As Austin Butler put the finishing touches on his eventual Oscar-nominated performance as Elvis Presley, his Elvis co-star Tom Hanks was already envisioning the budding superstar’s next move. In early 2021, just weeks before Elvis was scheduled to wrap, Hanks took Butler to dinner and pitched him Masters of the Air, the spiritual follow-up to the Emmy-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Based on Donald L. Miller’s book of the same name, Band of Brothers writer John Orloff developed the World War II drama for Apple TV+, alongside the Brothers and Pacific producorial team of Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman.
In hindsight, Butler is relieved that his first commitment after wrapping the career-changing role of Elvis didn’t require him to overanalyze such an important next step.
More from The Hollywood Reporter
“It was one of those no-brainer decisions. You’ve got Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman, and I’m such a huge fan of Band of Brothers, The Pacific and Saving Private Ryan,” Butler tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I knew that this opportunity doesn’t come up every day, so I leapt in with everything that I could.”
Beginning in 1943, the story chronicles the real-life friendship between B-17 fighter pilots Gale “Buck” Cleven (Butler) and John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner), as the United States’ war against Nazi Germany tests them both individually and collectively. Bucky is more cavalier and competitive about their experience in the Eighth Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, while Butler’s Buck is more measured and realistic regarding what’s ahead of them. And knowing that their characters’ friendship was the nucleus of the show, the two actors made a point to find common ground as soon as possible.
“From that very first night that we hung out, we hit it off quickly,” Butler says. “We got past any superficial questions, and we went straight into talking about life and love, and our fears and our dreams and whatnot, so we got to know each other very well. He was the greatest sparring partner I could have hoped for on this one.”
It’s an exciting time for Butler, as he also has Dune: Part Two releasing on March 1. He plays baddie Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, and when asked about his reaction to seeing the film, Butler used the endearing words of his director Denis Villeneuve. “I deeply loved [Dune: Part Two],” Butler says in his best Villeneuve impression. The French-Canadian filmmaker’s catchphrase of “I deeply love it” is so beloved by his actors that they strive to hear him say it after a take.
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Butler also discusses why he had minimal time to prep for Masters of the Air, before explaining how he juggled Dune: Part Two’s production schedule with his busy awards season for Elvis.
So, how soon into Elvis did Tom Hanks pitch you on Masters of the Air?
(Laughs.) It was right towards the end, actually. We had a month left, although [Masters EP] Gary Goetzman told me earlier that there’s bits of the story that I didn’t know. I guess Gary had asked Tom about me towards the beginning [of Elvis] or something like that. But I didn’t hear about it until the end. Tom and I were having dinner and we talked about it a bit.
Your first job after wrapping Elvis would normally be a pretty significant decision to make. But given the who’s who of names involved and being tied to the legacy of Band of Brothers and The Pacific, are you glad you didn’t have to overthink this decision?
Yeah, it was one of those no-brainer decisions. You’ve got Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman, and I’m such a huge fan of Band of Brothers, The Pacific and Saving Private Ryan. So it was just a no-brainer. At the time, I really wanted to take some time off. But I knew that this opportunity doesn’t come up every day, so I leapt in with everything that I could.
Now, you fell ill right after wrapping Elvis, so did you have to play catch-up at all?
Well, I wrapped, and then I had a week where I was sick. I was bedridden for that week, and then I got on a plane and flew straight to England. So I didn’t really have time to prepare beforehand, because I was just so focused on finishing out Elvis. But once I was in England, I had a 10-day quarantine. It was in that period where you still had to quarantine when you flew to London. And so I had 10 days of just being locked in a hotel room, and that’s when I read [Donald L. Miller’s] Masters of the Air book. I also rewatched Band of Brothers and The Pacific. So it was just complete immersion into this time period and story, and then I went straight from there into boot camp. So that was how I transitioned.
I immediately connected with Buck (Butler) and Bucky (Callum Turner), because, like Bucky, I, too, gave my best friend a nickname he didn’t particularly want.
What nickname did you give him?
First day of high school, this guy insisted on being called Martin, not Marty. Four years later, we’re college roommates, and I randomly called him Marty, which caught on like wildfire. His wife now only knows him as that.
(Laughs.) No way! Marty …
He still hasn’t forgiven me.
So Bucky coining Gale’s nickname of Buck kicked off their close friendship during basic training. On a similar note, when did you and Callum first bond as actors?
It was very, very quick. For these two characters, we knew that their friendship was really going to be such a core element, and so, early on, we said, “Let’s get together and just talk.” And from that very first night that we hung out, we hit it off quickly. We got past any superficial questions, and we went straight into talking about life and love and our fears and our dreams and whatnot, so we got to know each other very well. He was the greatest sparring partner I could have hoped for on this one.
My guess was that you first bonded during his singing scene. Considering the role you had just played, Callum singing for you just makes the scene even funnier.
(Laughs.) Yeah, I loved that. It was fun to get to sit back and be serenaded by him.
What’s so harrowing about the flight sequences is that so many things can go wrong before they even reach the enemy’s airborne minefield. Did you have anything to look at on the day, or did you have someone in your ear to tell you what was coming?
We were so fortunate, because we had technology called the volume screens. So it meant that there was high-definition imagery, and we could see flak on the horizon. We could see fighter jets flying by us, so it was such a gift as an actor. You’re just responding to what you’re seeing. We were on a gimbal, so the entire plane was moving, and you could suspend disbelief very quickly and actually feel like you’re flying the plane.
There’s a point about not telling new pilots what to expect in the air, and Buck takes issue with not being told anything. Would you want to have those expectations set for you?
I, personally, would want to know. I would want to know what I’m getting into, because it would also help me to be able to plan ahead and figure out in what ways I could protect everybody else.
All the pilots have masks on most of the time, so would you do group ADR sessions during production?
That’s a good question, but no, we actually did ADR after the fact. It was solo. I never was in a group ADR session. We tried to record as much of the audio [as we could] on the day, but as you can imagine, with the mask and the wind blowing and explosions going off, a lot of that audio wasn’t very usable.
Buck and the other pilots have checklists before flying. Do you have a checklist of sorts before a day of acting?
It always changes. It depends on the role that you’re playing, but I definitely [do]. I think back to times in my life before doing a play. Before you walk out on stage, I’ve had the feeling of going through memories and making sure that everything is still hot. It’s kind of like you have a bunch of spinning plates in the air and you’re making sure that everything is still spinning. So I definitely have that sort of a checklist at times, but it depends on the role and the scene. It’s all dependent.
Buck doesn’t buy into superstition and faith before flying, and I found that thread to be quite interesting as things play out. Are you superstitious at all?
I definitely have some of that in me. Since I was a kid, I would have little things that I felt I had to do. I’m sort of obsessive in certain ways. Yeah, for sure. Are you?
Not really. I don’t knock three times every time I knock on someone’s door, but I suppose that’s more OCD than superstition.
Yeah, for myself, they sometimes feel like they go hand in hand.
That’s true. So have you seen the new Denis Villeneuve movie yet?
Did you “deeply love” it?
(Butler, recognizing Villeneuve’s catchphrase, begins an admirable impression.) I deeply loved it, yeah.
Between filming Dune: Part Two and campaigning for Elvis at the same time, how did you keep your head during that crazy time?
Man, you just take it one moment at a time and focus on how blessed you are. I feel so, so grateful, and that fills me with a lot of energy and a feeling of just being really humbled by it all. So you just take it one interaction at a time, and yeah, that’s how I was able to get through that.
Masters of the Air began streaming Friday on Apple TV+.
Best of The Hollywood Reporter