Wearing a red strappy cocktail dress, adorned in a wreath of feathers, 15-year-old Taron Egerton walked on stage to his first-ever round of rapturous applause. It was 2005 and, eager to get involved in youth theatre, he had joined a couple of friends in signing up to a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was given the part of Flute, who fixes glass-blowing bellows for a living and, due to Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play mechanic, also dresses up as a woman to take the part of Thisbe. “I was quite put out by it,” he recalls. “I was feeling chubby and insecure. It was possibly a lot to ask for from a young guy. But that was the part I was offered, so I took it.”
He’d been on as Flute already that evening – “It had been a fairly thankless task up until that point” – and if the three months of rehearsals, two hours every Monday after school, had taught him anything, it was that for his first appearance as Thisbe he just had to get himself out there, on the stage, and everything would flow smoothly. There was no room for worrying.
“I just remember walking out and right away the audience breaks out into a rapturous applause, the room is full of laughter. As soon as I heard laughter, I became acutely aware that what I was doing was working. I don’t subscribe to the idea of fate or any kind of preordained stuff, but this was the closest thing I’ve ever felt to everything in my world being in the right place. I remember the sense of blossoming, important friendships forming, right on stage, feeling settled, happy and comfortable in myself and of who I was.”
It wasn’t that he liked the costume: it was about subverting people’s expectations. And if that sounds like a curious origin story for the 29-year-old best known as the clean-shaven, lantern-jawed Eggsy Unwin from 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, then maybe it’s time to become better acquainted with him. Matthew Vaughn’s frenetic, blunt-force spy drama was billed as a Bond pastiche served through a modern-day My Fair Lady lens, as a tailor-slash-spy (Colin Firth) takes a joyriding delinquent (Egerton) off the streets and teaches him all kinds of outlandish gentleman life skills, such as using a laser watch and how to pair his brogues with his topcoat. It was followed by a louder, more violent sequel, the ludicrously camp Golden Circle, which featured the planting of a tracking device via “reaching third base” (or second, depending on which school you went to).
But he wants his new project – playing Reginald Dwight, AKA Elton John, AKA one of the most successful musical artists in the world, in Dexter Fletcher’s sort-of biopic Rocketman, to be the start of a new era, when he will allow himself to become defined by the work he does. “Without ever wishing to seem ungrateful for the Kingsman thing,” he tells me, over brunch in West London, “as much as I love the films, especially the first, I will always feel like something of an imposter in that world.”
In what way? You’re not supposed to know how to be a spy. None of us really knows how to fold a pocket square. It’s OK.
“The ‘guy’, the ‘bro’, the ‘stunt guy’.” He does air quotes so vigorously I worry he might develop arthritis. “I’ve never been that guy. I’m just not. I’m the guy who was playing Seymour in Little Shop Of Horrors when he was 17.” (In case your musical theatre needs buffed up, Seymour Krelborn is the insecure, naive, put-upon leading man.)
But isn’t it acting? Aren’t you supposed to be someone else?
“Maybe,” he says. “But I always felt more at home in a gay club than at a football match, far more at home.”
And this is where Egerton finds himself in his career. An almost-30-year-old who is still being called “one to watch” (“They’ll be calling me a rising star when I’m 45”) who was so successful at playing cocksure alpha males he’s developed imposter syndrome and feels misrepresented by the action genre he’s used to springboard his career. He vowed not to become “franchise boy” (he was reportedly considered for leads in Solo: A Star Wars Story, X-Men: Apocalypse and the fifth Pirates Of The Caribbean film at various points post-Kingsman).
And although he has fronted several other major studio pictures – the lead in Eddie The Eagle and the Eggsy-ish, angsty lead in 2018’s Robin Hood – they were anything but major successes.
Kingsman’s disappointing second outing – already giving audiences franchise fatigue – only seemed to prove the point. And so now Egerton needs desperately to change the narrative. And what better way to break the mould than to throw himself into the story of Elton John, a universal story of redemption, an underdog wrestling with his public image as he grapples with his sexuality? There would even be some singing and dancing. Finally, this was a prism through which Egerton could be viewed by people used to seeing him in blokier, more heteronormative guises.
