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Jamie Bell’s journey to playing Bernie Taupin begins when he was 14 years old, starring in Billy Elliot, a film written by Lee Hall. It was then that he met Elton John (who would team with Hall to adapt the film into a stage show). And, nearly 20 years down the road, Hall would be the one to write Paramount’s musical Elton John biopic, Rocketman. “It just felt written in the stars somehow that I would portray his best mate, Bernie,” Bell, 33, tells THR on Oct. 17.
Bell is reuniting with Bernie Taupin, 69, on the Paramount lot months after Rocketman‘s splashy Cannes debut and May 31 release, because they’re both in town for a tribute to the musical biopic at the Greek Theatre later that evening.
The two haven’t seen each other in a while — the lyricist lives in Santa Barbara, and Bell is in the midst of shooting Paramount’s new Tom Clancy adaptation, Without Remorse, in Germany. But it seems as if no time has passed when they reunite and, ahead of the concert’s festivities, they take a deep dive into a conversation reflecting on their journey to make Rocketman, director Dexter Fletcher’s ode to Taupin and John’s music and friendship.
Bernie, what did you think when Rocketman was pitched to you?
BERNIE TAUPIN I’ll be honest — I wasn’t really enthusiastic about the first draft of the script. I was confused by the fact that the songs were all over the place, that they were appearing at a time way before they were actually written. There were some personal elements about the script that I didn’t care for — the way some of the things I said were phrased. But the beauty of it is that I was continually kept in the loop. And it’s like any movie, Jamie can attest to this much. I’m not an actor, but I’m fully aware that there are many versions of a script, a change in the second draft, third draft, fourth draft. Originally, when Tom Hardy was involved [to play John], I wasn’t 100 percent sold. I was always behind the project, though, because it was very democratic, everybody had a say. It was made by us, so we had a creative control. When Dexter came on board, he breathed new life into it, and he was so accessible. And then, without blowing smoke up his ass, when Jamie came on board, it was like, “Whoa, I’ve got a real actor playing me.” (Laughter.)
Jamie, you have a long relationship with Elton and Lee Hall through Billy Elliot. Had you stayed in touch with them over the years?
JAMIE BELL I met Elton when I was 14, at one of the very early screenings of Billy Elliot, and he was very emotional about it. In reading the [Rocketman] script and getting to know these guys a lot more, it became very clear why. In the movie Billy Elliot, there’s a very specific relationship with the father. The dad shows up at the end for his kid who’s much older, but he turns up to see him perform. I don’t feel like Elton’s dad ever did, did he?
TAUPIN No. Never.
BELL He was one of the first mega-famous people I’d ever met, and seeing him so out of control with emotion was quite overwhelming as a kid. But, coming onto this, because of my history with him, I felt it was in the stars somehow that I would portray his best mate, Bernie. But initially, they didn’t come to me for Bernie. They came to me for John Reid.
TAUPIN I didn’t know that. Did you tell me that?
BELL I don’t think so. As written, he was a man that when the camera is trained on him, you go, “Oh wow, look at this guy.” He’s seen holding a bottle of Dom Perignon. He’s got the finest threads and he’s a threat. I remember talking to Dex like, “I would completely be doing a disservice to your fans.” Fortunately, we got the great Richard Madden, who, when you train a camera on him, you go, “Holy shit, who’s that guy?” I always felt like I’d be much better suited to the Bernie character. I loved that he was from the north and he was an outsider and a bit of a loner, and these two kids come together and escape their circumstances. I always felt that was true to my experience as a child and my coming to as an actor.
Did you have to audition for the role?
BELL No, there wasn’t any process like that. It was very trusting on their part.
What were you hoping to learn from each other at your initial meeting?
TAUPIN I wasn’t aware of how prepared Jamie was going to be. I mean, he’d obviously done a lot of homework and read a lot of back catalog on me, so I was pretty impressed by that. I can’t mention names, but other people had been thrown about. I was uncomfortable with them. Some of the names mentioned weren’t real actors. They were probably considered for their appeal to bring in a younger audience, and I didn’t think that that was reason enough. When Jamie’s name came up, I just went, “Yes.” The thing is that it’s not about acting out my mannerisms — I’m not well known. It’s more about what’s here (points to heart), and I think in a way that’s probably even harder. It’s not mimicry. It’s more soulful. He captured that 100 percent.
