The actor, who is the face of YSL Beauty’s newest fragrance, MYSLF, talks about vintage Harleys, lessons in gratitude passed down from his mother, and a memorable scene in On the Waterfront.
Call it a bit of French humor, that one of the most striking portraits of Yves Saint Laurent should show the fashion designer stripped of his clothes. The year was 1971. Photographer Jeanloup Sieff and his sandy-haired subject decided on a spare set-up: three black leather cushions stacked on the floor, with Saint Laurent seated in lanky repose. Besides his glasses, he is, presumably, wearing one other notable accessory. After all, what better advertisement for a new YSL eau de toilette—the very scent he had privately worn for three years—than the bare-chested designer himself?
A half-century later, as YSL Beauty unveils its latest men’s fragrance, Austin Butler steps in as doppelgänger, with a similarly long frame and days-old scruff. This time, the accoutrements are layered—leather pants, double-breasted coat, a full Le Corbusier lounge chair—and so is the understanding of identity, in a way. The eau de parfum, called MYSLF, is emblematic of a generation familiar with dropped vowels and a concept of masculinity that doesn’t conform to stereotypes. (Decoding the name would reveal masculin féminin bookends, with the brand’s monogram neatly contained within.) The intention is to tease out the wearer’s different facets, by way of Tunisian orange blossom, patchouli, and a warm ambery note.
“It starts out in this bright, floral place,” Butler explains on a spring morning in New York, when the weather was cool and Hollywood’s unions had yet to strike, “and then a sort of sweet, woody nature comes through. It evolves as it settles on your skin.” The role of a fragrance face is to humanize the ineffable—a dusting of Oscar-nominated star power doesn’t hurt—and Butler shows up with an actor’s eagerness to explore the backstory. There is Saint Laurent himself: “I’ve just been so inspired by him,” says Butler, “realizing how he set out to shatter any ideas of what style was at that time and the way that he revolutionized so much.” The orange blossom note, too, taps into tradition in unlikely ways. “The idea that orange blossoms are related to a newborn baby or a woman on a wedding day—there are so many different versions of life that are surrounded by this scent,” he says. (Even the Sun King was a devotee, using floral water likely drawn from his Versailles orangeries.) Could a white floral at the heart of a men’s scent be the olfactory mate to Le Smoking, Saint Laurent’s avant-garde women’s tuxedo from 1966?
By leaning into more of a Mediterranean palette, the three perfumers—Daniela Andrier, Christophe Raynaud, and Antoine Maisondieu—sought to subvert expectations. There’s a fizzy, green bergamot note in the initial burst; Provençal aromatics, like clary sage and lavender, give way to a honeyed ingredient created from sugar cane. And at the core, the orange blossom evokes Tangier, where Andrier combed the souk for different versions of the scent, and spent time near the former home of Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé—a couple whose aesthetic sensibility was famously expansive. “We had to express a man who wasn’t a caricature, in all his subtlety,” Raynaud explains of the dimensionality they sought for MYSLF. Butler, as comfortable on a vintage Harley as he is in the campaign’s sheer black button-down, gamely plays along.
Vanity Fair: Men’s fragrances often have a narrative of adventure or lust, but this one has a more inward focus. How do you interpret the story of the scent?
Austin Butler: When they first pitched the concept to me, it was all about the different facets of yourself. That’s what ended up being the core of it. When I was a kid, I had an orange tree in the center of my backyard—that was in Anaheim, California. The smell of orange blossoms really reminds me of picking oranges with my mother and making orange juice in the house.
Where do these fragrance notes take you, in the cinematic sense?
It’s interesting. The scent changes in about five minutes of being on your skin. At first it really is like a bright spring day. And then as it goes on, I almost see the color of a sunset as I smell it.
That sounds like Terrence Malick.
Kind of a Terrence Malick film, yeah.
In the spirit of MYSLF, what does your alone time look like?
