Sitting at a table near the snack bar at the Alamo Draft House for an interview, Julia Butters waits patiently, but not for any chaperone help. As the 10-year-old Butters, who’s been a working actress since the age of 4, explains, “[My mother] doesn’t sit in.”
It’s this same air of self-possession she brings to her performance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood”: As Trudi Fraser, a child actor on a TV western, Butters commands her brief time onscreen, much of it buoying her dejected has-been co-star Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio).
Recently, on a break from her ABC sit-com, “American Housewife,” Butters talks of loving stunt-work, Tarantino’s showbiz advice, and what she learned from Trudi. “I’m not super Method -- I don’t have people call me by my character’s name,” she says. “But Trudi taught me to be more focused.”
What sort of preparation goes into holding your own in a scene with Leonardo DiCaprio?
I learned lines with my parents and went to my acting coach. Then [Leo] invited me over to his house to run lines. We read it a couple of times. Sometimes he’d give me direction. For example, [the scene] when I’m comforting him when he’s crying? Before I was like [glibly] “It’s OK, it’s OK.” And Leo said, “I feel like you should treat me like a baby.” So then it was like, [low, soothing voice] ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’”
In a saloon scene, Leo hurls you to the floor. That was his idea, right?
Yes. He said, “I feel like my motivation in this scene would be to just chuck the little girl.” I was thinking, “Oh, yeah!” I love doing stunts. Zoe Bell, the stunt coordinator, really took care of me. She had hip pads, knee pads, even wrist pads and after we’d cut she’d come over with ice packs for my hands so they wouldn’t ache in the morning from taking a fall.
You write short films.
Yes. I actually wrote a script for [Quentin] and Zoe. After I printed it out, they took the script home and actually memorized the scene. And they showed up to work and performed it. That was great. I was blown away. It was called “An Old Town Deep in the West.” It’s a Western.
Did Quentin give you any pointers on filmmaking?
He’d say, “Julia, Lorelei” – that’s my mom – “Come here, I want to show you something.” He’d pick me up and say, “What do you think about this? Do I get a fellow director’s approval?” And I’d always say “Oh, yes you do.” [laughs]
Back to acting. Did you give Trudi a backstory?
Yes! A couple of years before, Trudi was on a family sit-com with a bunch of kids. One day the kids were like, “Hey, do you want to damage the set?” Trudi didn’t want to be excluded so she tagged along. They wrecked the set. Then they heard people coming back from lunch and they all scattered. Trudi was the only one left, just standing there like a deer in the headlights. She was instantly fired. Her mom was a very nice person but she got so upset. She convinced Trudi that it’s always [best] to be professional, focused. Trudi thought, “OK, this is what I gotta do if I don’t want to get fired again.” She used to be a super normal, playful girl then she turned into this low-profile, very professional girl. That’s her side of the story.
When you went back to “American Housewife” did you get grilled for info?
One of the writers came to me and grabbed me and was like, “How hot was Brad Pitt?” And I was thinking, “I’m 10! I don’t have the mind to think, ‘Oh, wow. Now that’s a fine man.’”
Did Quentin ever tell you how you caught his eye?
Yes. He likes to have the TV on when he’s writing and he looked up and saw [me]. I was in a school restroom telling a story to all these kids. And he thought, “Wow, I should audition her.” Recently, I came into that restroom on the [“American Housewife”] set, the same one where [that scene was shot]. But I sat there just looking around thinking, “This is where my life changed.” I even have a picture of me just sitting there. Nobody else gets it except for me. They’re all probably like, “Why is she sitting there all nostalgic about a bathroom, the one that smells like a dead gopher?”