BELL Thank God. (Laughs.) I had done a lot of studying before meeting him. He wrote a book about his childhood, which was so useful, and fills in a lot of that backstory. Driving up to Santa Barbara, I did listen to the catalog and “Candle in the Wind” came on. It took me back to when I was 6 years old. My mom bought me a karaoke machine, and “Candle in the Wind” was in it. The important thing was the connection between me and Taron [Egerton], finding that platonic love for one another and letting that play out. There were a lot of people in Elton’s life who weren’t kind to him and who weren’t so great, so thank God for Bernie.
What do you have in common with each other?
BELL Height. (Laughter.)
TAUPIN I can’t top that. No, but Jamie’s a very soulful guy, a family guy, and I like that too because so am I. He’s very grounded. We do come from the same sort of rural background. We’re both Northern guys, expats that came and found a new country.
BELL Also, I’m a fan of the written word, and Bernie’s a man of great words many times over. I actually tried some songwriting in my trailer while I was making this movie because I was like, “I wonder what it takes to sit down and look at your life and/or look at a person or a relationship and just try to craft something that could possibly mean something even to one person.” And it was a fucking disaster, to be honest. I ripped them up and burned them immediately so no one could ever see them. (Laughter.)
TAUPIN If it makes you feel any better, I tried acting once and I was absolutely appalling.
BELL I’ll be on YouTube in a second trying to find that for sure.
Was there a scene for you, Jamie, that felt really special to film and for how it portrays Bernie?
BELL I did enjoy doing the drunk scene, kicking the trash can. That was great.
TAUPIN Which absolutely could have been us. When they’re walking down, kicking trash cans over and falling over cars and setting off alarms, that was exactly the way it was.
BELL Just seeing two kids who found some solace and found a togetherness and have a moment of being juveniles and being slightly delinquent.
TAUPIN Also, Jamie’s scene when he sings “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” has to be brought up because that’s quite magnificent. That’s one of the things about the film that really I was afraid of when I knew that people were going to be singing. But with this movie, I’ve never seen a movie when people start singing where it’s so natural and flows. It’s so subtle the way all the vocalizing is done. It’s not remotely corny.
BELL I was always really skeptical of it because I was like, “He’s the lyricist, and lyricists don’t sing.” But of any of the songs, that was the one that I felt synced up with the character.
TAUPIN And may I add, that’s a hard song to sing. You’ve got to be able to sing to get your chops around that one.
BELL The lyrics of it as well are just so on point for the Bernie character if you’ve known his trajectory: “I should have stayed on the farm, I should have listened to my old man.”
Part of the story is about being such a strong support and an anchor for someone else. What does that require?
BELL Bernie can probably talk to it better than I can. But it must be very difficult to watch someone you love so infested with drugs and alcohol where they’re destroying their talent. When I think of Bernie and Elton’s music, it’s just joy. And when you see someone’s light so diminished and the joy that they’re not outputting anymore and just wasting it, I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be the bystander in that scenario. To me, that’s just as heartbreaking as the person who’s going through it. And you’re no saint either, of course. Bernie’s not like the gold-plated hero of the piece. He’s had his ups and downs, like anyone has.
TAUPIN Yes, as Jamie said, you have to be aware of the fact that we’ve all shared our own demons. There were times that are not really portrayed in the film where I had my own crosses to bear. And in retrospect, maybe I should have interceded earlier, maybe I should have made a point of being stronger in my condemnation of his behavior and tried to help out earlier. But you have to bear in mind also that a lot of what he was doing was in a very solitary place. He would lock himself away and get into these situations — none of us were privy to that. We weren’t really aware of how bad things were. He put on his game face. The only thing that [the alcohol and drugs] would affect would be his moods. He would have dramatic mood swings that were very hard to even be around or comprehend. It was debilitating for everybody and especially for me because I felt maybe I should have been there in a stronger way.
What has this whole experience taught you about being an artist?
BELL It’s about legacy, I suppose. I still listen to all their songs all the time. I’m shooting a film in Germany right now, and my poor German driver — I’m not sure if he’s an Elton John fan. I don’t think he is. But I’m singing “Country Comfort” and jamming out. And it still brings me enormous joy. This is a privilege to do this, to be part of this time of these guys’ lives.
TAUPIN For me, seeing this movie and seeing it multiple times, it makes you proud. It makes you think, “Yes, maybe it was all worth it. They made a movie about us, so we must have done something right.” And when you hear the music and the way that it plays into the storyline, maybe that’s what we were doing all along. Maybe we were writing the soundtrack of our lives without even knowing it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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