The *most* mild of spoilers ahead for Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood.
Movie history is littered with the trope of the precocious child who’s there to teach adults a thing or two. Alisan Porter in Curly Sue. Chloë Grace Moretz in (500) Days of Summer. Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Akira Akbar in Captain Marvel. And now, into the canon goes Julia Butters in Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood.
You’ve known for months that the movie stars Brad Pitt as stuntman Cliff Booth, Leonardo DiCaprio as actor Rick Dalton, and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. What you haven’t heard is that Butters, in perhaps a total of 15 minutes on-screen, almost walks away with the whole dang thing (the only other undeniably strong female character in the film is Cliff’s beloved pitbull, Brandy). The New York Times calls Butters “phenomenal.” Variety describes her character as “a budding feminist Method Actor.” Vulture writes“a star is born!” Flavorwire calls her “transcendent.” Just Jared Jr. says “Julia Butters Gets So Many Hugs From Leonardo DiCaprio at Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood Premiere!” That’s not actually a comment about her performance; more so one about how much Leo enjoyed acting with his pint-sized costar.
Butters, now 10, has been acting since the age of 4. When she spoke to Refinery29 on the phone shortly before Once Upon a Time’s release, she said that she wasn’t even familiar with Quentin Tarantino or Leonardo DiCaprio when she was cast. And, in one of the most unexpected discovery stories of all time, Tarantino — master of extreme on-screen violence and revisionist history — first saw Butters while watching American Housewife, a delightful ABC sitcom in which she plays the equally wise-beyond-her-years Anna-Kat Otto. Imagining Quentin Tarantino watching sitcoms as he pens a script about the Manson murders is up there with picturing James Cameron settling in for a Paw Patrol marathon while writing the bazillion Avatar sequels.
Eight-year-old Trudi (Butters) meets Rick Dalton, now a waning actor who cut his chops mostly in Westerns, on the set of the TV show Lancer. Rick’s playing “the heavy,” the latest in his steady stream of guest appearances as the bad guy who shows up, shoots ‘em up, and gets offed by the good guy. He encounters Trudi during his lunch break. She’s reading a biography of Walt Disney, who she thinks is a visionary. She requests Rick only refer to her by her character name, part of her process for giving the best performance she can (although there’s no such thing as a “best” performance; every performance is just a chance to be better, she reminds Rick). He’s reading a Western about — what else — a washed-up cowboy, and it truly resonates with his crisis of confidence about his career. Trudi ends up having to comfort a crying Rick, even though she’s about 35 years his junior. She also gives him a talking to about calling her “pumpkin puss.”
In Butters’ other scene, Rick is holding her hostage, clutching her on his lap as he negotiates with Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry, in his final feature film). He violently throws Trudi to the ground to show Wayne just how serious he is about her ransom. Trudi, like a true professional, is ready for the fall (she’s got pads on). In her character’s final victorious moment, she tells the insecure Rick “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen.” From the mouths of babes, as they say.
Ahead, hear more from this on-the-rise star about having a Quentin Tarantino film on her resume at the tender age of 10. She’s also got a Luke Perry story that enters the long line of tales of his generosity.
Refinery29: Had you heard of Quentin Tarantino before getting cast in this movie?
Julia Butters: Never. I really don’t think Tarantino movies are for children. But I’ve watched most of [Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood]. I don’t watch the violent scenes.
How did he describe the role to you?
“He kind of wrote it in the script like, ‘Trudi, an 8-year-old sophisticated person.’ When he sat me down at the audition, he was like, ‘So, when I was writing the script…” and I said, Oh, you wrote it? Well done!’ I really just thought he was the director. I was like, ‘That’s cool; he’s directing this movie and writing it.’
Let’s talk about the scene where your character meets Leonardo DiCaprio’s.
“Leo invited me to recite lines. I didn’t know who he was acting-wise, but I knew who he was as a person. He was really nice.”
Did someone fill you in on his career later on? Like, “He’s Leonardo DiCaprio. He was in Titanic.”
“I didn’t really know what Titanic was, but I watched it a long time after. It was very stressful to watch because of, you know, my friend [Leo] dying, and it being one of the worst events in history.”
In the saloon scene, Leo throws you on the ground. Was that in the script?
“We had some rehearsals on set. He was supposed to stand, but Leo actually requested throwing me on the floor in the last minute. He said, ‘Quentin, I have an idea. How about I throw this child on the floor?’ Quentin was like, ‘Perfect!’ The stunt coordinator was there for me.”
I hear you’ve got a Leo impression.
“He did this weird laugh when he had his [fake] mustache on. He would make this weird noise instead of laughing, to keep himself from smiling so hard that it popped the mustache off.”
In both Once Upon a Time and American Housewife, you play characters that are very precocious. How do you nail these roles?
“First, thank you. Second, I don’t really know. Quentin actually sent me some TV and child actor movies at that period of time to see how they acted. That gave me the taste of how they worked back then.”
What was Luke Perry like?
“We had a lot of scenes together, but most were cut except for that one scene. He was very fatherly. I was writing a script for fun, and the script blew away. He ran around the set catching every page.”
Now that people have seen the movie, what sort of positive feedback have you gotten about your performance?
“The best one probably was when I got a review — I forget where; maybe Variety — where they said I’m capable of winning an Academy Award. That was pretty neat they think I’m capable of winning. Even being nominated is just crazy. When I started acting, I didn’t know you could win awards for it. I was 4, so I was clueless at the time”
What was the premiere like? There are photos of you with Leo, Quentin, and Maya Hawke.
“It was so fun. There were so many people there that I knew, and some people there that just invited themselves in, like Chris Hemsworth and Britney Spears. I didn’t really get to see Bradley Cooper or Britney, but I got to meet Chris Hemsworth. [He] was the highlight of everyone’s trip there.”
What do you think will surprise people about Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood?
“Probably the non-violence of most of it. I've heard that in Quentin Tarantino movies basically a lot of his films are violent. This movie's more chill. [It’s only] the finale that's violent.”
So what does your future in Hollywood look like?
“I want to be like Quentin where I write, direct, and act.”
Do you have a dream role?
“Probably a Spielberg film. He’s made some of my favorite movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones.”
Can you pick a favorite Spielberg movie?
“Probably Jaws. When I was 9, almost 10, I saw it on TV and then went to go see it in the new Beverly Theater, actually owned by Quentin. At first I was nervous about seeing something that I would never forget, but in the end I was like, This is actually a really good movie! I want to see this again and again. I have that kind of adrenaline rush when I see something. I'm like, Oh it's not going to scar me. Later on I'm at the beach and nervous, [but] then the next time I'm at the beach I'm totally fine. I can see the movie again. Go swimming in the pool, get mortified, and then, you know, I'm fine.”
I’m pretty sure there are adults who are more scared of Jaws than you are.
“I can see why. It’s really scary.”
How do you spend your time when you’re not acting?
“I’m singing, dancing, drawing, writing, probably also just making my own movies. Maybe traveling. Hawaii is my favorite place to visit.”