The biggest star in Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood is the one you've never heard of
Quentin Tarantino's latest has an all-star ensemble. And one extremely talented newcomer.
Julia Butters loves cats and drawing mermaids. She studies jiu-jitsu, and sometimes dresses up as her favorite TV and movie characters for fun. This week she visited New York for the first time, and took a requisite selfie at Katz's Delicatessen.
While this might seem like a lot of trivial information about someone you've never heard of, that hopefully won't be true for much longer. In Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino's ninth movie, out Friday, Butters not only holds her own against co-stars Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Margo Robbie, but at times even outshines them.
Oh — and she's 10.
Part of Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood's draw is its massive ensemble cast, which counts Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, and Lena Dunham in its minor roles. Butters herself isn't a nobody; she has a recurring role as the obsessive-compulsive daughter on ABC's American Housewife. But as Trudi, the precocious young method actress who delivers wisdom and validation to DiCaprio's Rick Dalton on the set of the TV Western Lancer, Butters is at last served a part that gives us an idea of the force she's bound to become.
While Butters' cumulative screen time in Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood likely only totals around 15 minutes, she carries two pivotal scenes that could have been wooden in the hands of a different actress. In the first, Rick (DiCaprio) arrives on the set of Lancer while privately grappling with the realization that he is a "has-been" cast as the villain for the show's real star, James Stacy, to kill. While waiting to be called for his scene, Rick takes a seat next to his 8-year-old co-star Trudi, who is passing time in the backlot reading a Walt Disney biography in a director's chair that is far too big for her. (Some corners of the internet appear to misidentify Butters' character as a young Meryl Streep, although Streep would have been 20 in 1969, when the movie takes place, and never appeared in Lancer).
Rather than a bubbly one-dimensional young kid or a pint-size prima donna — seemingly the only existing Hollywood roles for most girls Butters' age — Trudi is a charismatic, multifaceted character. Part of that is owed to the script, but the rest is all Butters, who walks the line between coming across as disdainful in the way only a preteen can (she matter-of-factly corrects Rick's mispronunciation of his own character's name) while also having a childlike spark of curiosity that unintentionally provokes Rick to crisis (give her an Oscar just for her masterful brow furrowing!). Trudi's confidence can even be intimidating: "I don't like names like 'Pumpkin Puss,' but since you're upset, we'll talk about that some other time," she firmly tells Rick when he makes the mistake of giving her a pet name. It's telling that it was Butters I couldn't take my eyes off of during the scene, and not the Academy Award-winning best actor.
Trudi later reappears on set during her scene in character with Rick, playing a nearly wordless kidnapping victim. The role seems far beneath the Trudi we've come to know, the one who philosophizes about method acting and dismisses the term "actress" as nonsensical. When the scene ends, Trudi rushes back to Rick to whisper in his ear that his was "the best acting I've ever seen in my whole life." It's delivered as a funny line — Rick is moved to tears by the validation of his 8-year-old co-star, biting his fist — but we also buy Trudi's awe. She's convinced us, too. During one red carpet interview, Butters believably claimed that when she'd been auditioning the lines to Tarantino, he was also moved to tears.
Butters' breakout role is all the more powerful because of the weight it has beyond the parameters of the movie — the sense of watching a 44-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio being coached by someone born in 2009. Mirroring the scene on screen, in which Rick unknowingly is pushed aside for a new generation, there is a sense of passing the torch between DiCaprio and Butters too. And unlike Rick's despair at his growing irrelevance, we can adopt Trudi's more hopeful vision, that acting isn't about being Hollywood's biggest star. "It's the pursuit that's meaningful," she tells Rick.
Butters happens to remind me of another young woman who stunned audiences recently with a performance that paled the bigger-name stars around her: actress Bella Ramsey, who joined Game of Thrones as the warrior and noble lady Lyanna Mormont when she was 12. While Trudi's is a more comedic role than Lady Mormont's, both Butters and Ramsey exhibited the reach of their range in minor parts, and challenged the expectations of the usual roles written for young women (including the lame part Trudi is forced to accept, for example). The parallel isn't missed by Butters, either; she has posted on Instagram a photo of herself dressed as a convincing Lady Mormont.
Admittedly, to anticipate Butters' bright future career as an actress involves a few presumptions on my part. "What she really wants to do is direct," her parents wrote in the caption of a photo of their daughter on a Universal Studios back lot in 2016.
Hey, count me in.