This interview was first published in Attitude issue 309, June 2019.
Words: Cliff Joannou
Photography: Damon Baker at ADB Agency
It’s December when I first meet Taron Egerton and, fittingly, we’re at a fund-raiser for the Elton John Aids Foundation, at the opening night gala of the Take That musical, The Band.
Although the Haymarket Theatre in London is brimming with celebrities on the red carpet who usually command the paps’ attention, tonight all the spotlights have swung Taron’s way.
He’s in the middle of filming Rocketman, the biopic based on Elton’s life that’s been seven years in the making since the idea was first announced. (I guess, you could also say more than 70 years in the making of the musician’s extraordinary life.)
There are swarms of eager fans outside the theatre, desperate to get a photo with the pseudo-Elton. Taron obliges a few with a selfie before we’re ushered inside for the evening’s fund-raising auction.
“I love Attitude magazine. We absolutely have to do it,” he says as we wander into the theatre after I invite him to be featured in the magazine. Why thank you, Mr Egerton. We’re thrilled to have you.
True to Taron’s word, we meet again two months later for his Attitude cover shoot — his first interview with gay media as the studio prepares to go full throttle on Rocketman’s publicity.
The success of Bohemian Rhapsody — the highest-grossing music biopic ever — has added to the pressure for the film to be a hit. Similar to casting the lead role of the Freddie Mercury film, it took time before the mantle of portraying Elton came to rest on Taron’s shoulders.
As with Rami Malek’s performance carrying Rhapsody, Rocketman will to an extent rely on the strength of a lead who doesn’t bring the obvious box office pull of bigger Hollywood names such as Sacha Baron Cohen, Tom Hardy and Justin Timberlake — all of whom had previously been touted for the roles.
The parallels don’t end there. Queen and Elton were managed by John Reid, whose character is featured in both films. Both tell the story of a closeted musical genius who brings a flamboyance to his artistry and proceeds to set the charts alight. It’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as only the 1970s could deliver, before both films fall head first into the choking fear of the arrival of the Aids virus in the following decade.
There’s even a crossover production-wise, with Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher serving as executive producer before taking over the reins of Bohemian Rhapsody from controversy-hit director Bryan Singer.
Factor into the mix Rhapsody’s awards haul (despite the film leaving critics underwhelmed, Metacritic rates the film with an average score of 49 out of 100), and the expectation for Rocketman to satisfy couldn’t be greater.
“I felt quite intimated by it because Rami has been so lauded,” admits Taron when I ask if he’d seen Malek’s Oscar-winning role. “I just didn’t need that in my head when I was making Rocketman.”
These surface comparisons are where Bo-Rhap and Rocketman diverge. The Queen film adopts a (somewhat loose and condensed) chronological approach to its narrative, with the songs either performed in recording studios or on stage.
Rocketman takes a different approach.
“The movie starts with Elton going into rehab,” Taron explains of his film’s non-linear narrative structure.
“He is feeling emotional to confront his life, to find out why he is in this place and what brought him to that point. He must have been 42, or something. So what he does is he recounts his life from there and we use his songs to tell particular parts of his story.
“Some of the songs are actually performed on stage as if they were concerts or gigs, but some of them are just done really intimately and privately and they are just little performance pieces like in a musical,” adds 29-year-old Taron, who appeared in Testament of Youth in 2014 — playing gay again — before shooting to stardom in the Kingsman films.
While Rhapsody sought to recreate Freddie’s iconic performances as realistically as possible, Elton’s music takes on a more fantastical format. We’d expect nothing less flamboyant of his story, really.
In one scene of preview footage screened to media in March, the crowd at Elton’s famous Troubadour gig in LA is seen literally rising off the floor as Taron/Elton plays the piano while also floating above the stage, still striking the keys to Crocodile Rock (which became Elton’s first US chart-topper, in 1973).
“There are a few quite trippy bits in it, it’s non-naturalistic,” says Taron. “And there is an element of him not wanting to convey it completely accurately. There is only so much I can reveal but I wouldn’t say he is always the most reliable narrator!”
It makes sense that a man in treatment and in the process of detox after years of substance abuse, while also living with the weight of a closeted public profile, would be portrayed with a somewhat “distorted” view of his past.
