Taron Egerton | Must Be The Clouds in His Eyes
There are few players in this insubstantial pageantry we call life who touch the masses on such a grandiose and glittering scale that they can genuinely be referred to as an icon, and of those very few, only a handful channel the universal language of love. Elton John, however, is one such rare player in the theatre of the modern era—a man who in his own words “Always felt like an outsider,” but whose music has touched millions of lives on such a profound level that it often provides an emotive soundtrack to the most important landmarks on countless individual journeys to the grave. The self-styled piano player, born Reginald Dwight to working-class parentage in post-WWII London, is arguably nothing less than a bona-fide musical phenomenon—a man whose ear for melody must surely harness some intangible truth of the human experience, in that his work transcends societal differences of every imaginable kind, and is loved by people all over the world.
It’s precisely such notions that I have in mind while waiting for the young man who has taken on the mantle of playing the legendary musician in the much-anticipated biopic Rocketman— another product of the British working-class, who was catapulted to his own fame via the multi-million dollar Kingsman franchise, actor Taron Egerton. We are due to meet in West London in the shadow of the iconic BBC Television Centre, which must have played host to Elton John countless times in his career, not least on the early ’70s show Sounds For Saturday. But it seems almost trite to try to give a brief summation of the pre-eminence Elton John has achieved in a sometimes wildly hedonistic trajectory that spans some 50-plus years. Suffice to say, he has sold over 300 million records, with his writing partner Bernie Taupin, and that’s damn near the figure for the current population of The United States. It seems that whatever level of fame Egerton has become accustomed to thus far is insufficient to prepare him for what’s to come. In fact, when he suddenly appears and introduces himself with a firm handshake and smile, he couldn’t look more innocuous, sporting the kind of dressed-to-blend attire that you might not readily expect from someone dubbed by British GQ as one of the Best Dressed Welshmen of all time, but it’s crystal clear after five minutes of talking to him, that such dubious mainstream accolades are unlikely to ever go to his head.
“I don’t think it’s really possible to play an icon,” says the 29-year-old RADA alumni as we order tea. “I mean, if Elton walks into a room, everyone stops what they’re doing and turns and stares at him. It would drive you mad. But it’s like they say of Shakespeare, you know? They say you don’t play the King; the court plays the King. The King can do what the fuck he wants. You can only do it like that. If you want to convince people that you’re an icon, you just do you, and you do it with conviction. That’s what I did, anyway, and I hope it’s fucking worked!” He laughs with sudden and disarming verve, explaining that, like me, he has not yet seen a final cut of the film. But the clear enthusiasm he has for his subject is immediately infectious, “I guess this feels like hopefully it’s the next step of my career,” he says, while pointing out he still loves the franchise that made him a star, on the set of which he actually first met Elton. “In this film, I’m playing one of the most interesting people from popular culture in the past 100 years, so, of course, in some respects that is going to feel like a move. I doubt that Benedict Cumberbatch thinks that playing Doctor Strange is as complex as playing Alan Turing. Do you know what I mean? It’s been a year of work and studio time, and I feel I really pushed myself,” he continues. “Elton is just such a fascinating man, and I really like him. I’d probably go as far as to say I love him, and that’s exciting—to be portraying someone that you care about. I actually feel defensive of him, and I feel like I want the world to see him as I see him, which is not perfect. It’s absolutely not perfect. Our movie is very much about starting in a place of tension and defensiveness, and peeling those layers away.”
As it transpires, Rocketman works as a sometimes-fantastical retelling of the trajectory from Reginald Dwight’s less-than- happy childhood to his adoption of a radical new persona and stratospheric sustained rise to the top of the Billboard Charts, all from the vantage point of a rock-bottom stint in rehab in 1975, where the star is working to overcome the demons that led him to a cocaine overdose. It’s a smart narrative conceit that marks the most bombastically successful period of Elton John’s career (a run of 11 top ten albums in five years, four of which topped the charts at number one), and the second musical history outing for the films’ director Dexter Fletcher, who worked with Egerton on the biopic of a very different kind of British icon—unlikely Olympic skier Michael Edwards in the sweet but largely overlooked Eddie The Eagle. Brought into the project by the film’s co-producer and Elton John’s long- term partner David Furnish, Fletcher is the man credited with rescuing Bohemian Rhapsody from production hell, although Rocketman promises to be a somewhat more grit-and-gristle affair. “The material we’ve shown to the world is not something that’s been put out there very much,” says Egerton, cutting off to briefly deliberate over ordering steak or chicken salad. He goes for steak, with a “Yeah, fuck it” thrown in. “To recount the story from rehab is such a fabulous construct for an actor, because you can track an arc from someone hugely dysfunctional through to hopefully functional, but also play with the idea of the unreliable narrator, because, as we all know, a huge part of drug addiction is lying...” Egerton pauses to think. “There’s just something very authentically human about Elton, you know?” he continues. “There’s a strong hedonistic streak in him, but there’s something very vulnerable in him also, and very caring. The simple story we’re telling, when you take away all the bells and whistles, is really about someone trying to find a home, and someone who spent a long time trying to find it in all the wrong places.”