“I’m so anxious to know that what we shot survives the studio system,” he says. “Because this film feels like me finally going to the world: here I am.”
His name comes from the Welsh word for “thunder”, which adds a sort of grandness to things. Born in Merseyside, Egerton moved to Anglesey when he was young and his parents had separated. He considers himself Welsh and keeps in with his core group of friends from home.
After getting turned down after his initial audition, Egerton was granted a place at Rada a year later, at the age of 19, with funding from The Ogden Trust, a group initially set up to support talented and promising physics students that also, occasionally, helped pay tuition fees for people in the arts too. “If it wasn’t for the financial support, I couldn’t have gone,” he says. “They had a lot of other working-class students. I know Rada is very conscientious about that, in terms of getting a fairly varied selection of people from diverse backgrounds.”
Although he was among people like himself – there were even two or three other Welsh students in his year – the school was known for its preference for older undergraduates and at first Egerton didn’t think he could hack it. “I was potentially, mentally, a bit young for the culture there. I think I was a little bit too self-aware for everyone actually.”
When it was particularly tough he considered packing it in – when he was younger, he’d always liked the idea of being an artist, maybe getting into animation and a job at Pixar. A registrar talked him down from that particular ledge, sent him back to class and the rest is history. Three years after he graduated, he was offered the lead in Kingsman.
If you ever find yourself at brunch with Egerton, make sure not to ask too much about his home. Because a question about where, exactly, on Anglesey he lived will inevitably lead to the conversation he doesn’t enjoy having any more. He lived in that town with the really long name. But please don’t make him say it.
Every US chat show host, international journalist and red-carpet mic wielder asks him to dutifully enunciate it. In fact, due to its length (58 characters), we’re not even going to print it. “I’m so sick of it,” he says wearily, though he is smiling.
“Please, please put this on record. Don’t ask me what town I’m from. Yes, it’s the long name. There are videos on YouTube of me saying it. You can look it up. It will be just as satisfying listening to old footage of me saying it than me having to say it again.”
Equally toe-curling is when he’s asked to sing, when people politely rattle his cage and ask him to belt something out in the middle of an interview. “It’s been done to death. I think it’s quite patronising actually,” he says. And also, don’t mention the “B” word. “I want Richard [Madden] to be the next Bond, end of,” he says.
Egerton met Sir Elton John when the singer cameoed in The Golden Circle. Just as it was becoming clear the star originally attached to Rocketman (Tom Hardy) did not possess the pipes necessary for a film in which singing was a key plot device, suddenly there was Egerton, whose likeness had been there the whole time, and everything seemed to click into place. He’d sung in a film called Sing. What did he sing in Sing? An Elton John song. It was too perfect.
“That’s the calling card for the film, I suppose,” Egerton says. “That’s kind of been the root of everything, the fact that I can just about hold a tune.”
He bursts into giggles at my reaction. “I’m probably being... I love it, but...” he stops to think. “I just hope I’m good.”
In an email, John tells me he knew very quickly that Egerton was perfect. “I was immediately taken by his special quality of masculinity mixed with warm kindness.”
“He’s a fascinating man,” Egerton says of John. “He can be simultaneously very intimidating and very, very vulnerable. I mean, everyone can be different things very quickly, but he has that in extremity. There are times when you sort of sit with him and he can seem like a childlike figure, but then he can be this massive, gregarious, intimidating, almost scary person as well. He’s very in command of himself and of who he is and can really run a conversation.”
Egerton and Madden, who plays John’s lover and manager, John Reid, in the film, would go for dinner at the John-Furnish house during preparation for the role.
Madden says it’s clear Egerton wanted to deliver something spectacular from the outset. “He’s got the whole world on his shoulders in this film,” he says. “But every day he was in his element. He’s got that skill set where he can act, sing, dance, do all three and do them in platform boots. And he’s getting an opportunity to use every skill he possesses. He became immersed in Elton’s world.”