Tangled into that already complex mix of emotions is a tempestuous relationship with his manager John Reid.
“We shot scenes where I am hoofing up glucose, used for coke. We shot a very grown-up film,” Taron attests.
With shooting wrapped, he’s accepted that the film’s fate is now in the hands of studio execs with more commercial tastes who might step in to clean up a film that delves deep into its subject’s darkness.
“You don’t know what is going to happen in the edit but the movie we shot is one that I felt really good about, and proud of, and I hope the cut reflects that.”
If one thing is clear for Taron, it’s that this film is an interpretation of Elton’s experience, a retelling by other people of the musician’s version of events. Taron stayed with Elton last summer, ahead of filming, during which time he delved into the singer’s personal life in the best way possible — by asking everything he needed to know to do the role justice. He had all sorts of questions, from the obvious to the intimate: discovering what music inspired Elton in his early days, details about the wild partying, and even about his sex life.
Taron said he began to paint a picture of a young man who seemed unready for the degree of fame that was about to hit him.
“I think he was quite naive in a lot of ways, between the ages of 18 and 23, and quite innocent and shy in some ways, too. I reckon his confidence grew with his success.”
As well as Elton’s unrestricted insight, Taron also had access to the singer’s diaries. “He is not gushy in them,” he says of the memoirs. “What is more striking is that when you sit and talk to him, certainly my experience of him, is that he is very open.
“Maybe that is a recovery thing, an Alcoholics Anonymous thing, that emotional availability and that willingness to discuss stuff that is quite dark and private. He really let me in.”
In the short time they have known each other, they have become close friends. After all, it must take a lot of faith to entrust a virtual stranger to tell your story to the world.
“I think he knows that comes with quite a lot of pressure so he has taken it upon himself to look after me a little bit. He calls a lot and has become a big part of my life, and I am very grateful for that.”
One of the biggest surprises for Taron was how isolating Elton’s life with drugs became. “When you think about cocaine, you think about partying and other people,” he explains. “But the thing that struck me as frightening is that Elton’s life became really dark, it was about isolation and interacting with the drug alone.”
Taron is hesitant to divulge specific details, partly because that is for cinema-goers to experience but also because it’s Elton’s story to tell when he releases his autobiography later this year. “He had such a relationship with cocaine where he had a total disregard for his well-being when he was in the throes of it.
“He would do real damage to himself, then carry on. It became all-consuming.”
It’s not as if the issues around the hedonistic combination of sex and drugs, muddled with a fractured identity, is foreign to gay men. The issues at the heart of chemsex have been discussed endlessly, its triggers often rooted in how we, as LGBTQ people, spend a large part of our lives hiding our identity from friends and family.
All the equality legislation in the world doesn’t mean anything when society still believes it’s OK to debate on national television whether it’s “right” for young people to be “exposed to LGBTQ lifestyles” in school. (Thank you Parkfield School protestors, Andrea Leadsom and the like).
“I know he is someone who hasn’t always felt entirely comfortable in his skin,whether that’s about his sexuality or that he didn’t feel particularly sexy in some ways,” says Taron.
“I think drink and drugs can make you feel good in a way that is slightly false but in the immediacy can make it feel better.”
Elton, who turned 72 earlier this year, grew up in a drastically different era where being outed could end a person’s career whether they were a world-famous pop star or a primary school teacher, and he found himself at the centre of a damaging spiral of substance abuse, the main cause of which was rooted in how disjointed he was in his identity.
The conflict in Elton’s sexuality is exemplified by one of the film’s most poignant moments, featuring 'Someone Saved My Life Tonight', the song released in 1975 and which revolves around Linda Woodrow, the first female love of his life.
“That song is about him having this crisis of who he was and this cry for help,” says Taron. “He stuck his head in the oven. I am pretty sure that his sexuality and the figuring out of who he was, was tied into that.
“And he knew that he couldn’t marry this woman and that it wasn’t right for him because he wasn’t [sexually] attracted to her.”
Renate Blauel was Elton’s second major “love affair” with a woman. What surprised Taron most about the situation was how committed they were to each other.
