The life of Elvis Presley was bookended by doubles. He began as one of two identical twins — the other was stillborn — and by the time he died, an entire culture of Elvis impersonators had arisen to commemorate his legacy.
The fact that these doubles exist at opposite ends of Elvis’s life has led to some interesting fiction.
In 1985, an episode of the revived Twilight Zone imagined that an Elvis impersonator went back in time to 1954 and met the original Elvis before he became famous. The impersonator convinced Elvis that he, the impersonator, was the stillborn brother brought back to life — but by the end of the episode, Elvis was dead and the impersonator felt obliged to take his place in the history books.
And now, there is The Identical, a movie opening this weekend that sort of asks what if Elvis’s twin brother was not really stillborn, but had actually been given up for adoption — and what if the twin brother grew up to become an Elvis impersonator himself.
Technically, the film is not actually about Elvis. Instead, the central characters are Drexel Hemsley (the rock star) and Ryan Wade (the impersonator). And they are both played by Blake Rayne (also known as Ryan Pelton), a former Elvis impersonator himself who makes his acting debut in this film.
Ray Liotta (see my interview with him here) and Ashley Judd play the preacher and his wife who adopt Ryan, while Seth Green plays one of Ryan’s musical friends. (One of Ryan’s managers is played by Waylon Payne, who I interviewed nine years ago when he played Jerry Lee Lewis in Walk the Line.)
I had a chance to speak to Rayne over the phone. Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
Where are you from?
Rayne: I live in Nashville, Tennessee right now. I was born in Pennsylvania. I moved around a lot growing up, but once I got involved in the entertainment business, I’ve been a gypsy man, just on the road all the time.
This is your first feature film, right?
Rayne: Yes it is.
Prior to this film, I understand that you were (and maybe still are) an Elvis impersonator. Is that correct?
Rayne: It’s an interesting story. I used to build websites for a living, and my mother– Let me preface this by saying I did not grow up in an Elvis house. My mother doesn’t have an Elvis room or anything like that. But we have a really good relationship, there’s always a lot of banter that goes back and forth between us. So one day she faxed me an entry form for this local Elvis contest, and she wrote “I dare you to do this” on it. And I think she probably thought I wouldn’t do it.
But I was trying to one-up her, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” And I entered the contest not knowing anything. I had to write the lyrics on my hand because I didn’t know the song. I’d never even sung karaoke before this. But I ended up winning the contest, and man, it just opened so many doors immediately, and I just made a decision. I said I didn’t want to be 90 years old one day and look back and say, “What if?” So I kind of embraced it, and the next several years of my life, working as Elvis Presley gave me an opportunity to learn the entertainment business, to learn how to sing, to be an entertainer, and ultimately it led to me being the World Champion from Memphis in 2000.
So I did that for a number of years, and it just got to a point where I said, “it’s a lot of fun doing this, but I’d just like to know how I would rate, out there as a performer, with my own music.” So I started writing my own music, I got my own band together, and kind of stepped away from the Elvis stuff in order to just pursue my own career. And that’s ultimately what led me to a rehearsal studio in Nashville, Tennessee, and I was rehearsing with my band — we were getting ready to go out on my tour — and at the same time, Yochanan Marcellino, who is the executive producer of The Identical, they were looking to rent out space for working on music for his movie, and that’s how we met. And to make a long story short, he pulled me aside one day and said, “I don’t know if you can act, but if you can, I want you to be the lead character in this movie I’ve got coming out, called The Identical.” And that’s how I got cast.
I have to ask: When I first heard about this film and did a little reading on your background, I wondered to what degree the movie was built around you, but according to the press notes, the songs were written by your producers [Jerry and Yochanan Marcellino], and it sounds like the story you’re telling is very similar to the story in the movie.
Rayne: That’s what’s so ironic about this whole situation. When Yochanan was telling me a little bit about the plot, I just laughed, and he said, “What are you laughing at?” And I said, “You just can’t believe how much the story mirrors my own life. I feel like I was born to play this part, because there are so many similarities.” And truthfully, I pulled from a lot of those in portraying Ryan Wade in the film. So it definitely helped that I had kind of lived this whole story in one way or another in my own life.
