'Rocketman' Takes Flight: Inside Taron Egerton's Transformation Into Elton John (and, He Hopes, a Major Star) 
Ruven Afanador

'Rocketman' Takes Flight: Inside Taron Egerton's Transformation Into Elton John (and, He Hopes, a Major Star) 

by Tatiana Siegel
May 06, 2019, 6:00am PDT

"I didn't think it was Taron. I thought it was me," says the musical legend of watching the actor, who shaved half his head, painted a gap in his teeth and made out with a 'Game of Thrones' star for a biopic that Paramount prays can replicate 'Bohemian Rhapsody' success — despite R-rated gay sex and drugs — and launch Egerton into the stratosphere of Hollywood.

Taron Egerton was shooting a big splashy dance number on a soundstage at Bray Studios outside London in October 2018 — belting out "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" in a 1950s carnival-like setting while a teeming crowd of extras weaved and bopped around him — when a certain pop music legend arrived on the set. "There's really nothing more intimidating than performing in front of Elton," recalls the actor who portrays Elton John in Rocketman, Paramount's $41 million quasi-biopic about the alcohol- and sex-fueled rise of glam rock's greatest living superstar. "I don't think I could have done it if he was around a lot. But I think he knew that. He's very astute in that way."

Elton John just stopping by that day was only one of the many nerve-racking challenges Egerton, 29, faced over the course of this production. (There was that argument with the director over putting an Elton-like gap between his front teeth. And the time he had to shave half his head to get John's '70s receding hairline just right.) Same for Paramount, which is banking on the musical biopic as its big tentpole this summer, despite an R rating, some early jeers from gay critics complaining about the casting of heterosexual Egerton as Elton and an impressionistic, nonlinear plotline filled with sequences of substance abuse and frank depictions of gay sex (which will likely get the film banned from China's growing market). It's even something of a nail-biter for John, who, like most glam rockers, isn't entirely immune to vanity. He may not have visited the set a lot, but he watched every daily as soon as it was shot.

Still, if a Freddie Mercury biopic can gross $900 million worldwide and win Rami Malek an Oscar, just imagine what a movie about the guy with the feather boa and 50 shades of tinted eyewear could potentially do (and, unlike Malek, Egerton actually sings every note while in character). Queen was big in the 1970s, but John was even bigger over a much longer span, selling more than 300 million records. Even today, he's still packing houses; his three-year Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, which runs through 2020, already has grossed $125 million just seven months in. It's that potential built-in audience that could launch Rocketman into the stratosphere, and it's one of the reasons Paramount is confident enough to debut the film in the spotlight of the Cannes Film Festival on May 16 and preview it in 400 theaters weeks ahead of its May 31 release. Not to mention the impact that sort of hit could have on Egerton's budding prospects. "I'm at peace with however much money it makes," the actor says, before quickly adding, "But I hope it does really, really well. If it made half of [Bohemian Rhapsody], it would be terrific for my career."

As for that day when John popped by the set? It didn't turn out to be so bad for Egerton after all. The 72-year-old singer-songwriter apparently loved what he saw, at least according to producer Matthew Vaughn. "Sitting next to Elton, watching Taron, and Elton squeezing me rather hard with his very powerful hands, saying, 'My God, this is as good as Grease!' — that was amazing," Vaughn says. "That made me smile."

John, describing in an email exactly what was in his head while watching Egerton do Elton, writes: "I didn't think it was Taron. I thought it was me. That's the highest compliment I can tell you."

***

Dressed in a tight black T-shirt and baggy black pants, Egerton is lunching on this sunny April afternoon at White City House, the Soho House Group's new hipster hangout in the old BBC headquarters in West London, not far from where the actor lives in what he calls a "very, very small" apartment. At one point, he slips on a pair of no-brand sunglasses, then apologizes. "I'm not trying to be grandiose," he says. "It's just a bright day."

Like the legend he's portraying onscreen, Egerton grew up in a working-class family. His father ran a bed-and-breakfast near Liverpool, his mom worked in social services. When they split, Taron (it means "thunder" in Welsh) moved with his mom to Wales. "Growing up, we never had space," he recalls. "We never owned places. We always rented."

As a teen, he decided he wanted to be an actor. "I'm loath to psychoanalyze myself," he says, before doing just that. "But I am someone who is quite sensitive. I feel things very acutely." For his audition to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he sang, of all things, John's "Your Song." Not long after he graduated with honors in 2012, he was landing gigs on British TV, doing small roles on a detective show called Lewis and, later, on a firefighter drama called The Smoke. But the ink was barely dry on his diploma when Vaughn (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass) plucked Egerton out of an audition to cast him opposite Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Secret Service, his 2014 franchise-starter about an umbrella-toting spy and his young hoodie-wearing protege.

