Taron Egerton is silent. For an unnervingly long time.
Is he angry? It’s happened before – I’ve had movie stars walk out, or at least abruptly call a halt to an interview.
I’d known the question would be a tough one, which is why I saved it to the end of our half hour together in this Soho hotel room, on a publicity day for Egerton’s upcoming film Rocketman. I wonder if I stepped over a line.
Taron Egerton was asked by Elton John to play him in Rocketman.
But it turns out I’ve just done something almost unheard of in celebrity interviews.
I’ve asked a question he hasn’t been asked before.
But Egerton, 29, is having a lot of new experiences right now.
To date he has played the rogue-ish lad lead: most notably in the (so far) two Kingsman movies. Egerton’s earnest, cheeky, up-for-anything portrayal of "Eggsy" helped these oddball comic book action spy comedies gross their socks off, and gave him instant international success barely two years out of drama school.
But after a career misstep – 2018’s critically panned Robin Hood – Egerton has pressed the “serious actor” button. He’s taken on a remarkable challenge: playing Elton John in Rocketman, directed by Bohemian Rhapsody’s Dexter Fletcher.
Comparisons with last year’s mega-successful Freddie Mercury biopic are easy to make – movies about gay 1970s British musical legends with extravagant lifestyles appear to be like buses, you don’t get one for ages and then two come one after the other (with Stardust, about David Bowie’s 1971 US tour, en route).
But while Rhapsody was roundly criticised for glossing and buffing the rough edges of Mercury’s life, Rocketman has been given an R rating in the US for “language throughout, some drug use and sexual content”.
The trailers mostly make it look like your standard rise-to-fame story but apparently it isn’t: Hollywood Reporter described it as an “impressionistic, nonlinear” story “filled with sequences of substance abuse and frank depictions of gay sex” weaving fantasy musical numbers into the alcohol, drug and sex-fuelled rise of John to stardom.
Also unlike Rhapsody its lead actually sings the songs. Egerton has a great voice – John told one magazine when he listened to the soundtrack “I thought it was me”, though as one of the film’s executive producers he’s not exactly a disinterested observer.
So it’s quite the risk for Paramount: indeed, there are more than a few hints of a tug of war between the studio, which is relying on this as its big northern summer movie, and the filmmakers defending their work’s integrity.
But for Egerton it’s an incredible opportunity, and one he’s thrown himself at, even before he was given the role.
“I knew the film was happening and I tried to throw my hat in the ring more than three years ago,” Egerton says. “I’m still a fledgling sort of actor, but then I was really, you know, a real amoeba. But I just felt there was something exciting about it, and I felt I might be suitable, so I asked my agents … ‘We’ll do a tape [audition] or something’, you know.”
He got a “no”, of course. At the time Tom Hardy was linked to the project, though it was yet to get a green light (ie money). The idea it would get off the ground by casting an untested comedy-action star was laughable, even one who got into RADA drama school by singing Your Song at his audition.
But Egerton didn’t give up on the idea. He just felt the role should be his.
“There’s the singing,” he says. He knew he could do that. “And certainly, playing a character that’s prone to extremes – Elton [has had] some fairly problematic relationships with substances over his life. That kind of extreme of existence is quite appealing to an actor.
“And I wear my heart on my sleeve, I am … quite a sensitive person, I think. And I felt that there’s something of me, of who I am, that there might be a bit of a crossover.”
Egerton doesn’t come across as sensitive or emotional. I’m not getting Elton John vibes. The main vibe I get from him is exhaustion: this is February and they’re still hard at work putting the finishing touches to the movie. There are lines under his eyes.
He doesn’t expand on what he meant by recognising the extremes in Elton John. In a recent appearance on John’s Beats One Radio show, Rocket Hour, Egerton said it again: “I am someone who is prone to some of the extremes of existence in some respects” but the line was quickly laughed off, with a hint about alcohol and drugs. And the gossip magazines have yet to find any skeletons or overdoses in Egerton’s closet.
But whether or not Egerton can genuinely relate to John’s life, there is one obvious difference.
And, incredibly, that’s the question that caught him by surprise.
Recalling the plethora of straight actors playing gay characters recently – Rami Malek, Jack Whitehall, Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone, Richard E Grant and Hugh Grant to name just some of the most obvious – I ask what he had thought about doing the same, and whether (as some people have argued) gay actors should get, if not all, at least more of these roles.
Cue the long pause.
“All I can speak to is the fact that I didn't become an actor to just play myself,” he says, eventually. “And I feel there's nothing strange or odd to me about kissing and being physical with another man. It's my job to portray human beings and human beings are very different and they all have different experiences of the world.”
It’s a fine response. But then he gets a little defensive.
Taron Egerton as Elton John and Richard Madden as his lover John Reid in Rocketman.
“If you're going to look at it … in the sense I'm taking a gay person's role, [then] Elton John asked me to portray him in his life and I said 'Yes, of course, I'd be honoured to'. I don't really know what more I can say about it.”