Egerton is all too aware that the film will draw comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody, but reminds me they were well into filming when the story of Freddie Mercury’s life began hoovering up accolades, awards and a tidy sum at the box office (it made more globally than Mission: Impossible – Fallout). This outlandish role, and everything that comes with it, could be the thing that takes Egerton from a man who acts for a living to a more elevated, refined state of acting – like Eddie Redmayne prior to The Theory Of Everything or Rami Malek, who had been mainly known for Mr Robot before he shoved a set of prosthetic teeth in his mouth. “I often feel a bit like we’re doomed to fail by comparison,” he admits. “Because we’ll always be the guys who came after. But such is life. You know all I care about? That it’s a good film.”
Yet coming on the back of a film widely condemned by the LGBTQ community for its poor handling of its lead character’s -sexuality might work to the advantage of Egerton and co.
What’s the sex situation in Rocketman?
“Well, the stuff we shot was pretty explicit,” he says. “I mean, that’s why I made the film. Those scenes are desperately -important when you have an icon of that magnitude, who means so much to one community. [John] has been such a standard bearer. And for me, especially as a heterosexual actor, not to push the envelope as far as I can or try to make it a wholehearted celebration of being a gay man would be wrong.
“It’s a studio movie. It’s Elton John. We’ve got to own that. I don’t care how well the film does in Russia. It doesn’t matter. It can’t matter. What’s an extra $25 million at the box office? What are you willing to do for that? Sacrifice sleeping at night because you watered the whole thing down?”
The sex, he adds quickly, isn’t gratuitous. The film chronicles key parts of the singer’s life and losing his virginity to Reid is an important part of the story. “He was quite late to all that, 22 or 23 years old maybe.”
What’s the scene like?
“It’s complicated,” he says.
I ask, in the most diplomatic way possible, how much it resembled any heterosexual sex scenes he’s performed in his career.
Without missing a beat he says, “They were both versatile.”
But he is capable of acknowledging, as a straight man, what this film means to the LGBTQ community, that it doesn’t work unless it’s unapologetically queer? And it won’t work if he doesn’t understand what’s at stake? “I’ve approached it wholeheartedly and I hope that for that reason people accept me [as Elton]. The LGBTQ community has always been about inclusiveness, hasn’t it? Not about ‘We’re here. You’re there.’ In fact, if you want to come in, come on in.”
It’s interesting to Egerton that the most interesting men out there – the ones we can look at and see an alternative to the posturing male stereotypes – are those like John and Mercury, who were huge names decades ago. “It was a fairly revolutionary time. Men were more outlandish. We didn’t have role models like that when we were growing up. Sometimes,” he says slowly, “I think I’m from a time gone by, born too late.”
It’s no coincidence that the film arrives amid John’s long goodbye, but it wasn’t always the plan. The Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour is, at three years long, billed as one of the most extensive retirement tours in history, with the singer playing more than 300 shows across five continents before he finally calls it a day. But the path to making the film wasn’t easy. In fact, says John’s husband, David Furnish, it’s been in the works for more than 12 years.
“Everything in the film business takes a while,” Furnish admits, “and we’re lucky that right now there’s a real appetite for cinema that has music at its heart. During the time when we were developing our film, the industry was geared towards big blockbusters – superhero movies and tent-pole movies. We didn’t fit into that box.”
Biopics have traditionally been seen as lean, cheap and straightforward – but that wouldn’t fly. Everyone was in agreement that it couldn’t be done on a slim budget; it doesn’t take long looking through John’s career to realise this needed to be done on a scale that Hollywood simply hadn’t been prepared to finance.
“We kept our heads down and worked away, but really it wasn’t until La La Land cleaned up on the awards circuit and became a huge, buzzed-about film that we realised there was an audience for these kinds of stories,” explains Furnish. “The key to that was someone taking contemporary music and bringing it to life cinematically. They found a connection with the audience. You can see it in The Greatest Showman too [and] A Star Is Born. Hollywood’s the sort of town that, because everything is so expensive, people like to get an indication that something’s really going to fly.”
