Drake Milligan was at an Arlington hamburger joint when he saw something that would change the course of his young life.
The white jump suit, the lamb-chop sideburns, the swiveling hips and rocking music – they were the familiar tools of an Elvis Presley tribute artist to the adults in the room. But it was something new and dazzling to the 8-year-old Mansfield boy.
“It was pretty much the first time I became aware of Elvis,” said Milligan, now a 15-year-old Legacy High School sophomore. “It intrigued me. I started reading everything I could about him and watching a lot of documentaries.”
Soon he was singing and gyrating to Elvis classics at home, then taking first place in his school’s third-grade costume contest.
At age 9, he talked his mom into a family vacation on the first Elvis Presley Enterprises ocean cruise, where he was invited on stage by the legendary Elvis backup singers, the Jordanaires, to perform an Elvis song.
While other 9-year-olds might have been content to retire after that career achievement, Milligan soldiered on, weathering a few local gigs he described as “pretty much retirement homes, places like that” – and then appearing at talent shows and contests in the area.
But it wasn’t long before he was flying cross-country with his mother, Angela Milligan, to major Elvis-themed festivals, where he won junior performance competitions at such venues as Elvis Week in Memphis and Collingwood Elvis Festival in Ontario, Canada.
Now, in a career move reminiscent of the King, Milligan is trying his hand at acting.
He has landed the lead role in a low-budget short film about the young, high school-age Elvis, and the innocence before the storm.
It’s called “Nobody,” a reference both to Elvis’s outcast status on campus and his famous reply to a studio official’s question, “Who do you sound like?”
“I just thought it would be good experience with something he hadn’t done before,” said his mother, who got word of the project a week before auditions began in Memphis in August, during Elvis Week. “But he got the part.”
He killed it, in fact, said film director William Bryan, who graduated last year from Columbia College Chicago’s film school.
“He is amazing as an actor, and he is such a professional young man who is so passionate about Elvis,” Bryan gushed. “We really scored when we landed him as our Elvis.”
Bryan, 23, who also wrote the screenplay and is a co-producer, is trying to finish the 20-minute film within its $15,000 budget.
The filming, much of it at Presley’s alma mater Humes High School in Memphis, wrapped up last week, and Bryan said he hopes to release it in August during Elvis Week.
“In the fall, we’ll be hitting the film circuit hard,” he said.
Milligan had no real training to be an actor. He had parts in a couple of elementary school plays.
“And when I was real little, I took acting classes at an acting school in Arlington,” he said. “I always felt it would come naturally to me.”
On Saturday, he embarks on another new role – a cast member of the Grapevine Opry’s “1950’s Mix Up Show,” where he’ll perform Elvis songs as well as other artists, including Jerry Lee Lewis. Milligan will be part of three of the four upcoming shows. The website -- www.thegrapevineopryshow.com – has more details.
Milligan and his mother both admit that she provided none of the initial inspiration for his Elvis pursuits. She even saw Elvis live at the Houston Astrodome in the early 1970s, but she was more interested in the youth livestock show and rodeo that also were going on there. She went with her mother, a fierce Elvis fan.
“My mother graduated in 1958. She begged her mother to let her see Elvis, and she wouldn’t let her,” Angela Milligan said. “It just wasn’t part of my world, growing up in Houston. When I started listening to music, I was into country western – Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings.”
But she wants to encourage Drake’s passions in life, she said.
“I think it’s great. I’ve supported it, if for no other reason than that he doesn’t have fear of the stage, and I think that’s a quality that’s great to have,” she said. “A lot of people don’t understand -- this kid is really trying to pay tribute to Elvis. He studies. He’s really trying to sustain the interest in Elvis.”
And not a moment too soon, said Phillip Gonzalez, marketing and public relations director for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. He hired Milligan in August to perform for patrons several evenings while the museum hosted the “Elvis at 21” traveling photo exhibit.
“People who knew Elvis or grew up listening to his music are either getting up there in age or they’re no longer with us,” Gonzalez said. “So it’s good to see somebody his age carrying on the legacy.”
Which raises the question, how long does Milligan plan to carry the blue-suede torch?
“If you can get that information from him,” his mother said, “feel free and let me know.”
The short answer is that Drake doesn’t know, either.
“If you had told me two years ago I was going to be in an Elvis movie, I would have said you were crazy,” he said. “There are so many places it could lead. It could lead to acting, or there are more and more touring shows going around the world. There are Broadway shows with Elvis in them. I just want to see where it takes me.”