You mentioned that you started singing somebody else’s songs, and then you wanted to do your own. Are any of your own songs in the movie by any chance?
Rayne: I made a couple songs that they wanted to include, but just through the editing process, it didn’t work out. But we’re actually on tour with the music of the movie The Identical right now, and we sing a couple of those songs that I wrote. But they just didn’t get picked, and that’s the way the bubble bounces, right?
The first thing I thought of when I heard about the movie was Elvis — just looking at the poster and seeing the synopsis, this seemed to have an Elvis subtext — and yet I did a search of the press notes and the word “Elvis” never comes up in there, so is this being sold as an Elvis-style story? How much in the foreground is that connection supposed to be made by the audience, if not by the film, do you think?
Rayne: That’s a great question. A lot of people ask very similar questions to that. First and foremost, the script was completed before I really came around, or at least the idea of the story. I can’t speak on behalf of the writer, but this is what I do know: the movie’s not about Elvis Presley, at all. We have a rock’n’roll star in this movie called Drexel Hemsley and I had a huge part in developing who this guy was, but really what he is is an amalgamation of every rock star that you’ve seen through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. When we were in the ’50s part of the movie, I think that there was probably, definitely a little bit more of Elvis with Jerry Lee Lewis kind of stuff thrown in there, but then we move on to the ’60s and it becomes a little bit more like the Beatles, and then in the ’70s it’s more like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.
I can tell you, from the research that we’ve done in terms of just the production numbers in the movie, the dancing and whatnot, I had to learn from a choreographer, dance moves from Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, the way Johnny Cash conducted himself on stage, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown — watching me try to dance like James Brown, that should be an outtake — Jackie Wilson. So there were a lot of different things that we were pulling from. I think the image that you see in the key art is definitely one of those earlier images, so it resembles more of an Elvis Presley character, no sideburns but you know, I just think people make that connection because Elvis was Elvis. Anything that even remotely is Elvis, people will think is Elvis, because Elvis Presley was the entertainer of the century. So it’s probably more just his popularity that’s caused that kind of question than anything.
Who was more fun to play, Drexel or Ryan?
Rayne: Well, the story is really about Ryan Wade. It’s really not about the rock’n’roll guy, but the music is just laced into the fabric throughout, and it’s really the glue that kind of connects everything. That music was Drexel Hemsley’s music, so you got to know a little about Drexel. There’s things that you can watch and see, that you can kind of guess about maybe who he is or where he’s at in life. All that we know is that everyone else kind of tells his story, and they’re just in love with him and he’s the best thing since sliced bread. But really the story is about Ryan Wade’s journey through life — and keep in mind, he doesn’t know for most of his life that he was ever a twin brother. Neither of them know. Which kind of is interesting.
What about the religious elements in the film, playing the son of a preacher and all that? How was it getting into that side of the character?
Rayne: This is another one of those things that I was really able to pull from my own life. I grew up very poor. My parents wanted me to play sports, and they insisted that I got straight A’s, because they were hoping that some day I would probably be able to get a scholarship and be able to go to college and better myself, opportunities that they never had. And they were really adamant about that. And I did grow up in a Christian home, a very strict Christian home.
The don’t-drink-beer kind of home that Ryan has in the film?
Rayne: Very similar, very similar kind of home. Now my father wasn’t a preacher, but a very religious upbringing. And I was the kid who wanted to be in high school choir, I wanted to be in the high school plays and musicals, you know, and I was never allowed. I was not allowed to.
For religious reasons, you weren’t allowed?
Rayne: They were not religious reasons. It was because you can’t better yourself if you’re in music or acting. You have to go to college and become a doctor, get straight A’s and become a doctor, that’s the thing to do. And that’s what was impressed on me. And it wasn’t until later on in life that the door was once again opened, and it’s kind of interesting how that parallels Ryan Wade’s father wanting him to be a pastor as well. Ryan Wade just felt a calling for music. So there were a lot of similarities again in my own life that kind of helped me get my head wrapped around that, and portray that on the screen.
How old were you when you took that dare from your mother to sing that one time?
Rayne: Twenty-seven years old.
And how long ago was that? Can you say, or would you rather not say?
Rayne: I’d rather not say! I’ve been in the entertainment business for well over a decade, so you figure it out.