Though John’s music doesn’t always have the fist-in-the-air defiance of a bellowing Queen anthem, Furnish says there’s a breadth to it that means they felt confident this story could find a huge audience. “Elton’s music continues to have an extraordinarily broad appeal and he transcends a lot of age groups and a lot of genres. After he wrote the music for The Lion King he gained a huge younger following.” More recently, Young Thug’s sampling of “Rocket Man” on his single “High” has given John’s legacy even more staying power, just like it did when Tupac sampled “Indian Sunset” on his posthumous song “Ghetto Gospel” in 2004.
The film was coproduced by Matthew Vaughn’s Marv Films and John and Furnish’s production company, Rocket Pictures. Brought in to direct was Dexter Fletcher, who had worked with Egerton on Eddie The Eagle, directed Sunshine On Leith, the jukebox musical based on The Proclaimers, and, more recently, picked up the torch on Bohemian Rhapsody after director Bryan Singer was sacked.
Furnish says it was important that this be an elevated, surreal, extraordinary story. Straight-up wasn’t going to cut it in John’s world. “Elton was adamant. I remember him saying, ‘My life has been too crazy to do a boring biopic.’ So we started looking at the project with [writer] Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse) and we settled on this notion of a ‘musical fantasy’.”
This couldn’t be a Wikipedia-esque run through of his life. And it couldn’t be exhaustive either. “If we put everything in, it would be well over four hours,” says Furnish. “We had to be realistic.” It would be a fantastically imagined version of events, starting with a young Reggie playing piano for the first time, through his breakout years after the Royal Academy Of Music, to his -eventual stint in rehab as he struggled with substance abuse and alcoholism. Along the way: a toxic sexual relationship with Reid and a battleground in which John’s sexuality and profitability were at loggerheads, as his star continued to ascend.
“We wanted to approach this film as a musical first. Most biopics are not musicals as such,” explains Fletcher. “It’s rare they use the back catalogue as the storytelling device for the main character, as we do here. And that required an actor who could sing and dance, as Taron can.”
Egerton’s vocal chops were in such good shape that, rather than use recordings from his numerous Abbey Road sessions, the actor would often burst into song during filming. “When we shot ‘Your Song’, Taron sat at the piano and sang it there and then, unplanned, so I filmed it. And it’s the same with ‘I’m Still Standing’. He sings in that moment and I use what we shot on the day because it’s so good.”
Playing with the storytelling allowed them to circumnavigate a potential roadblock concerning John’s – or Egerton’s – voice. By the end of the film, John is around 45 years old. Through his career, his vocals shifted considerably, from a more nasal register to something sonorous and belly-deep. That was going to be hard to depict on screen. Egerton was already using his own voice for each of the film’s 18 songs – that had been decided early on – but in order to avoid any pitfalls, they did away with trying to present John’s music chronologically.
“By embracing this fantasy element, we were able to use the songs as dramatic devices,” says Furnish. “And that wouldn’t be possible without Bernie [Taupin, played in Rocketman by Jamie Bell]. His lyrics are so rich in their storytelling ability. You can layer new stories on top of them and they won’t break or bend at the edges. It’s a testament to the songs that we’re able to do the things we’ve done.”
That Moulin Rouge-esque acid trip musicality meant that everyone in the film breaks into song as and when the narrative demands it (Madden, for example, does a particularly theatrical rendition of “Honky Cat”).
“Every time I went on the set, I kept realising that we had tapped into something really special,” Furnish says. He explains that during the shooting of one of the film’s earliest scenes, where Reggie plays the piano from ear alone, he brought up a photo on his phone of the real John playing in a near-identical living room. The similarities were almost eerie.
“It was an emotional experience. It required me to be objective and subjective and wear two hats. As a filmmaker and producer, I had to work to make the best film we possibly could. But then I also felt this responsibility to my husband’s legacy.”
