How Agent Elvis Fixed the Biggest Problem With Elvis Biopics
The minds behind the new Netflix show tell Inverse how it came to life.
Countless documentaries and biopics have already attempted to capture the life of Elvis Presley with little to set them apart except a slightly different-looking actor. But times are changing and one show is finally brave enough to tell the true story (probably) of what Elvis was doing behind the scenes — he was working as a secret agent fighting Charles Manson and all types of criminals.
That's right, Elvis was a superspy. At least, that’s the premise of Netflix’s new animated series Agent Elvis, an adult comedy with fluid action animation and character designs from Robert Valley (best known for Love, Death + Robots his work with the Gorillaz) that masterfully translates the king of rock and roll’s iconic look into to cartoon form.
Oh, and the show also pairs Elvis with a cocaine-addicted monkey sidekick. (Believe it or not, the monkey thing actually has a kernel of truth to it.)
“Elvis actually had a monkey named Scatter... Scatter would lift girls' dresses up at parties.”
Inverse spoke to Agent Elvis co-creator John Eddie and head writer Mike Arnold about putting Elvis in real-life historical events, the temptation of turning this into a musical, working with co-creator Priscilla Presley (Elvis’ ex-wife), and making the king look good as a cartoon.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you find the look of the show? It looks stunning, particularly the design of Elvis.
John Eddie: When I pitched this original germ of the idea to Priscilla, the reason why I said it had to be animated is because in every live-action Elvis, probably up until the Baz Luhrmann movie, you could never get past the fact that the guy didn't look like Elvis. If it's animated, we can probably get it closer.
After we sold to Sony, the first character designs we saw were from Robert Valley, and we never looked at another. We just said, “That's it. He's got it.”
Mike Arnold: Everything Valley did ultimately drove the entire look of the show because his designs were absolutely so brilliant. From the cars to the backdrops to the buildings, we're trying to be loyal to those wonderful designs that he came up with.
There's a fantastic cameo from Baz Luhrmann in the show, how did that come about?
Arnold: Well, first off, it was very exciting for us to have him be excited to be a part of it. And it was very gratifying to hear his reaction to what we were doing. Once in the booth, Baz Luhrmann is one giant, big ball of energy. He brought so much to that role. There were so many wonderful takes, and his sense of comedy was fantastic, and how he embraced it. So it was very exciting for us.
Eddie: There's Easter eggs throughout the whole series, but the idea that we could get back Baz and he was so embracing of the idea of playing this pretentious Hollywood director doing Elvis' last movie — and he just nailed it. He was in the middle of finishing up his movie, and he was like, "You guys are really taking us in a different direction. That's healthy for the Elvis world, the Elvis brand."
How was it to collaborate with Priscilla Presley on the show?
Eddie: She has this wealth of stories. We want to take all the things everyone knows about Elvis's world, and turn it upside down, and obviously, she knows more about this than anybody. I mean, the fact that Elvis actually had a monkey named Scatter, and how Scatter would lift girls' dresses up at parties.
What kind of research went into the show? Because it is for the most part actual historical events lined up with actual places and events Elvis was at.
Eddie: We had that Forrest Gump timeline in our head. Anything that happened in history, Elvis was somehow involved in whether we knew about it or not. We try to find little nuggets that people may or may not know about. Elvis was actually on Charles Manson's kill list; that's a real story. There was a kill list, and Elvis was someone that Charles Manson wanted to kill.
We have George Lucas in Episode 3, he really was a cameraman at Altamont [shooting the Gimme Shelter documentary]. It was one of his first jobs as a cameraman.
Arnold: We deliberately went right at the largest moments in history we could find. The Apollo moon landing is certainly part of one of our episodes, going to the White House to meet President Nixon. We embrace those as much as we could. The bigger the moment, the more we wanted to be part of it in one of our episodes.
I'm curious about the soundtrack because, obviously, you have such a rich library of Elvis songs to pull from. How do you find the balance of wanting to hear Elvis songs without turning this into a musical?
Arnold: We were very careful about what we chose. Some of them are pretty obvious. We have a Vegas episode. Well, that has to be “iva Las Vegas.” The others were more about finding the right vibe. There's an Elvis song that suits every vibe you can imagine.
Eddie: And then we had Tyler Bates and Tim Williams doing the score. They really captured the time period.
There was definitely a lot of thought behind the music. I think the estate and Sony Music were really happy that we looked for more obscure songs that aren't always first come to mind for an Elvis show.
Lastly, there are a lot of fantastic costumes in the show, can you talk about working with fashion designer John Varvatos?
Eddie: I always liked his clothes because he's a very rock and roll designer. It was kind of like a lark, almost like asking Baz to do his part. We just reached out. We got to go to Graceland. We got to go back in the archives and touch and feel the fabrics of all the Elvis jumpsuits. Apparently, they've saved every bit of clothing he ever touched. It's just massive. That was almost like a cherry on top, because he really captured the essence of the outfits at the time.
Arnold: One thing to know about these jumpsuits that we learned is they're heavy, man. I don't know how a human being could wear those much less perform wearing one of those. It's impressive. They are like suits of armor.
Eddie: When you go in the archives with the jumpsuits, it's almost like an Austin Powers movie. There are the people that work there in lab coats with gloves on. And they're working with the jumpsuits like it's the Shroud of Turin. It's just amazing how meticulously they work on restoring and it's really quite amazing to see. That was cool.