"I'm very instinctive about casting," Vaughn says of his first meeting with Egerton regarding Kingsman. "Literally, as he walked in I was just, 'Wow.' He had the right attitude and look. I was crossing my fingers when we pressed 'record' on the camera, thinking, 'Please act as well as you look.' I was a little freaked out when he said he'd never been on a movie set before, but he was so talented. He had this interesting, strange combination of confidence and humility."

Kingsman went on to gross $414 million worldwide and turned Egerton into an up-and-coming star. He further stretched his chops by playing Alicia Vikander's doomed brother in the 2014 World War I drama Testament of Youth, a psychopath in the 2015 gangster movie Legend and a British ski-jumper in the 2016 Michael Edwards biopic Eddie the Eagle, which happened to be directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Dexter Fletcher, the guy who'd end up directing Egerton in Rocketman. Oh, and there was also a role as a crooning ape in 2016's animated musical Sing, where Egerton's big number was John's "I'm Still Standing" (a favorite, he says, of his two younger half-sisters).

Of course, there were disappointments along the way. Like losing the title role in Solo: A Star Wars Story to Alden Ehrenreich. "I didn't go to the last audition because it didn't feel right to me," Egerton says. "To be honest, I think it was always going to be Alden's part." Even some of the roles he landed didn't turn out to be such great luck. As the lead in 2018's Robin Hood, he presided over one of Lionsgate's more expensive and embarrassing flops. "I don't regret it," he says. "I thought the pitch was genuinely interesting, and I thought it sounded like a legitimate, gritty reimagining of something that's always been dealt with in a flowery, glossy way."

But it was while playing Eggsy again in Vaughn's 2017 secret agent sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, that Egerton made an impression that would fast-track his casting in Rocketman. That's where he met Elton John, who had a small part (as a kidnapped Elton John) in the film. "Elton and I were like, 'Wow, this guy is really handsome and has a real striking presence,' " remembers David Furnish, John's husband and romantic partner for 26 years. "We took a real shine to him."

When Vaughn was in the final stages of editing Kingsman 2, Furnish happened to mention that he and John were having trouble getting Rocketman off the ground. They'd been developing the project at Universal's specialty label, Focus Features, with Tom Hardy attached to star and Michael Gracey helming. But the film was too expensive for Focus and the Lee Hall-penned script was too gritty (lots of booze and drugs, a suicide attempt, sex scenes between John and his music manager John Reid) for Universal. Still, the deep-pocketed Vaughn flipped for it and offered to produce and finance development through his Marv Films production house. "I said, 'Look, I don't understand how this hasn't been made, and if you want me to team up with you, I'm in.' " He only had two reservations. "I really think Tom Hardy is one of the best actors, but I felt he was too old for the role [Hardy is now 41]," he says. "And two, they said the idea was Tom was going to lip-sync."

That's when Vaughn brought up the name of the guy who belted out "I'm Still Standing" as Johnny the misunderstood gorilla in Sing. "John and Furnish were on the fence because they had Tom Hardy attached, but when they heard Taron sing, it was like a no brainer," Vaughn says. "They were like, 'OK, he's unbelievable.' "

Gracey was busy with The Greatest Showman, so Vaughn went looking for a new director. Fletcher, who filmed Egerton in Eddie the Eagle — which Vaughn had produced — seemed like a natural choice. Then he went looking for a new studio. In February 2018, Vaughn, Fletcher, Furnish and Rocketman's music producer Giles Martin sat behind a piano with a camera crew while Egerton sang "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" and "Your Song." They presented the footage to Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos, who was still relatively new to the job (and who had worked with Egerton on the Kingsman movies and Eddie the Eagle while running Fox). Rocketman became one of Gianopulos' first green lights at the studio, which retains worldwide rights after buying out Vaughn's stake ("I'm kind of kicking myself now," the producer says). Brian Oliver's New Republic Pictures also has a financial stake in the film.

From there, it was months of recording songs at the storied Abbey Road Studios, then working with the choreographers on elaborate dance routines. That was followed by costume fittings and more costume fittings. "I wouldn't be surprised if it was somewhere between 50 and 100 hours of fittings," Egerton says. Teeth were made to reproduce John's gap, but Fletcher hated them, worrying that it would impede Egerton's ability to sing and speak. "I felt very strongly that I could do it, but he was absolutely adamant," Egerton says. "I got quite stressed out about it and I asked the designer, 'Could we paint the gap in?' It was a little bit messy, but between that and the visual effects team, that's how we created the gap.' "

John's receding hairline turned out to be an even more vexing cinematic challenge. For many of the scenes, the hair team dyed Egerton's locks, thinned them out with a razor and shaved Egerton's hairline up. For other scenes, they used a bald cap. "I spent six months last year with my hairline up here," he says, pointing to mid-scalp. "It was just horrible. They had to reshave it every day. I looked like Krusty the Clown."