John was very involved early on in both the script development process and the casting of Egerton. But once everything was set he took himself away, promising he wouldn’t interfere. “Taron was perfect,” Furnish says. “When I first met Elton I was quite taken by his masculinity. He’s quite a blokey gay man. You can take him and put him in these costumes, pile up the feathers or the crazy stuff, and it all just kind of lands on him in a very masculine way. Taron has real gravitas and it’s very similar. He has the incredible -sensitivity and gentleness that Elton has, but he also has this manliness too. It’s a very complex quality. He couldn’t have stepped up any more than he did.”
One aspect that everyone wanted to retain was John’s personal life and, as a result, his relationship with Reid forms a central part of the plot. “John’s in love with Elton and all that,” explains Madden. “But very much seeing the potential for himself. They fall in love and then there’s elements of darkness, manipulation, and as Elton becomes more and more successful and absurd, John becomes much more opportunistic and manipulative.”
Considering the criticism of how Bohemian Rhapsody handled Mercury’s sexuality Empire magazine said the film has “the gentle innuendo of an obituary, rather than the inquisitiveness of a biography” – how does Furnish envision Rocketman’s success in other markets? Would he rather it was banned outright than cut into ribbons and distributed to countries where homosexuality is illegal?
“International cinema is complicated and sadly the world isn’t a homogenous place,” he admits. “I heard Bohemian Rhapsody is going to China with any reference to Freddie being gay taken out of it. Well, you can’t do that with our film, I’ll tell you that. It’s integral to Elton’s journey as an individual and as an artist. I would strongly resist any sanitisation. The world continues to need to evolve and grow in the right direction. As it goes into that international distribution and marketing machine, you just have to do your best to preserve the integrity.”
When it comes to social media, Egerton says he avoided it for as long as possible. He doesn’t really like how negative and noisy Twitter is. But Instagram is where he can be himself. “It’s nice to get a window into someone’s world,” he says, “but unfiltered, unproduced. You know how some people aren’t the ones taking any of their pictures? I’m always thinking who is taking that? Do they have a professional photographer following them all the time, documenting their life?”
It works for The Rock, I say.
“Well, I suppose that’s how he has a gazillion followers,” Egerton muses. “I don’t think it’s for me, that approach.”
Whenever he signs up to a project, a studio will politely insist he’s more active on social media. “They always ask, which is a good reason for me not to do it. I don’t like being told to do it. That feels invasive.” He thinks about Christmas Eve, when he uploaded a video singing with his little sister. Unfiltered, not even pitch-perfect, but intimate and without a single hashtag. “I feel like what people want is a snapshot into someone’s life.” Also: “I get tagged in some weird shit.”
With a look not unlike someone suffering acute appendicitis, he explains what he means: the world of celebrity fan fiction, which his name is mired in. “People, often young girls, write little stories, with me in them. They put words in my mouth, and put me in ‘scenarios’ and they feature whoever is writing the story.”
Later, my attempts to look at some of these stories online will be blocked by my library’s internet firewall.
“Quite a lot of them feel like they are written by 16-year-old girls. I’ve seen people who tag me saying they’ve just got back from an exam at school. It’s all so full-on and weird. I don’t know why people think I’d want to see that. I don’t love it at all.”
In October last year, Egerton made headlines when the world seemed to think he was trying, however clumsily, to come out. A photo of a young man, smiling from ear to ear, was posted on his page followed by the caption “Cutie. My boy”. He hadn’t had Instagram for long at that point and people seemed to think this might be the reason why. He later clarified, after being asked in an interview, that he was straight. The post was a misunderstanding.
I’m interested in what he felt about the situation. He says he was surprised. “I’ve known that guy since I was eleven. And he is a cutie. I call all my friends stuff like that. Anyone can tell you. [But] it doesn’t mean I want to fuck any of them.”
People posted rainbow emojis under the picture, supportively, it must be said, but Egerton found it overwhelming. “I’m quite heart-on-my-sleeve. I was really reading into it.”
