The films of Quentin Tarantino are not usually known for having strong roles for child actors, which — considering the director’s penchant for violent, eye-gouging spectacle — is probably a good thing for child actors. It might then be a sign Tarantino is mellowing somewhat that his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, contains an interlude where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton gets acting tips from his young co-star, played by 10-year-old Julia Butters. A veteran of the ABC sitcom American Housewife, Butters was spotted by Tarantino when he had the series playing as background noise while he wrote the script. She aced the audition, and soon proved up to the task of facing off with an Oscar-winning scene partner. In a film that casts a jaded eye toward most ’60s youth culture, there’s at least one kid who’s all right.
In the middle of what’s become an incredibly busy summer for her, Butters took the time to call up Vulture to talk about the lessons she learned from Tarantino, the Leo takes we didn’t see, and her blind cat.
I want to start out with a very general question: What made you want to be an actor?
I was a really shy baby. I actually did baby modeling for pictures, and that led to baby commercials. I kind of grew into it, and I’ve loved it ever since.
What was the audition process like for this one?
Quentin actually auditioned me first, before anybody else. We had so much fun. We were laughing a lot. We had to leave the room because we were laughing too hard. We were telling jokes and laughing, and telling stories. It was fun. He’s just a really funny guy.
Your character has a lot of rules for herself when she’s on set. She doesn’t eat before a scene, she wants to be addressed by her character’s name. Do you have similar rules?
Oh, my character gave me tips. Reading the script and seeing how my character acts, I was like, maybe that can bleed into my performance and help me become more professional. But I’m always prepared. I can learn monologues. I actually didn’t know how to read as a baby, when I started doing this. My mom would read [a script] to me and I would learn my lines that way because I didn’t know how to read. It still works! I don’t know how, but it does.
How did being on the Once Upon a Time set compare to being on a TV set?
There were no phones on the movie set, so I got to really communicate. Everyone would listen to you, so that was nice. We could actually talk and experience being together. It also helped me bond with the director. We were close from day one. He would always get on the floor to direct me because I’m short. In one of the scenes I was laying down so he would actually lay down, too, to get down to my level, directing me. He would let me hold the monitor and sit in his director’s chair. He would also pick me up and show me different shots. He was really nice.
What sort of direction did Quentin give you?
He told me to take my time with the lines. And to really listen to the other character, so it will be more meaningful. The scene will have more emotion and it will make more sense. And look more real!
What was your favorite part of the scenes you shot?
I actually liked in-between takes, when I would get to talk with Quentin and Leo, and walk around the Western set.
I’ve heard before this you’d never seen a Leonardo DiCaprio movie.
Nothing but this one, and I haven’t even seen the ending of this one. But now I’ve seen Titanic start to finish. It was amazing. So sad, but amazing, really.
In the movie, you say that Leo’s character did the best acting you’d seen in your whole life. Was it the best acting you’d seen in your whole life?
It really was. He was like, in it. He was in full-on Django mode, from what I’ve heard from my parents. And the takes that they used weren’t even the most powerful takes. He was going crazy at one point. Like, he would hold me and cover my face with his hand, and he would sing lullabies to me. Like, What? And while he was rocking back and forth while holding me with both hands, it was terrifying! But it was so fun at the same time.
How many takes did you do of that whole scene?
Probably, um, 28?
Oh wow, that’s a lot. I heard that he didn’t actually throw you on the ground, that that was you jumping?
Well, yeah. It was half and half.
Did you actually have padding?
Oh yeah. Zoë Bell hooked me up with ice-skating pads on the hips, and elbow pads. She taught me to stay safe and how to fall and be prepared for anything that happened. How to save my hands from bruises. She’d put ice on my palms after every take.
I know you didn’t watch the ending, but I’m curious what your favorite scene of the part of the movie that you did see was.
I liked Leo’s freak-out scene, when he’s freaking out on set. That’s funny! And I also really liked some of my scenes because I got to relive my experience.
That’s sort of like what Margot Robbie does in the movie!
Yes! I actually wrote a letter to Quentin saying that, watching it in the theater, I could actually relate to Sharon Tate. I just told him how good it was and how much I enjoyed the movie. It was a thank-you letter, really.
I heard that you had a third scene in the movie that didn’t make the final cut, and I’m curious what you did in it.
I can’t tell you, actually. I really can’t. You will be able to see it, but I really don’t want to spoil that surprise for you.
You’re already a pro at keeping secrets.
There wasn’t just one scene that got cut out; there were like three scenes. But the one that you’re talking about is from the poster. [On the film’s poster, Butters’s character is seen talking on the phone.] I don’t really even know why they put it on the poster, ‘cause they cut out the scenes. Maybe they made the poster before?
I have no idea. It’s gonna come out somewhere; you’ll be able to see it.
The past few weeks I’m sure have been kind of crazy and busy for you.
They’ve been amazing. Best weeks of my life, really. I got to go to the premiere and see everyone.
Had you ever been to a premiere before?
I had been to a premiere before, but not on a movie that I’ve been in, you know?
That’s more special, yeah.
I felt so bad when I couldn’t go to Cannes.
What’s been the most fun thing you’ve done?
I just finished an interview in a cat café where I got to cuddle with all these cats.
Are you a big cat person?
Oh yeah. We have two cats at home. One’s a blind kitten with no eyes.
How does it eat? Do you have to feed it?
Oh no, he’s a normal cat; he’ll find it. He’s very underestimated as a blind kitten.