Austin Butler is a good student. The public knows this—how he spent nearly three years nailing every aspect of Elvis Presley, and ultimately earned a Best Actor nomination for his role in Baz Luhrmann’s biographical drama. It’s no surprise, then, that the actor has thrown himself just as thoroughly into his latest gig as the face of YSL Beauty’s fragrance MYSLF.
Ask Butler about the notes in the new scent and he can rattle them off, and connect them to a memory he has of his mother. He can recall with confidence the first fragrance ad for the brand, a 1971 campaign featuring a naked Yves Saint Laurent. He ponders the answers to questions that he’s been asked a dozen times thoughtfully, like it’s the very first time he’s hearing them. If you have only 12 minutes with him for an interview, like I had, he will give you every single one of those minutes, with fully present, sustained, almost vibrational eye contact. In the imaginary category of Best Actor in Beauty, he deserves a nod, if not a win.
I talked to Butler in Paris, where YSL Beauty was celebrating him and the launch of its New Voices collective, which includes fellow actors like Finn Wolfhard and Hunter Doohan. Below, he discusses his favorite smells, the beauty he’s discovered through film, and whether he feels like he’s gone method in his new role as YSL ambassador.
What was your first scent memory?
My first scent memory, and the one I’ve talked about a lot, is the memory of picking oranges with my mom in our backyard. We had an orange tree. It was the smell of the orange and peeling it, [along] with the orange blossoms [Editor’s note: which is also a note in MYSLF]. It was very vivid. I was probably 5 years old. We’d make orange juice and that sort of thing. Sadly, I don’t have an orange tree anymore. But one day—that’s my dream.
Do you remember when you saw a movie for the first time and thought, “That’s beautiful”?
Before I was an actor, the first film I remember watching that wasn’t a cartoon was The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I was a child, probably 5 or 6. I remember sitting with my dad and watching that film. It sparked a lot in me, in terms of what was possible. I probably wasn’t thinking about [beauty in a direct way], but it was seeing cinema like that.
Growing up, my dad always had Turner Classic Movies on. We would watch at least a movie a day. My dad is a huge movie buff. We watched Sunset Boulevard. He had me watch Citizen Kane when I was 8. I’ve seen so many films now, and they were so impactful. When Elvis premiered in Cannes, he got to be there. He had never been outside of the country. Seeing him on the red carpet with his tuxedo was really magical. I don’t think he’s ever been [to Paris]. I’ll have to bring him here sometime.
How has the idea of beauty changed for you over time?
I see [beauty] as the lens through which we are seeing something. You could walk by the same architectural building and not see the beauty in it. Or, you focus on the details in some way, and suddenly the beauty will be so profound to you. The same thing with a rose —[consider] the amount of times we walk down the street, we have someplace to be, and don’t notice the beauty of this rose which will be here for only a short period of time, and will decay. Or with another human being—when you notice an aspect of them that you just realized is so beautiful. For me, it’s about opening yourself up, so that the aperture of awareness is as open as possible, and the lens through which you’re seeing the world is more beautiful. The more you learn about people, the more open you can stay. The more narrow your world is, the less beauty you’re seeing.
Do you find that filmmaking helps you open up that lens for beauty?
I think so, because [it involves] spending a lot of your time in curiosity. It’s constantly trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I have the opportunity to get to obsess about a certain time period or a particular interest that I wouldn’t have had the time to otherwise. Lately, it’s been motorcycles for me. Now, the intricacies of how the engine works—all of that is beautiful in a way I didn’t realize before. When you spend time around people where that is their entire life, you start seeing the world through their eyes and realizing how stunning human beings are in their interests, and seeing their passions is beautiful.
How does it feel to be a beauty icon?
[Laughs] Um, I would say it’s surreal. It’s really an honor, to be a part of this heritage. I remember seeing the very first [Yves Saint Laurent] ad where he took the picture and had no clothes on. That this is part of that heritage that he passed down is very special and very cool.
Do you think of yourself as one?
Even with all the ads everywhere?
I think there’s you and then there’s the image of you. And those are two separate things. I have [to be that way] in order to stay grounded in what life really is.
What type of smells do you like?
I love the smell of a bookstore, and the pages of a book—that always makes me feel good. A fireplace. Wet concrete. I love that smell, after the rain—the smell of the city.
There’s an Alaïa perfume for that scent. It was supposed to be Perrier mixed with concrete.
Wow, that’s so interesting. I’m so fascinated by perfumers. When we first discussed this [scent], I had a conversation with the perfumers behind it. It was just fascinating to talk to them and see how their mind works. Talk about beauty—their obsession in life is the particular makeup of this scent and the way it comes through.
For the ad, did you feel like you were playing a role, or was there a character? Was the dancing choreographed?
The dancing came from, “Turn on this song and dance.” The whole idea was getting as organic as possible. We wanted to see what would come out if we played this song or that one, and seeing what struck us in the moment. And [for the ad] the line between character and self is so blurred, especially at this point for me. I’ve realized there are times when I first see a character as someone who is very far from me. But the more time I spend with them, the more [I] realize we are all very similar. It’s not about doing something that’s different from you, it’s about finding those parts within you, turning up the volume on those, and maybe turning down the volume on another part of yourself that you are habitually exploring everyday. It gets more blurred to where I don’t really know…I’ve learned that there are so many different facets to me. There are times where I’m very outgoing and times where I’m incredibly shy. There are all these dualities.
What do you do when you’re getting ready for big events?
I just try to stay as present and relaxed as possible. You have your team of people who come over and get you dressed and try to do your hair and whatnot. My core as a child was very shy. Being around a lot of people is still something that touches that bit of me that’s introverted. It’s a reminder to take it one interaction, one person at a time, and to try and stay as present as you can.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ELLE Beauty Director
Kathleen Hou is ELLE”s Beauty Director. Previously, she held the same title at New York Magazine’s The Cut. She’s appeared in publications such as New York, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue India, Forbes, and Allure. She was also a co-founder of Donate Beauty, a grassroots beauty donation project started during the COVID-19 crisis, which donated over 500,000 products to over 30,000 healthcare workers across 500+ hospitals.