I tell him that there’s only a problem insomuch as people didn’t know him well enough on social media to know this language was fairly routine for him. When you say nothing on social media there’s nothing to explain. But Egerton has started letting people in now and that clearly comes with complications. “When I clarified who he was, people seemed upset [by the fact he was straight]. Tell me something: did you read it that way? Did you see it and think I was announcing something?”
I answer by telling him that it wasn’t clear, but I was excited for him. All it suggested was that there was maybe more to him than many people gave him credit for. “I guess I had recently broken up with my girlfriend,” he says. Did it change the way he thought he was perceived? Did it worry him? Shawn Mendes recently said that speculation on his sexuality – he identifies as straight – had nevertheless had a negative effect on his mental health.
“I didn’t really know how else to deal with it,” Egerton says, “I only set the record straight because somebody asked directly about it. I explained it was a friend from school. Some people were upset with me, which I thought was a bit unfair. It was like I had sort of misled people.”
We order more coffee and he tells me how it felt like the support and the kind words online all came from a good place and he worried it looked like he’d deceived people. They call it queer baiting when you’re intentionally ambiguous like that. He doesn’t want to deceive anyone, but how many times will he be expected to explain it? “It’s very easy for me to say this, as a straight guy, but I don’t see why people care.”
I do. People care, I tell him, because they hate the idea someone might be suffering in silence. People care because, even if the internet can feel loud and intense, none of those voices like the idea of someone not having a voice of their own. It might not feel like it sometimes, but it comes from the best possible place. We want more young actors, musicians and athletes to be comfortable being out. But the outpouring of love was clearly a little pre-emptive. Everyone’s learning.
“I agree,” says Egerton. “I’m not someone who really subscribes to this binary view of male and female archetypes or ways of behaving,” he says. “And it’s only going to happen more and more. The lines are blurring. People are identifying and expressing themselves more fluidly. Our concept of what a straight man or gay man looks like or is expected to behave in 20 years will be nothing like it is now.” Male make-up, he says, is going to be massive very soon.
“The overreaction wasn’t in any way problematic,” he adds. “It was nice. There was a sense of people rallying to me, in solidarity. People were saying, ‘This person’s part of the family now.’ There really was a massive response. But it did make me feel like an imposter.”
As we prepare to leave, I think back to Egerton’s breakout year, after Kingsman and his small role in Legend, the two-Tom-Hardys-for-the-price-of-one crime biopic about the Kray twins. Everyone was calling him the next Hardy, the next Colin Firth. Hugh Jackman told him, “If you haven’t got a franchise you’re dead.” And look what happened: his franchise buckled after the last film (a prequel, sans Egerton, is -expected at the end of this year) and the kind of actors young men such as him were taught to emulate – tough, muscular, posh – suddenly looked regressive. Three of the best-paid men in Hollywood are all superheroes called Chris and they all look eerily similar. Look at the success of Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians; we want diverse stories on screen. And if that’s so, then Rocketman doesn’t look like such a wild card move after all, but a clever nod to where the most interesting roles are headed. Like in the song, he’s still standing.
In many ways, everything came full circle the night before Egerton shot his first scene as Elton John, because it resembled the night he went on stage as Flute. There were nerves and a sense of pressure. “I did feel overwhelmed,” Egerton recalls. His costume was hung up and ready: a green denim jacket, green flared denim jeans that required slinky hips to cling to, a baseball tee with different-coloured sleeves, embellished with a phallic tube of lipstick on the front, big heels. It would work, he knew. But only if he let it.
Egerton had spoken to John himself, in the 36 hours prior to his first scene. That had been reassuring. “The first day of shooting was innocuous enough,” he says – the better for everyone to relax into their roles. He would walk through LA’s Troubadour club, where he’d deliver the catalytic performance that ignited John’s career, and introduce himself to someone. That’s it.
John didn’t impart any particular advice on how to play him, only to not copy him. “There was a keen sense that it was a part I could do well, a part I was passionate and excited about, which is important. There are things you do for different reasons, but in many ways, this one was for me.”
So he did what he did backstage, in that strappy red cocktail dress, nearly half his life ago. He took a leap of faith.
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