When Austin Butler and I first met last October, he had just caught a red-eye back to L.A. from Cincinnati, where he was shooting Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders,” an elegy to American masculinity, a rumination on the search for identity and, to a lesser extent, a paean to the golden age of beautiful people smoking in movies.
Butler loved making the film and went on at length about the joys of working with co-stars Tom Hardy and Jodi Comer. But riding a motorcycle around in the freezing cold was starting to wear a little thin, even if he did get to wear a vintage biker jacket that he loved so much he wound up buying it from wardrobe once the movie’s shoot ended in December.
“I miss the sunshine,” Butler told me, looking up at the blue sky. “It gets cold in Cincinnati, especially when you’re doing night shoots whipping around on a bike.”
“The Bikeriders” opened the Telluride Film Festival on Thursday as the Patron’s preview screening, part of a reward (along with a fancy-pants mountainside brunch) for the festival-goers who have a love for film and $4,900 to spend on a premium pass. The Patron’s film often ends up being something of a disappointment and sometimes, as in recent years with movies like the Riz Ahmed sci-fi adventure “Encounter” or Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” an outright misfire.
“The Bikeriders” was better than that.
Set in the world of a 1960s motorcycle club, the movie stars Butler as a young man who finds meaning only through the camaraderie he shares with his fellow bikers. Over the course of the film, he finds himself pulled between his loyalty to the gang and its tough father-figure leader (Hardy) and his wife, played by Comer in an engaging performance that provides a window — and a critique — into the movie’s hyper-masculine culture.
“I loved the way Jeff found to look at how people have this need to belong to a community,” Butler told me last year. “My character, Benny, would do anything for these guys and sometimes those things aren’t necessarily the best choices.” Butler laughed. “I mean, I don’t want to spoil it. But Benny leads with his fists sometimes when he should be putting a little more thought into the possible outcomes of his actions.”
“Loyalty is a big part of it,” Butler continued. “But I think Jeff goes into some interesting directions beyond the biker subculture, like how much do you allow yourself to be vulnerable and open? These are things I think about all the the time.”
“The Bikeriders” caps a string of projects Butler did following his Oscar-nominated turn in “Elvis,” beginning with the upcoming World War II limited series “Masters of the Air,” continuing with a turn as the bald Harkonnen antagonist in “Dune: Part Two” and ending in the Midwest with “The Bikeriders.” Actually, that wasn’t the end, as he went straight from Cincinnati to New York for 10 days to host “Saturday Night Live.”
“I’m grateful for the opportunities and working with all these people I admire, but if you don’t have time to refuel, it’s hard to get that spark of inspiration going again,” Butler said. “And that spark is vital. So once I get off that motorcycle in Cincinnati, I’m going to be done for a while.”