© 2024 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Your source for information and inspiration in Western North Carolina.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Austin Butler on 'The Bikeriders'


BO DIDDLEY: (Singing) I'm a road runner, honey. Beep, beep.


The open road is one of those great American symbols - speed, freedom, power. The new movie "The Bikeriders" follows a motorcycle club in the 1960s outside Chicago, a group of guys devoted to their choppers, until things take a turn for the worse.


DIDDLEY: (Singing) I'm a road runner, honey, and you can't keep up with me.

GONYEA: Director and writer Jeff Nichols based the movie on a book of photographs called "The Bikeriders" by Danny Lyon. I asked the movie star Austin Butler how he found his character in those photos.

AUSTIN BUTLER: The character that I'm playing, Benny, you never see his face in the book. So he's this mythical, mysterious character, where you see him leaned over a pool table or you see him from behind on a motorcycle. So our director Jeff Nichols took that energy, and that's what he wanted to capture, that feeling of this mystery that is Benny.


DAMON HERRIMAN: (As Brucie) Benjamin Cross of Elmwood Park was arrested and charged with 18 traffic violations, but not before reportedly running through seven stoplights.

TOM HARDY: (As Johnny) How many stoplights did you run?

BUTLER: (As Benny Cross) It said seven, so...

HARDY: (As Johnny) So what?

BUTLER: (As Benny Cross) So I guess that's the number. It felt like more.

The beautiful thing about Danny Lyon's book is that in the front section, you have all these incredible images that are so romantic and beautiful, and they welcome you into that world in a certain way. And then, in the back of the book, you have all these interviews. And the interviews are different. They're unvarnished, and they're - at some times cruel and at other times hilarious. And those two elements together is what Jeff really wanted to capture.

GONYEA: You've had a long career already, but you've become much more famous with a string of projects all set in mid-20th century America. There was "Elvis." There was "Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood," "Masters Of The Air" - and now this movie. What attracts you to this particular time in American history?

BUTLER: Well, I mean, first of all, I'll say that some of that is just me being attracted to the directors that were involved in the stories themselves, and then they happened to be within that time period. But then, beyond that, I think that's a particular point of history that is endlessly fascinating to me. And when we think of coming out of World War II and then coming into the '50s and then how the pendulum then swings and you have the counterculture of the '60s and the chaos and cultural trauma of Vietnam, and it's a time of some of the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. And I think that it's a very compelling time period to explore. On top of that, you got the music and the movies of that time and the art of that time. And so that's also very compelling.

GONYEA: The music in this film is just...

BUTLER: It's great, isn't it?

GONYEA: It's perfect.

BUTLER: (Laughter).

GONYEA: And it's familiar but obscure at the same time.

BUTLER: Yeah, yeah.

GONYEA: That Gary U.S. Bonds stuff.

BUTLER: Oh, it's a great song.



GARY US BONDS: (Singing) Well, come on everybody, take a trip with me. Well, down to Mississippi, down to New Orleans.

GONYEA: In the film, the founder of the club - the character's named Johnny - he both idealizes and idolizes your character, Benny. Talk a little bit about what he sees in Benny and why that relationship is important.

BUTLER: There are elements of simply a father-son sort of energy. There are elements of the older brother, but more so than anything, it's - he covets Benny, and he covets his freedom.


HARDY: (As Johnny) What were you thinking back there?

BUTLER: (As Benny Cross) What?

HARDY: (As Johnny) Back there when you come charging in like that.

BUTLER: (As Benny Cross) Nothing. I saw you squaring off with them guys. What do I need to think for?

HARDY: (As Johnny) Hey, you or me, kid?

BUTLER: Because Johnny really is a - he's a family guy, and he's a truck driver, and he has responsibilities. And then he looks at Benny, who's more of a wild animal. So he covets that freedom, and he wants him to take over because Benny's the guy that all the other men at the club are really trying to be - that feeling of not really needing anything from anyone and being completely an individual.

GONYEA: What do these men gain by joining a motorcycle club?

BUTLER: I think initially, it starts out as, you know, what so many of us as human beings crave, is a sense of community and a sense of connection with others around a similar passion. And so it starts as a club of all these like minded people who love motorcycles and want to race and talk about bikes and fix up bikes together. And then as that progresses, ironically, you have these people who want to get away from the rules of society. And then over time, they start making rules for themselves. And with those rules, then come these young members who come in who are now governed by those rules to the point where it's more about the rules than it is about the initial essence that got this group to come together in the first place. And then what that does is it breeds violence, and it starts to eat itself from the inside.

GONYEA: There's a lot of cinema history hanging over this film. Johnny is inspired to form the gang after watching "The Wild One," that classic biker movie that made Marlon Brando famous.


LEE MARVIN: (As Chino) You've been taking care of yourself? You've been staying out too late at night?

MARLON BRANDO: (As Johnny Strabler) That's mine, Chino. Take it off. Don't do that.

GONYEA: So there's that movie. And, you know, "Easy Rider" is kind of woven through this as well. How do you pay homage to those films, but also differentiate yourself from those really, really iconic characters in American film?

BUTLER: Yeah. That's the fascinating thing about how you structured this is it's sort of bookended by "The Wild One" on one side and "Easy Rider" on the other. And this film sort of encapsulates those. I think it's 15 years or something between those two films. So this film is sort of the bridge between the two in a way of what - how the world is changing and how motorcycle culture is changing over that time. As far as paying homage, I watched all of those films, and then it sort of - it feels like making a stew or something, where you kind of put these ingredients in and then you don't choose what you taste. You know, you just put your spoon in, and you take a bite. I feel like I put all the inspiration of these other films and all the films that I've seen throughout time, and things percolate inside and - but ultimately, it - for me, it comes down to the script being a blueprint and my conversations with Jeff and the way that he described Benny. He said he's sort of, like, a bottomless glass that everybody wants to fill with their own expectations and responsibilities, but he can't be filled.

GONYEA: We've been talking to Austin Butler. He stars in the new movie "The Bikeriders" in theaters now. Austin, thanks for being with us.

BUTLER: Thank you so much, sir.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.