To get inside the character's head, Egerton spent time with the source material, visiting with John and Furnish at their Windsor estate. "We managed to find Elton's hand-written diaries from 1970 to 1976," Furnish says. "And Taron came down one day and sat on the front lawn of our house, on a nice sort of hazy, late spring day and sat by the pond and read them."

Even though John rarely came to the set, Furnish, 56, was more of a regular, once even bringing his and John's two sons, Zachary Jackson Levon, 8, and Elijah Joseph Daniel, 6. "They were shooting the stuff inside Parkland Hospital," Furnish says. "The rehab stuff. [Taron had] the teeth with the gap in and the wireframe glasses. And the boys were really fascinated. They just thought it was really cool. They're desperate to see the film — they've seen bits and pieces — but they're not old enough. They're just going to have to wait."

***
 
Back at White City House, 
Egerton admits to growing nervous as he prepares for the film's arrival at Cannes, where, word has it, he may be performing with Sir Elton on the beach. "Everyone has a sense of ownership over those songs because they've been the soundtrack to all of our lives," he says, pausing. "Which means that we're playing to a tough crowd."

Bohemian Rhapsody's surprise success certainly augurs well for the movie. But unlike that family-friendly film, Rocketman is chock-full of cocaine snorting and sex scenes between Egerton and Game of Thrones' Richard Madden, who plays Reid. That's one of the reasons why it stalled at Universal. Vaughn remembers a conversation with chairman Donna Langley about the studio releasing the rights to him. "I rang her up and she's like, 'You definitely want to make it an R-rated film and you're going to make it for over $35 million?' And I said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'Good luck.' "

There were reports during filming that Paramount pressured Fletcher to tone it down — with the studio perhaps particularly concerned about distribution in China, where films with overt gay scenes are almost always banned (the comparatively tame Bohemian had its gay innuendo entirely scrubbed from the Chinese version of the film). John and Furnish, who are producers on the film, had approval rights on casting and creative decisions but did not have final cut. But Gianopulos says the studio's meddling wasn't anything out of the ordinary. "You do previews, you get reactions, you suggest edits, you go back and forth," he says. "But the film depicts the coming to terms with his sexuality and the issues with substance abuse. That's very much up on the screen."

For his part, Egerton is perplexed by people's intense focus on the gay plotline. "Everyone is obsessed with it," he marvels. The fact that Egerton identifies as heterosexual — his girlfriend of more than two years is assistant director Emily Thomas, currently working in Jamaica on the next Bond movie — even sparked a backlash of its own, with some on social media questioning why a gay actor wasn't cast to play John. "I have spoken to gay people for whom it's not a problem, and I've spoken to gay people for whom it is a problem," he says. "I completely understand. But for my part, I'm an actor, and I did not get into acting to just play people like me. You have to draw the line somewhere, and I don't want to live in a world where straight people play straight people and gay people play gay people."

Egerton isn't just paying lip service to his artistic ideals; he threw himself into the part "a hundred percent" once he signed on. "For me, kissing a man onscreen is no less appealing than kissing a woman onscreen," he says. "I'm not in any way repulsed by the male form. It's an uncomfortable thing regardless of who you're with — it makes no difference as to your sexual preference."

Once he's done promoting Rocketman, Egerton's got nothing else lined up except voicing Sing 2. He'll be sitting out Vaughn's third Kingsman movie, since it takes place 100 years in the past, and although there's been talk of him getting involved in another secret agent franchise when Daniel Craig retires from playing 007, Egerton waves away such speculation. "I have a spy franchise," he says. "I don't know if anyone needs two."

At the moment, as he waits for his next gig, he's occupying himself with "normal" things, like catching Avengers: Endgame in a London theater on opening weekend or working out at his neighborhood gym (acquaintances Tom Holland and Nicholas Hoult pump iron there, too), where he says he's rarely bothered by paparazzi ("I think they followed Kit Harington there, but not me — I'm not important enough"). His big plan at the moment is to take another RV excursion with his girlfriend when she returns from the Bond set — "We camp and we drink Corona and watch the sun go down," he says of their road trips — before they head together to Cannes for Rocketman's debut (the rest of his entourage will include his mother and stepfather, a couple of aunts, a cousin and eight friends).

"I don't really have a lofty lifestyle — I enjoy things like this," he says, nodding to the ninth-story view of West London. In fact, since becoming a movie star, Egerton has only splurged on one big purchase: a townhouse for his mom. "Now when I go home, the family finally has space and we all have room and can sit around a kitchen table," he says with a smile. "It's a proper family home." 

This story appears in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.