Cannes Film Festival: Olivia DeJonge on Playing Priscilla Presley and Wearing Prada

·5 min read

Olivia DeJonge has been in labor for three whole years. She’s talking about the process of birthing “Elvis,” the new film in which she co-stars with Tom Hanks and Austin Butler as the titular legend. The Aussie actress is joking, of course, but with pandemic delays it has been a labor of love to get Baz Luhrmann’s biopic to screen. It premiered Wednesday in Cannes.

“We’re all like, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. I think when we really do let it go, I’ll be very emotional about it because it’s been in my heart for a long time,” she says of the stops-and-starts of completing the film.

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“Baz’s way of working is his movies are so large, and so of scope, and his energy is so all encompassing — in the best way possible — but it’s very intense, and I think we all lost ourselves in it. When the shoot came to an end, you sort of come out of the vortex a changed human being.”

Playing Priscilla Presley was a transformational experience for the actress, who was just 20 when filming began.

It was a challenge channeling a real person, and not just any person but one who has loomed so large in American lore for over six decades. Being from another country and another generation she knew the grand sweeps of the story but had to learn more about the legend’s young wife and how she grew up in front of the cameras in a different era.

“Priscilla has this effortless vulnerability and this effortless softness about her,” says DeJonge. “Prior to the job, I was quite — not brash, brash isn’t the right word, but maybe a little flighty and a little skittish. I’m somebody who was sort of bouncing around.”

She worked with movement coach Polly Bennett to bring a “slower, more sensual and more self-aware” sense of deliberateness to her composure on screen. “After we wrapped, I carried a lot of that with me, and it was actually a real blessing to be able to lean into the importance of aesthetic, because it was for her, and to embrace that myself as a woman. I know it sounds a bit cliché, but it was a life-changing experience. I came out more in touch with myself.”

She kept a journal during filming with photos and old magazine clippings of Presley’s style in that era. “Maybe it sounds a bit lame, but part of that process was making collages and sticking them in journals, just looking at the images and really familiarizing myself with the way that she held herself and how she presented herself to the world.”

DeJonge didn’t meet Presley before the filming, though the two attended the Met Ball and sat next to each other during the Cannes premiere. “It was insanely special. By the end of it, we were holding hands and crying,” she says of the screening, which received a 12-minute standing ovation. “It’s a beautiful, full-circle moment and to have her support the film, it just means the world.”

Luhrmann and costume designer wife Catherine Martin worked with Prada to design the outfits (the house also designed their Met Gala coordinated outfits). “How she presents herself to the world is important to who she was and who she is. I think it was a way that she could sort of take [back] her own liberty and control of herself,” says DeJonge. “Stepping into the iconic looks made my job so much easier.”

Cue teal jumpsuits and boxy pink bouclé reminiscent of some of Presley’s most famous photographs. They had several days of fittings, then the costume department created test versions of the pieces. Those were sent off to Italy, which returned the more modern versions of the originals. More fittings ensued — like “days and days and days, I can’t imagine how many hours” — to perfect them. The go-go boots she wears throughout the film were recreated in several colors and were an exact fit to the millimeter of her calf, she says. “Everything was so spot on and so fit to my body.”

To perfect Priscilla it came down to details that Martin not only added to the clothing, but allowed to alter the movement as well. “She has such a great vision of how to take things and make them just a little bit more elevated. Little tips and things about showing your wrists or where to hold your shoulders or how to hold your legs to elongate the body.”

The intricate process was eye-opening. “I’ve learned so much from watching [Martin] work, her attention to detail, of textiles and fit, and her appreciation for the artistry of clothing is really something else. I had a whole new appreciation for fashion after working with her.”

Before, she had more of a beach-going, jeans and T-shirt style. She’s been working with stylist Chloe Hartstein on this trip, wearing a Khaite blouse and Jimmy Choo sandals speaking to WWD. DeJonge wore a bright seafoam gown from Gucci for the premiere.

Despite early nerves, she made it up those famous steps of the Palais de Festivals without a misstep. “You really do build these things up in your head to be way bigger than they are. Not that they aren’t huge,” she says. “But when you’re there and you’re doing it, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m OK.’ But when you look at the images online, it can feel overwhelming.”

The entire experience, from the kismet of being cast from a self-tape to walking the red carpet with the cast, has been a transformative experience for the actress. “I was challenged beyond what I thought was possible — in the best way possible — and really felt like a shift in who I was after this job.”

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