How Taron Egerton's Rocketman role of a lifetime became a lifelong gig
"I mean, there's no two ways about it," Egerton says in a new EW interview for The Awardist podcast. "I've never poured so much of myself into something. I've never felt so devoted to something over such a protracted period of time."
Egerton, who in person is affable and sincere, has spent a significant amount of the last three years on Rocketman: rehearsing and filming, recording its soundtrack at Abbey Road, promoting its release, and now extending the movie's reach into awards season. And where Elton John was known for refusing to take himself seriously, especially onstage, Egerton has approached this role of a lifetime as if it is, in fact, a lifelong commitment.
There was the usual globe-trotting promotional tour, starting at its May premiere in Cannes — he openly wept as the credits rolled — to a fan frenzy upon his arrival in Tokyo and impromptu performance on Paramount Japan's TikTok alongside director Dexter Fletcher. He and costar Richard Madden, who plays John's first boyfriend and eventual manager, John Reid, gamely teased each other in marathon junket sessions and promotional stunts.
But now that the film is long finished, Egerton — who first began talks about starring in Rocketman back in 2016 — seems to be entering a new phase. He and Elton John are steadily sanding down the separation between a 72-year-old rock star and the almost 30-year-old man who has been his stand-in on screen, on an audiobook recording, and in countless interviews about John's legacy. "I've never felt so passionate about something — and so protective," he says.
In recent months as awards buzz about his performance has grown, Egerton has accompanied John, John's husband and Rocketman producer David Furnish, and John's songwriting partner Bernie Taupin to a steady schedule of panel discussions, screenings, and receptions around Los Angeles. Egerton even joined the legendary rock star on stage at Los Angeles' Greek Theatre to belt out a couple of duets before a sold-out crowd who'd come to see a live orchestra accompany a Rocketman screening — full of ardent fans, to be sure, but also no small number of the guild and academy members who vote for award nominations.
"I can't tell you how weird it is to become so close to someone that you portray," Egerton says. "It used to be that I'd turn up at his house and my heart would skip a beat before he came to the door because — it's Elton John. But now… I don't think my heart would flutter. It has just become a very normal thing now, being a part of Elton's life, and David and the boys, their sons."
Rocketman, which John and Furnish spent over a decade trying to bring to the screen, could have easily suffered from its subject being too close to both the story and its star. Ultimately it's more a sweeping series of musical-fantasy sequences than a faithfully realistic biopic, and by most accounts, John was less involved in the daily work than Furnish.
But Elton John is also an extraordinarily outspoken celebrity, especially about the tough stuff. His 1976 coming out interview in Rolling Stone was the first of its kind, making him essentially the most famous queer person in the world. He has been candid for decades about his addictions and his commitment to getting, and staying sober. John's R-rated exploits frame the film, starting with his stint in rehab for multiple addictions, flashing back through years of substance use, toxic relationships and legendary fits of anger.
"Until I saw the final cut of the movie, I never really relaxed," says Egerton, who was particularly worried that the intimate scenes between his and Madden's character would be edited out. "We see him in some fairly compromising scenarios. I always was probably frankly slightly paranoid about those parts of the story being filleted in the editing room or gradually being removed from the script over the course of the shoot. But to be honest, it just never happened."
That left Egerton able to focus on the distinct unreality of how the story was told. "Rocketman works and thrives when it feels like it's existing in a realm that isn't quite our world. It's not quite our Elton. It's not quite the music that you exactly know. It's re-imagined." Egerton strived to hit notes along that same liminal spectrum. "It's not intended to be a carbon copy performance of who Elton is. This was an enormous source of anxiety to me — I believed that it would work, but I wasn't certain of it."
There were physical transformations — a painted gap between his front teeth, his hairline shaved down to mimic John's early baldness. "My voice gets deeper over the course of the film, and my accent changes. It goes from being quite London to quite transatlantic by the end of it. But for me, those are the easy things. I don't feel like those are the things that are the most interesting or taxing. Getting to the core of who someone is and capturing their spirit — that's what I found most scary and daunting, but also ultimately rewarding."
Egerton, who is modest at his most self-congratulatory, cautiously approves of the result — which Elton John has specifically praised — in a typically reflective fashion. "I think you accept me as him quite quickly and you invest in the character of Elton John, which is informed and determined and inspired by and in homage to him, but is ultimately my creation," he says. "And it seems to heighten peoples' response to and affection for him."
Egerton started acting when he was 15, then scored a scholarship to London's prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which he graduated in 2012 and within a year was cast as the young lead in a highly stylized spy action film alongside Colin Firth. He seems to have kept his head about him as he's anchored a nearly-billion dollar hit global franchise (the first two Kingsman films, with one more — not this year's prequel — to go on his contract) and kept his chin up when other massively expensive tentpole endeavors netted out in the red (Robin Hood).
