Talking Elvis Presley With 'Sun Records'’ Drake Milligan
Drake Milligan, who plays Elvis Presley on CMT’s Sun Records, could talk about the King all day.
At 18, the Fort Worth, Texas, native has been a Presley fan for more than half of his young adult life, and it’s safe to say he knows more early rock history than most people his age.
The visual similarities of Milligan and a young Elvis from the ‘50s are uncanny. At the time of our CMT.com interview, Milligan rocked a mock Hamilton Ventura watch (just like the kind Presley wore in his films) and a modern ducktail hairdo that would make the famous mallards at Memphis’ Peabody Hotel green with envy. When Milligan smiles with the side of his mouth, his dimples curl just like Presley’s.
And when he opens his mouth to sing, he croons just like the King.
“I was about 7 and my family was eating at a restaurant when we saw my first Elvis impersonator by total accident,” he said. “I had heard some Elvis songs on the radio. During Christmastime, they’d play ‘Blue Christmas,’ and I knew I liked his songs, but I didn’t know who it was singing them. I just knew I liked them. ... I started reading, watching and just picking up everything I could about him.”
Milligan’s deep music education doesn’t end with Presley. He’s crazy about music by country legends and if he could have his own Memphis Mafia, he’d recruit the Highwaymen -- Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
“First of all,” he said, “Waylon’s a bad ass.”
CMT.com: Those folks were Elvis fans, too.
Milligan: Everybody’s has been influenced by Elvis’ music and the music that these guys made, which was really cool. We kind of had our own Memphis Mafia with my castmates while filming in Memphis. We called it the “Bad Boy Crowd.” It was me, Kevin Fonteyne, who plays Johnny Cash, the twins -- Christian and Jonah Lees from London. They play Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart. There was Keir O’Donnell, who plays Dewey Phillips, and Dustin Ingram, who plays Carl Perkins. We all hung out, and we still text all the time.
What kind of trouble would you get into?
Well, we wouldn’t get into any trouble.
We just had fun. That’s so important for a show like this where everybody gets along and has fun. The excitement that everybody felt on set was incredible. I mean, everybody was just gleaming about this project. Everybody was so happy to get to work every day, and it’s not easy filming in Memphis in the summer.
No, it's not. You’re glistening as soon as you step outside. But I’m sure you’re used to it being from Texas.
It was beautiful when it started, but I don’t think anybody can get used to that Memphis heat. We didn’t need any spritzing because we were sweating. Memphis was hot.
What about Elvis do you relate to the most personally?
I love the fact that he was such a human. There was such a realness about Elvis. He never really changed from that humble boy from Tupelo, Mississippi. He became this huge star, but he always remained that Southern boy. I guess that’s what I relate to the most about him -- that real aspect of Elvis, how he was able to touch people, too, and really connect with people over just song and the way he was onstage. Even just watching film of him onstage, you get that feeling that he’s singing to you. That’s what everybody says. You feel like Elvis is singing to you. That’s what I connected with the most I guess.
Do you remember the first Elvis cover you learned to play?
I think it was probably “Blue Christmas” was probably my first one. I’d sit on the coffee table and lip sync to “Blue Christmas,” “I Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “Love Me Tender,” “Don’t Be Cruel” -- some of the big hits like that.
I have to ask, what’s your favorite Elvis song?
It’s an obscure Elvis song. It’s called, “There’s Always Me.” He recorded it in 1961. The reason I like it is because it’s so uniquely Elvis. I can’t remember who wrote it. But “There’s Always Me” is so uniquely Elvis that nobody else on Earth could sing that song. It’s got Elvis’ voice at the time he had that light vibrato that you hear in “Love Me Tender” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” Yet it had that power that you heard in the ‘70s in some of those bigger hits. It’s a song that’s so him. I can’t get enough of it.
I’m sure it was a dream to film in Memphis for this particular show. When Bob Dylan first visited Sun Records, he apparently kissed the ground where Elvis recorded. Was there any pressure portraying one of the most famous entertainers on the planet?
It’s a lot of pressure. It is. But it’s such an iconic character, you have to realize that you’re not going to please everybody. But I put everything I have in this role. I wanted to do him and his legacy justice. It is big shoes to fill.
Big blue suede shoes.
It is intimidating, but there’s nobody else I’d rather be playing than Elvis.
Sun Records airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CMT starting Feb. 23.