I travel so much, you know? So my alone time is really at home, cooking and spending time with my dog and watching films and reading and being in nature. Those are the ways in which I feel like I recharge. I have a pizza oven in my backyard, so making either pizzas or cedar-plank salmon or something like that I just find really wonderful. The smell of the wood burning is so great.
You’re at this ripe moment coming off the Oscar nomination. Have you gotten any career advice, whether during award season or in earlier years, that has stayed with you?
I think of all those actors and directors who I really admire and have worked with, who have had longevity in their careers. They tend to have this deep gratitude and realize how lucky they are. That’s definitely something that keeps me grounded. It’s just realizing how privileged we are that we get to do what we do. The other thing is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Knowing that you don’t have to rush things, just take your time—that’s the end of it.
How does gratitude manifest for you?
I think of it like tuning an instrument, almost. When I wake up in the morning, sometimes it feels that the guitar is detuned. So [the key is] anything that just makes your mental health feel more aligned in that way. Sometimes it’s as simple as just going on a walk in the morning and just really trying to realize the beauty of just being alive, smelling the air. My mother used to do this thing where she would write 10 things she was grateful for every morning. After she passed away, I found all these journals with thousands of things that she had said she was grateful for. That was really so beautiful to get to see them—because it was everything from “I’m so grateful for olive oil” to “My fingernails because I could paint them.” It was just from the littlest thing to something so grand. You just see how, if every day you’re reminding yourself of that, it really does shift your perspective. Somebody asked me yesterday what my idea of beauty was, and I really had to think about that. I realized you can see the same thing and if you’re viewing it through a different lens, it’s not going to seem beautiful to you because you’re not able to appreciate it. So it’s really that lens with which we see the world.
In that vein, has any recent filming given you a fresh lens onto the world—a sensory shift?
The first thing that comes to my mind is when I was filming in Budapest recently [for Dune: Part Two]. There’s a hike that I went on one evening as the sun was setting, and the light just hit the city in such a beautiful way. All the architecture there is incredible because it’s one of those places that sort of evaded being bombed during World War II. The way these old buildings were just soaking up that sunset was really stunning.
Do you use scent to get into character?
I have. The first time I did that, I was doing this play here on Broadway, The Iceman Cometh. And every night before I walked down on the stage, I had this essential oil. You know how scent bypasses your conscious mind and gets you right into some memory or emotional state? That was my routine every night. I’d smell that right before walking out on the stage. And I did it all the way through rehearsal. For different roles, I’ll find the scent that kind of will click me in.
Has any of the research for your roles—whether midcentury music or Danny Lyon photography—wound up influencing your style?
For sure—simply because I’m immersing myself in that world or that person’s life, so then it’s providing me this time of getting to realize, “Oh, I love wearing that style of trouser or this particular jacket,” or “This time period suddenly now resonates with me in a different way.” With Danny Lyon, it was the whole motorcycle culture of the ’60s and ’70s, and even back into the ’50s, when the motorcycle clubs started. I definitely bought many leather jackets at that time, and I still wear them. Certain boots from that time period I got really into. Even experimenting with different products that you put in your hair, to give it the texture that I was seeing in photos.
MYSLF projects this more nuanced approach to gender. In the canon of your favorite movies, are there male characters that come to mind who also inhabit this kind of complex masculinity?
That’s a really interesting question. I haven’t thought about that. The first image that comes to my mind is On the Waterfront, where Eva Marie Saint drops her glove and Marlon Brando picks it up. He sits down on a swing, and he puts on her woman’s glove. That was not scripted, that never happened before—and it’s one of those moments where it sort of shattered the screen when I first saw it. It was really beautiful.
I love that. What rewarding new skill have you picked up on account of a project?
Definitely riding a motorcycle. I’d ridden a bit, but I had the opportunity to get to ride all these 1960s Harleys that I’d never had at my disposal before. So that’s a real love for sure.
What do you ride now?
I have a 1966 Harley.
Talk about a way to experience a sensory landscape.
For sure. We were in Cincinnati, and we were also filming without helmets on. The wind in your hair as you are riding is just extraordinary.