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.
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.
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