Amidst those big set pieces, he grounded his performance in an abundance of preparation, even if that meant learning to quick-draw arrows until he could fire as many as three a second. "Filmmaking is inherently a collaborative medium, and to over-prepare to the point where it becomes slightly manufactured — that could be the death of the performance," he says. "If it's something that involves a skill that is based around muscularity and muscle memory, I don't think you can do enough."
He'd sung in the past for film roles — in 2016's Sing, as an animated gorilla, he even performs Elton John's "I'm Still Standing" — and along with Eddie the Eagle costar Hugh Jackman he contributed an '80s-inspired synth-pop track to the movie's closing credits. For Rocketman, Egerton learned enough piano to passably play in John's style, or look like it, but was adamant about singing his way through every take of every scene, even when it was clear they'd need to blend together what was captured on set with studio sessions.
"I think there's wisdom in not being precious about those things, because then you're doing something for a press soundbite rather than for the betterment of the film," he says.
But still, "There isn't one moment in the film where I'm miming. If you've got a set with 200 people and you're singing a song, the audio that's captured in that moment isn't going to be unadulterated and pure. It's going to be compromised by all of the paraphernalia of filmmaking. Where possible, where it felt isolated and just me on set, I was absolutely insistent that it be captured live."
Because Rocketman is a film about a gay '70s rock icon, comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody were inevitable, even before both had been released. (Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher, above with Egerton on set, was also tapped to finish up Rhapsody after Bryan Singer's exit.)
"Bohemian Rhapsody was great, and I thought Rami Malek, who's a friend of mine, was phenomenal in the role [of Freddie Mercury]," Egerton says. Asked if the constant comparisons might help given the industry's preference for projects with clear similarities to past wins at the box office or awards, he says, "I think there's room for both. And mainly I just watched what happened to that movie feeling intensely proud for my friend Dexter."
One major differentiation is Egerton's singing; the other is in Rocketman's direct, tender approach to Elton John's sexual awakening. The film shows a first kiss, John losing his virginity, even a drug-fueled writhing sea of mostly-naked bodies. (The memoir Me that John published six months after the film bowed is even more explicit about both his hookups and intense cocaine use, all of which Egerton seems to delight in reading aloud for the unabridged audiobook.)
With an R rating — and a studio willing to stick to that creative decision — Rocketman skipped opening in China entirely. "I was most proud of the work that was characterized by being only really suitable for an older viewer," Egerton says. The film fared slightly less well at the hands of Delta Airlines, which recently pledged to restore at least some of the scenes edited out by a third-party service.
"It's interesting and frankly a little disheartening to know and begin to get an understanding of the mechanics of what embracing someone's sexuality in a film of this level does to its global box office and how it performs in certain territories," Egerton says.
"Elton's recognizable the world over, and there was a version of this film that we could have released that would have frankly made more money that didn't deal with that part of who he was. But there are too many people I love that I wouldn't have been able to look in the eye afterward. So I'm very proud of what it is and what it's become, the journey it's been on, because I believe that Rocketman has its integrity intact."
Like many of John's close friends he writes about in his memoir — Freddie Mercury, John Reid, Rod Stewart — John gave Egerton his own honorific drag name: Blodwyn Campervan. It's a combination of the Welsh word for flower and a reference to his love of RV camping. "I think that's how you know he really likes you," Egerton says proudly. He repaid the gift by dressing in drag with his girlfriend, then leaving a Polaroid of the look in John and Furnish's guest book at their house in France.
Egerton has sung on stage with John a number of times now, going back to last year's Oscar party to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation, where they performed "Tiny Dancer," up through last month's show at the Greek, where they belted out "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" and "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again," the new Taupin-penned duet John and Egerton sing over the Rocketman credits (coming soon to a Best Song nomination near you). After John and Furnish took him to Brandi Carlile's concert performance of Joni Mitchell's Blue as an early 30th birthday gift, they all wound up at Mitchell's house singing "Tiny Dancer" with Carlile.
But he's quick to reject the idea that he might put out an album of his own. "When I was 20, I said I was going to learn an instrument properly, and I'm about to turn 30 and I haven't," he says. "And I will not get to 40 without having done it, because if I do it now and put my mind to it, in three years I could potentially be singing and accompany myself. And I think if I don't do myself the service of spending time learning that skill, then I'm an idiot."
That means going back to focus on the piano, though he's considering a stab at guitar, too. "I just want to have something that can accompany a vocal so that when I sing late at night at parties in a completely unsolicited fashion, it looks a little bit more valid and justified," he says.
"If I learned an instrument and in 10 years I felt that I was proficient enough to write some music, then of course I would entertain the idea [of an album]. But it's not going to be something that happens anytime soon. I want to be a good actor first."
Listen to the full interview with Egerton on The Awardist podcast.