“It was really just one of the best experiences of my life,” says Julia Butters, the 10-year-old actress who steals scenes from Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as we sit down at the Los Angeles offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of the Awards Chatter podcast and begin discussing her experience working on the Manson-era dramedy. She plays Trudi Fraser, an eerily precocious and talented young child actor on a TV series — just like Butters herself, whose steady gig since 2016 has been starring on the ABC family sitcom American Housewife.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.
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Born and raised in Beverly Hills, with a father who is an animator at Disney and an aunt who is a TV writer, Butters grew up around the industry. But she only wound up a part of it because she was a shy baby and her parents were told that baby modeling might help her to grow out of her shell. “It worked,” she cracks. Modeling led to commercials, and then, when she was just 4 years old, her aunt wrote her a part in an episode of CBS’ Criminal Minds to see how she would like acting, and she was sold: “It was so much fun.” Next came a part on Amazon’s Transparent and then, at the age of just 5, the role of Anna-Kat, the OCD-afflicted favorite child of the central character, on American Housewife, a pilot that was soon ordered to series. “I was so excited” to play “my first actual big part,” recalls Butters, who has been homeschooled ever since.
One might assume that a family sitcom is not the sort of TV programming that Tarantino gravitates toward, but it turns out he was watching American Housewife one night while working on the script that would become Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and he was blown away by Butters. When he was ready to cast his film, he invited Butters, who was on hiatus from the show, to audition. “I had no idea who Quentin Tarantino was,” Butters admits. “I was only 8.” However, he greeted her as ‘Anna-Kat,’ setting her at ease as she performed several lengthy scenes for him. “It went amazing,” she recalls. “It didn’t even feel like an audition. It felt like a talk with a good friend that I had never known.” Then, at a callback, her work made Tarantino cry, which, in turn, made her cry. And then she was offered the part of Trudi.
The initial table read for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a star-studded affair, with Tarantino joined by DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Burt Reynolds (who was to play the part that Bruce Dern eventually played), Luke Perry, Margaret Qualley, Lena Dunham and yes, Butters, who wasn’t familiar with any of them. “I just knew that they were famous people,” she explains. “Like, I didn’t watch their movies.” Still, it was mortifying to her when she was leaning on her chair and then, in front of all of them, “faceplanted into the ground,” leaving her “so embarrassed,” even as everyone pretended not to have seen what had happened except DiCaprio, who helped her gather herself. The day got better, though, when her one-on-one chemistry read with DiCaprio was witnessed not only by Tarantino but also by Pacino, who marveled at her abilities; when Reynolds told her that if he were her age he would have wanted to marry her; and when DiCaprio asked her mother for her phone number so that they could arrange a time for Butters to come over to his house to rehearse scenes.
The shoot itself was even more fun. Tarantino bans cellphones on his sets to promote bonding, which he also encourages with pranks, food fights and mariachi bands to celebrate the completion of each canister of film. By the time Butters wrapped her scenes — several with DiCaprio that made the final cut, and several others that were cut due to the pic’s length — she was heartbroken about having to leave. “We had so much fun,” she emphasizes, “so I didn’t want to go, and nobody else wanted me to go. So, yeah, it was an emotional day.”
While Butters wasn’t able to attend Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s Cannes Film Festival premiere, she was at its Hollywood premiere in July, posing on the red carpet with DiCaprio and enjoying her reunion with her older friends — except, sadly, Reynolds and Perry, who had since died. These days, in addition to her acting, Butters keeps busy with artwork, singing, dancing and outdoor activities. She has a very clear career goal: “I want to be in a Spielberg film,” she says, noting that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was shot on the Universal lot that Spielberg has often used. “I’m just such a fan. I love his work. He made my favorite film, which is Jaws.” And she is enjoying all of the positive feedback — and even awards buzz — generated by her Once Upon a Time in Hollywood performance, although she is keeping everything in perspective. “I would honestly just be happy to go to the Oscars,” she says. “Like, just to be there would be amazing.”