Tom Hanks goes dark: Why our favorite good guy wanted to play the Elvis villain
Every hero needs a villain, and in the case of Elvis Presley, the man who made him was also the one who destroyed him. In Elvis, out June 24, we get a portrait not only of the rise and fall of Elvis (Austin Butler), but also of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), and the co-dependent relationship between the two.
The film opens on Parker, absolving himself of guilt for the trajectory of Elvis's life, saying, "Some would have me the villain in this story." While director Baz Luhrmann's take on the complex dynamic between Elvis and the Colonel goes far behind the black-and-white shades of good and evil, what makes it even more compelling is that the grotesque figure of Tom Parker is played by, arguably, the most beloved actor of the last 40 years, Tom Hanks.
Hanks has gone dark before during his legendary and long career, but by and large, he's Forrest Gump, Joe Fox, Captain Miller, Chuck Noland, and of course, Woody the toy cowboy. If Hollywood has an everyman, it's Hanks, the affable All-American Guy cut from the same cloth as stars like Gary Cooper, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda.
But Elvis gives us Hanks as we've never seen him before: trussed up under layers of costuming and make-up, bloated and reptilian, with a strange, slightly Dutch accent, pulling the strings as the carnival barker-turned-talent manager who made Elvis into a star.
From the beginning, Luhrmann had Hanks on his shortlist. "The gargantuan size and complexity of Parker would define the air for Elvis to be internal and spiritual," Luhrmann tells EW. "Without that, it would be hard to reflect Elvis against it. And I went, 'I bet Tom Hanks would be into a playing a dark note on his instrument that no one could see coming.'"
Luhrmann's instinct was right. Within 30 minutes of their first meeting, Hanks was hooked. Fresh off portraying Sir John Falstaff in a Los Angeles production of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts One and Two, Hanks saw something Shakespearian in the dynamic. "We ended up talking for well over an hour," Hanks recalls. "And I told Baz, 'But you're describing Falstaff and Hal,' and Baz said, 'Exactly, except with millions of dollars thrown into it.'"
This notion of making Elvis and the Colonel foils to each other was what made Hanks feel like Luhrmann's Elvis would be a fresh take on the story. "Baz said, 'There would've been no Colonel Tom Parker without Elvis. And there certainly would've been no Elvis without Colonel Tom Parker.' And when he said that, I said, 'Oh, well, okay, now that's brand new,'" remembers Hanks. "Because I don't know what Colonel Tom Parker looks like. I don't know what he sounds like. I've never seen a photograph of him. He's never been identified as anything other than this mercurial or puppeteer-like, quasi-evil, greedy manager that took advantage of Elvis from the get-go. That's the standard trope that goes along with Colonel Tom Parker."
"Why include the Colonel in all of this?" continues Hanks. "One reason is because the Elvis story has become a trope. Everybody's very familiar with it. And I don't think it had been done the most righteous justice in order to capture why Elvis was this bend in the river of American culture."
Luhrmann similarly saw the dynamic as one on a grand scale that defied any simple construct of villainy. "If Elvis represents the soul and the new in America — the possibility in America, the rags and riches in America, all those positive, very American things — the Colonel represents the sell," he says. "The promotion. The branding. The promises. But the more I read about the Colonel, it was about the sell overwhelming the other side."
"If Shakespeare was looking to take on a historical character now, you couldn't go past the idea of the Colonel and Elvis," Luhrmann adds. "The Colonel is like Falstaff with a chainsaw. Because Shakespearean villains are never just a bad guy. Colonel Tom Parker absolutely did diabolical things. But he also did extraordinarily genius things. So everything is a paradox and a coin flip. That's what makes him so delicious."
Hanks was particularly intrigued by how little he (and by extension, the audience) knew about the Colonel. He was astonished to discover Parker was a poorly dressed, slovenly PR hack, rather than the authoritarian, ram-rod image the word "Colonel" summons. That convinced him this would be an opportunity to truly disappear into a different kind of role. In the end, playing Parker required Hanks to spend an average of five hours per day in the make-up chair.
"Playing Elvis is like playing Jesus, and it doesn't really matter who plays Pontius Pilate because if you have a good Jesus, you got it," Hanks says. "But the challenge for me, as well as the freedom, was having this engineered look every day. Because what you get from that is a suit of armor."
For Butler, doing the heavy lifting as Presley, he saw the casting of Hanks as a stroke of brilliance in complicating the Colonel's villainy. "You can see Colonel Parker as despicable, but when it's Tom, he's such an incredible actor, that he can justify everything and he's not playing a bad guy in his mind," says Butler. "He's so justified that it made me have to double down and question, 'Wait, maybe he's right in this moment. You seem right.' That was amazing because you still see the twinkle in his eyes."
Hanks immersed himself in research about who the Colonel really was. In contrast to Butler, who had to craft a version of a man everyone recognizes, Hanks had the freedom to start from scratch. "I had the luxury of essentially recreating somebody who no one really knew," the two-time Oscar winner says. "I had a different layer of expectations."
Before production began, he read music critic Peter Guralnick's two books about the rise and fall of Elvis, 1994's Last Train to Memphis and 1999's Careless Love. But he also found rare footage of interviews Parker gave, which is how he hit on the accent that is so decidedly un-Hanks-like.
One was a 1956 radio interview that basically contains Parker's master plan for Presley's career. "You hear the Colonel literally lay out the foundation for how he was going to make Elvis immortal over the course of the next 30 years," marvels Hanks.
But the real insight came via a Nightline interview with Ted Koppel on the 10th anniversary of Elvis's death, in which Parker called himself the architect of Presley's success. "The question was, 'Why are we still talking about Elvis Presley?'" Hanks recalls. "And the Colonel says, 'Because of me. Because I made Elvis Presley. I always kept Elvis Presley where he was. I made sure that he was always in the public eye, and we had a lot of fun.'"
That interview gets at the heart of what both Hanks and Luhrmann wanted to say about the Colonel and the give-and-take between manager and artist. Parker saw his job as an elevated version of the carnival barker, the person who ensured Elvis was always in people's hearts and minds.
Luhrmann describes another story in the aftermath of Presley's death where the Colonel immediately called RCA and instructed them to produce more records, knowing demand would skyrocket. "What he did was keep Elvis alive," Luhrmann explains of how he saw Parker's mindset.
Hanks says Luhrmann's approach to the work also helped push him to new heights. As opposed to the more methodical camera coverage Hanks is accustomed to, Luhrmann is more free-wheeling. "It's possible to be driven mad by it," the actor says. "But having seen the movie, I notice something profoundly different every time. I say, 'Oh, here I was worried about geography and logic and the timeline, and Baz saw all those three very specific physical forces as rules that do not need to obeyed.' It was never a well-organized hand of poker. It was craps, roll the dice and see what you get and just keep going."
Elvis clearly demonstrates the ways in which Parker was integral in crafting Presley into an icon, but it also doesn't hold back in exposing the abuses and limitations of that relationship — a paradox and tragedy that Hanks says became the most intriguing driving force in his portrayal.
"They made some of the most brilliant moves in the history of show business," he reflects. "But he had no other client than Elvis Presley, and he lacked the imagination to see just how truly a greater social force Elvis could have been."
Austin Butler and Tom Hanks star in this musical biopic about the life of Elvis Presley, specifically his relationship with his manager Colonel Tom Parker.