As an overweight only child, Reginald Dwight had a infamously loveless relationship with a strict and critical father, and a mother who was perhaps not naturally given to the maternal instinct, which is where the film begins its investigation into his identity. “I think it’s fairly okay to say that Elton came from a less than ideal family home with the sort of parents that were potentially not really in love; maybe didn’t even really like each other that much,” says Egerton, when I ask him why he thinks of the young Elton John as a somewhat lost soul. “He was someone who had this sort of late blossoming and growing awareness of the fact that he was different, and then also having this huge creative impulse, but being slightly frustrated because he wasn’t a lyricist. So, you have someone who felt a sense of rootlessness, potentially a sense of insecurity about feeling loved, and you throw into that the type of fame that only a handful of people have ever experienced, and the amount of power that imbues you with, plus that classic thing of self-medicating to sort of avoid something, or to not deal with something... The kind of extremes you see in Tantrums & Tiaras were probably only that much more extreme when he was in the midst of his addiction, which is the period we deal with—cocaine and alcohol abuse do not really create an equilibrium in you that lends itself to rational behavior.”
Tantrums & Tiaras is, of course, the mid-’90s warts-and-all documentary of a latter period Elton John, also produced by David Furnish, and it is a wonderfully freewheeling snapshot of a cleaned-up legend, containing scenes of, well, absolutely fabulous behavior, darling. “My thing has been about humanizing that kind of behavior,” says Egerton. “I just think ‘Elton John as diva’ is such a fucking lazy sound-bite! I think it’s so reductive, because it’s really a shell—it’s a kind of, ‘Fuck off and leave me alone, while I go and process things, because I feel overwhelmed!’ And I really do think it’s about being overwhelmed. Elton is someone who’s been troubled, but he’s not hurt anyone other than himself. He has a capacity for very immediate, volatile emotional explosions and then remorse, and I find that really attractive. I think it’s an attractive quality because it shows self-awareness. I can’t be doing with people who don’t self-evaluate and self-monitor, you know? I can forgive anyone most things if afterwards they go, ‘Ah fuck. I fucked that up there.’ There are so many stories from people about Elton misbehaving or losing his temper, and then immediately wanting to remedy and rectify the situation.”
I suggest it seems somewhat hard to imagine the larger-than-life and famously irascible multi-millionaire football club owner as ever being the vulnerable, shy, retiring wallflower type. “He’s always been insistent that he was very shy and naïve, early on,” says Egerton. “It’s hard to process, but I subscribed to it in playing him, and actually, when you watch him in his very early interviews, you do believe it more. Obviously, it’s not the guy who he ended up as, but certainly who he was for a long, long time.” So, how did this quiet caterpillar become the exuberantly adorned platform-boot-loving butterfly that terrified the hell out of this particular writer when he first saw him as a young child in The Who’s eviscerating celluloid acid trip Tommy? “I think that thing of giving yourself a new identity is wonderfully liberating for some people, and I’m fascinated by someone needing to step outside of themselves to feel like they can really be who they are. I mean, how do you track that? How does that new persona form? I’m not even sure it’s a persona. I think it actually comes from an inability to deal with certain things,” says Egerton. “Elton was lonely. He once said to me that when he met Bernie Taupin (played in the film by fellow Brit Jamie Bell), it was like meeting the brother he had never had, and suddenly having someone to go to the cinema with. I remember him saying that to me, and it just seeming so pedestrian, but then, I was like, fuck, yes! Once Elton John was 19 years old and he just needed someone to go to the cinema with! I suppose that actually the purest relationship in our film is the one with Bernie, and I hope that’s where that side of Elton manifests in my performance, because he’s got an enormous capacity for love.”
