and you feel like you’re there. With the surround sound as well, you feel this film in your soul.

Even the Warner logo at the beginning received an audible gasp from the audience.

That’s what I mean! I remember the first time I watched it, I got the tingles. I was like, “[gasps] Here we go!” I get very passionate talking about the swooping shots and the vastness of the sort of stratosphere that he creates. His film really is a whole other world. 

It builds a great argument for why the big screen experience should not be limited solely to superhero blockbusters.

Yes, and I think that is also what is so special about this film. We haven’t had a film like this that is so viscerally made that isn’t a superhero film. The narrative of this project and its ability to move an audience is so strong. I remember at Cannes, everybody was crying by the end of the film. I haven’t watched a film with a group of people where everybody by the end of it is so moved together as a collective.

Olivia DeJonge describes to me how she felt the first time she saw “Elvis.”

What was the most rewarding feedback you received from Priscilla after she viewed the film?

Priscilla is a notoriously private person, so I am letting her steer the ship in what she wants to say. It’s sort of a strange thing watching somebody play you in a film, but by the end of the screening, we were holding hands and crying and that is, in and of itself, all that I could hope for. She said some beautiful, beautiful things and I feel very, very relieved. 

I completely didn’t recognize Dacre Montgomery, who is someone I’ve interviewed in person, as Steve Binder in the film.

Isn’t that crazy? It’s funny, I’ve known Dacre for a very long time, and we actually worked on another movie together years ago, “Better Watch Out.” That was his debut movie, and it was pre-“Stranger Things” and pre-“Power Rangers,” We were like, “Maybe one day we’ll get a movie where we’ve got a proper scene together,” but it was really nice having him around. He’s so great and he’s wonderful in the film too.

Steve directed Priscilla’s 1984 video tour of Graceland, which you watched as part of your research. In what ways did that help you prepare for the role?

It helped me with getting used to the way that she speaks, or even just the softness in which she navigates the world. I wasn’t as accustomed to that way of moving, maybe because I’m Australian, so it was important for me to watch that, as well as listen to her as I was going to bed. I also worked a lot with Polly Bennett, our movement coach, to sort of physicalize that tone and vibe.

To paraphrase one of Ava DuVernay’s favorite questions, what do you hope people see in your film in regards to Priscilla?

I think that the grounding that she brought to Elvis’s life was paramount to his success early on. This film addresses the sort of male-dominated, very masculine and heavy sort of life that he was in, and Priscilla brought a softness and a femininity to him and his world, as well as the notion of family. After he lost his mother, that aspect of his life wasn’t there anymore. By birthing their child, she brought family home to him again, and I think that’s a really special aspect to their relationship as well. There is strength in softness. That is a huge thing that I, as a young woman, took away from the shooting experience and I hope that other people do too.

"Elvis" is now playing in theaters.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the Literary Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 


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