Interview: Austin Butler on The Bikeriders, the freedom of motorcycling, and the “volcanic energy” of Tom Hardy

Riding into Australian theatres this week (you can read our review here), The Bikeriders captures a rebellious time in America when the culture and people were changing. After a chance encounter at a local bar, strong-willed Kathy (Jodie Comer) is inextricably drawn to Benny (Austin Butler), the newest member of Midwestern motorcycle club, the Vandals led by the enigmatic Johnny (Tom Hardy). Much like the country around it, the club begins to evolve, transforming from a gathering place for local outsiders into a dangerous underworld of violence, forcing Benny to choose between Kathy and his loyalty to the club.

To celebrate the film’s local release, Peter Gray spoke with Oscar nominated star Austin Butler during his visit to coincide with The Bikeriders premiering at the Sydney Film Festival, touching on his friendship with co-star Tom Hardy, if his perception of motorcycle culture was altered during filming, and how he had to remind himself to stay in character during the riding sequences.

The moment that we see (your character) Benny from Kathy’s (Jodie Comer) point of view…that is a movie star entrance! I know that Jeff Nichols noted that when he met you, you had been cast as Elvis, but he saw you in a way that he wasn’t expecting, because you didn’t look like Elvis.  He immediately wanted to cast you. Was there like a certain pressure knowing how much you made an impression on him?

No, I don’t think so.  Pressure because of that? I don’t think so, because he didn’t talk to me about that type of thing.  We just started talking about the story and what interested both of us.  That sort of thing.  I owe him a lot.  And Adam Stone, our amazing cinematographer, for the way they shot all of that to make me look much cooler than I am.

With the bike riding sequences, you have the wind on your hair as much as the dirt and rocks flying at you.  I imagine there’s a visceral nature that goes with the beauty of that.  How dangerous were those sequences to film?

My biggest problem was I had to remind myself to not smile.  I was just enjoying myself so much.  It was an exhilarating feeling, you know? Riding this giant pack of motorcycles and being up front with one of my heroes, Tom Hardy, and looking over to him, and we’re riding through a cornfield in Cincinnati.  That was so special.  I just had to remind myself to keep a cool, serious look on my face.

Speaking of Tom Hardy, he’s such a force on screen, but I’ve heard that everyone’s perception of him changes when they meet him.  That he’s actually much funnier in person…

That’s exactly what I’ve been saying about him.

Did you go in with a certain mindset about him?

I tried to not have any expectations, you know? I didn’t know what his process would be, and I think I lucked out as well, because our characters have such a love for each other.  This brotherly bond.  So before we even started shooting, Tom came over and we just hung out and told stories and bonded.  We were able to be vulnerable with each other and share some humanity, so by the time we were on set we felt very close.  Like you said, he’s got one of the best sense of humours I’ve ever met.  He’s incredibly funny and a great storyteller in every way.  (But) then also intense and strong and powerful and dynamic.  He has this volcanic energy inside of him.  It’s an amazing combination.

Did you have a perception of motorcycle culture at all?  Did this film change the way you thought about that whole movement?

Yeah.  It changed my understanding of the essence of a group of people who love to ride motorcycles.  These clubs really started as just groups who love to race motorcycles and talk about bikes, and then they evolve over time.  That was definitely something.  The other thing is just the mentality and the sort of philosophy and spiritual aspect of riding motorcycles and these conversations that we get into, like (with) Jeff Milburn. Most of the bikes in the film are his personal bikes, and all he does is talk about motorcycles and ride motorcycles all day long.

He was telling me the other day after doing a press junket in LA, he and I went out for this long ride together.  He was like, “Let’s get out of here.” We rode around for a few hours, and at one point we pulled over and we’re talking, and he said, “Isn’t it great how free you feel?”  “You’re free.  You don’t have your phone, you don’t have (anyone) telling you what to do.”  He said, “The other thing is, your life is in your hands.  You have such agency right now, because you are the only one who is responsible for your life right now.”  It’s kind of an amazing thing.  It kind of dawned on me that he put words to the feeling that I sometimes get when you’re on a motorcycle and you get off and you feel more grounded.  Or you feel more in touch with yourself in some way.  It’s philosophies like that that really affected me.

With The Wild One being mentioned (in the film), it played into that notion of “Did that film emulate riding culture? Or did riding culture emulate The Wild One?” I love that the film brings about a new version of masculinity too.  It shows there can be love between men and it isn’t of a sexual nature.  It’s something I responded to the most.  And as I said, your performance in this? Man, this guy…we need you on every single possible movie screen we can.

Thank you for saying that.

And you know you’re always welcome back in Australia.

I love it.  I never want to leave.

The Bikeriders is screening in Australian theatres from July 4th, 2024.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.