Perhaps Elton John’s capacity for love is no better exemplified than in his longstanding commitment in the fight against HIV/AIDS via the hugely successful charity the Elton John AIDS Foundation. In fact, at the time of writing this, the singer had put his name to a movement calling for the global boycotting of The Dorchester Hotel because of bloodthirsty and draconian homophobic laws passed by its absurdly wealthy owner, The Sultan of Brunei. Given his unique standing in the LGBT community, for whom he is inarguably a beacon, there will no doubt be those who question Egerton’s casting— after all, he is a straight guy playing a very outspoken gay icon. “I am from a very liberal town. I’ve always had gay people in my life, and I guess I felt like I just wanted to be convincing,” says the Merseyside native, when I ask him how he feels about those inevitable questions and concerns. “I wanted to be a part of something that, in a big, broad commercial setting, just made his sexuality all the more gorgeous and exciting and celebratory, you know? I just think we’re celebrating an icon and, of course, there is a significant global community that rightly feel a sense of ownership over their champions. If I am inhabiting that champion, then I’ve got to be whole-hearted in my approach, and I have no problem with engaging in male intimacy in my work. It’s no less comfortable than it is with a woman. It’s not comfortable with anyone. It’s a very artificial thing.”
There is, however, nothing artificial about the passion he has applied in his transformation, and it’s a testament to his commitment that he plays and sings every single note on-screen in Rocketman. “I spent a lot of time doing piano for the film, but the work I did only got me to a place where I could, just about convincingly, fake it—you know, rather than actually be able to play anything at any sort of level,” he says, modestly. “I just think singing is about storytelling and expression, and there’s something about seeing someone express themselves with their own voice rather than the alternative, especially in the arena of musical fantasy.
I think we’ve done some interesting things with the songs—some of them we’ve fucked with a bit, some less so, and they’re all used in different ways. Some form part of the soundtrack, some are performance concert moments, and some are sort of musical theatre pieces in the sort of traditional sense, really. And I mean, his songs really do define significant moments in people’s lives. I sang “Your Song” for two of my friends who got married to each other recently, and it felt like everyone in the room was united over it. There’s just something about it. It’s got that skill of being able to take the personal and make it universal. It’s a really special, quite unique thing.”
So how close does he feel the film has come to finding a truth about Elton, or getting to the core of his being, if such a thing is even possible? “I don’t think that exists in film,” says the actor, thoughtfully. “Because it’s very stylized. It’s always going to be an interpretation. No biopic you’ve ever seen is going to look like the CCTV footage of what happened in 1975. I think it’s annoying when people watch actors and say, ‘Oh, he channeled whomever.’ It’s like, what, like a fucking mystic? No. The actor is always dialing up his or her own qualities. I mean, I’m quite an immediate person. I am quite prone to the vagaries of emotion, and I’m prone to extremes of feeling. I’m prone to a bit of overreaction truth-be-told. I recognize that in myself and I recognize it in Elton. So, when the time is right and it serves the story, I elect to dial that up. I also think I’m someone who is relatively good at reading people, and I strive to be empathetic, and I believe that’s something that Elton has too. Doing this film was very intimidating, but you can only be yourself. You can’t be someone else. I feel very proud of the way we’ve gone about it. I feel like we’ve done it right. It’s been creative. It’s been collaborative and it’s not been prescriptive or contrived by a sort of studio system. They really have let us do it our way. We’ll see upon release whether it holds true, but, to me, it’s felt charmed. How can I escape the sense of fate? It’s been fucking amazing.”
He looks at his watch. Time is marching relentlessly on, and Egerton politely informs me he has a plane to catch to Las Vegas in an hour, which seems somehow indicative of the stardom Rocketman is going to bring him in spades. As we collect the cheque and walk out into the bright April sunshine, I ask him whether, having played a man who struggled to come down from the heady heights of ultra fame, he has any concerns about keeping his own feet on the ground amidst the whirlwind he seems fated to confront. “Well, look, I think being working-class means that you don’t have a fall back, so, even now, I honestly believe that this is going to be the last job I will ever have, and I don’t particularly ever want to lose that feeling, because I think it puts you in a good place creatively,” he says. “There are plenty of reasons to be full of yourself when you are in a privileged position, but it’s something really dangerous, so I try and maintain perspective on the value of things. I try and look at things with 18-year-old eyes.” He pauses, thinks for a moment. “You know what? If I had had an Armani suit when I was 18, I would have known where it was at at all times. Now I’ve got a few, and I try to remind myself of the preciousness of being gifted those kinds of things. I’ve got enough people in my life who operate on a very normal level, and I don’t ever want to be the guy who loses touch with that.” It’s a good thing to hear in an age so vacuously obsessed with fame and celebrity. Despite seeming resolutely grounded, I can’t help thinking, as we embrace and part ways, that this charming young Rocketman had better prepare for an incendiary blast-off.