And it’s at this point I work out – and he confirms – that I’ve caught him early enough in the publicity circuit to be the first person to ask him this question. Which means his answer was not a practised line, workshopped with his publicist. It was, probably, his heartfelt belief.
“Whilst I understand that someone may feel that it's one less opportunity for a gay actor, which I completely understand, all I can say for my part is that I think there's something to be celebrated about people wanting to portray things that are different from themselves and seeking to understand things that are different from themselves,” he goes on.
Egerton says he hopes the gay community “can feel a sense of ownership and pride” in the story “and not feel that we have in any way tried to give a false sense of Elton’s life. I really don’t think Elton and David [Furnish, John’s partner and also a producer on the film] would stand for that.”
The sex scenes, he says, are “beautiful and sensitively done”.
Which, apparently, caused fingernails to be bitten down at head office.
Earlier this year media reports claimed Paramount was pressuring filmmakers to cut or edit a sex sequence between Egerton’s John and Richard Madden’s John Reid. The reports prompted a quick response from the director on Twitter: “It’s still unfinished so it’s nothing but rumours. It has and always will be the no holds barred, musical fantasy that Paramount and producers passionately support and believe in.”
As a denial, it was a less than a denial. And a month earlier, Egerton had all but confessed to me there were problems.
I had asked him about his portrayal of John, how close he had been able to make it to the “truth” of the man.
“It’s no f—ing secret that the guy has his moments,” Egerton says of John. “I love [him] to bits, but I was never interested in portraying a version of him that was sanitised. It’s a movie about someone going to rehab.”
“This is a tricky point in my experience of promoting the film, because I don’t know what version of the film is going to reach the cinema screen,” Egerton says, cagily.
He glances to the corner of the hotel room.
“I'm very aware of my publicist sat over there. I … I am going to make a personal decision that I will stand by, to say that the version [of John] that I gave [was] a performance where you see an incredibly brilliant, gifted, kind, loving, generous man. But I also give a performance of someone who went through the darkness of drug addiction and it made them very difficult and it made them hard.
“How much of that survived in the film is, uh, above my head. I don't know. I don't have power to dictate that. I hope that enough of that survives to give an accurate representation of who Elton is, but it's beyond my control.
“And inevitably there will be a pull to soften that as there always is, because it's a commercial endeavour as well as a creative one. But I did not compromise that. I've used my best judgment to try and strike a balance between one of the most wonderful people I've ever met who is famously tempestuous. And I hope enough of that survives to give the story some integrity.”
Egerton got the role, says producer Matthew Vaughn, partly because of the reaction of John and Furnish when they heard him sing.
They had met Egerton on the set of the Vaughn-produced Kingsman 2, in which John had a cameo role.
“Elton and I were like, 'Wow, this guy is really handsome and has a real striking presence’,” Furnish told Hollywood Reporter. “We took a real shine to him.”
Taron Egerton really sings, but mimes the piano, in Rocketman.
But the clincher came in February 2018 when Vaughn, Fletcher, Furnish and a music producer sat in a room as Egerton sang Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me and Your Song for the cameras.
You’d think it would be a terrifying moment. But Egerton claims he “just fudged my way through the songs” and “it was absolutely fine”.
“Although I get very nervous before performing those high-pressure situations, there is a sort of slightly sadistic enjoyment of that,” he says. “I do get a thrill from it, the pressure of it. I think if I didn't, I probably might not be very good.”
He was cast and began his research. Egerton says he tried, not to imitate John, but instead find elements of John within himself and bring them out. He spent a lot of time with John, they exchanged personal stories that Egerton says he will never share (both are working class kids made good – Egerton says John confided in him about his troubled relationship with his father; Egerton’s father left when he was young).
He practiced enough on the piano to look like he was playing the songs (in real life he can stretch about as far as the intro to Your Song). He spent about 100 hours in costuming, finding the character in the disguise – he believed John used his extravagant outfits to empower himself.
He had arguments over John’s tooth gap – the director hated a set of false teeth that were made, worrying it would overpower Egerton’s performance, so in the end Egerton asked a designer to paint it in for every scene.
He read books on the man – some of them John’s own diaries from the '70s.
“I sat by the lake at his house early last summer with my girlfriend in the sun and I worked my way through '71 to '77. It was like a peek into an iconic time.”
But the diaries weren’t actually very useful, he says. It was “woke up this morning, did the laundry, wrote a song called Honky Cat”. The friendship they forged – they now speak several times a week – was, says Egerton, the real inspiration for his performance.
“I feel I've been able to bring something truthful to the performance because I feel very invested in him, in his life and his story.”
Or as John put it: “Taron had to delve into the whole shebang of being Elton John. Which meant nudity, drugs and bad behaviour.”
Rocketman is released on May 30. Taron Egerton and Dexter Fletcher will be in Sydney for the film's premiere at the State Theatre on May 25.
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