“He loved her, he just didn’t want to have sex with her. I think they were two people who connected. He just didn’t have the right equipment. It’s not how he is wired.
“There are different types of love, aren’t there? I think he really, really fucking cared about her, but he is just fundamentally not attracted to women.”
It’s fair to say Elton surprised the world when he married Renate in February 1984.
“I don’t need to tell the editor of Attitude the world in the late Eighties was a hellish place to be for the gay community,” Taron says, acknowledging the shadow of the Aids crisis that affected almost every gay man’s view of intimacy at the time, and even the younger generations that followed.
“The fear of becoming ill, the loss of [friends], the vilification and blaming of the community for it.
“Elton came out then married a woman, which is a such a mad thing to get your head around. I can only imagine that was because he felt there was safety from these perceived dangers in what was a more socially acceptable relationship.”
Born in Birkenhead, on Merseyside, Taron’s early years were unsettled because his family moved to the Wirral peninsula, then Llanfairpwllgwyngyll on the Welsh island of Anglesey, before settling in Aberystwyth.
Like Elton, Taron (a variation of taran, a Welsh word meaning thunder) came from a working-class background in which his theatricality was at odds with his surroundings
His interest in drama school and performing musicals in youth theatre were not quite what other lads his age were doing.
His talent and dedication would deliver an early pay-off. It was a steep rise to fame for Taron from his humble roots, stepping out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2012 and straight into a run of major film roles.
Within two years Taron was cast as Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, a car-stealing chav who is taken under the wing of secret spies in the well-received Kingsman: The Secret Service, a Bondesque action-comedy for millennials, loaded with extreme fight scenes and snappy dialogue.
His next lead role was in Eddie the Eagle, playing the British ski-jumper who won the world’s heart at the 1988 Winter Olympics for his face-palm-inducing antics, which saw Taron work with Dexter Fletcher.
Ironically, in his next film, Sing, voicing gorilla Johnny, Taron belted out Elton’s 1983 classic 'I’m Still Standing', almost prophetically sealing the deal for him to play the man himself before he was to even meet Elton on the set of action sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle. The director of that film, Matthew Vaughn, is even a producer on Rocketman. The synergy was almost too perfect.
It’s fair to say that Taron is feeling energised as the Elton biopic’s opening night edges closer. It’s a game-changing role, much in the same way Bodyguard recently propelled his co-star Richard Madden into the Hollywood A-list.
Taron’s in great shape and happy to get his guns out for the gays. We skip through his cover shoot effortlessly as photographer Damon Baker fires off the shots and Taron nails every look. He throws himself into picking the clothes that he knows he’ll be comfortable wearing.
We keep it simple, after all he’s just spent the best part of the past year submerged in Elton John’s wardrobe. “Oh, and no pianos, we’ve done that,” he says when we suggest some shots next to the baby grand that’s sitting in the corner, waiting eagerly for its close-up.
Fair enough, we guess he’s seen his fair share of them as well.
On the subject of Elton’s instrument, Taron took piano lessons so that he didn’t come across looking as if he had no idea what he was doing during those key scenes.
“It’s fucking hard. Mainly it was about me trying to get comfortable enough with it, so it looks like I’m doing it,” he explains. The songs, however, whether recorded in the studio or performed live on set, are sung by Taron. He might have needed a “stunt” double for the close-up hand shots, but the voice is all his own.
As we shoot, he’s humming away, and at one stage seemingly can’t hold himself back any longer and bellows out a verse of I’m Still Standing as he wanders into the dressing room.
We all turn around, impressed with Mr Egerton’s more than capable pipes. “I do all the singing, that is something I can claim,” Taron says, beaming. Anyone would be proud if they carried it off as effortlessly.
“I would love to lie about the piano,” he adds, “but at some point someone will put a piano in front of me and I will look like an idiot. But the singing, I do everything.”
Understandably, that little doubt about the singing in a film centred around one of the greatest music artists in the world — if not the greatest — presented Taron with one of his biggest fears: that people wouldn’t accept his voice on those timeless songs.
“It’s not an impersonation, it’s my take on him, and in some respects I have some anxieties that people might not accept the performance because I do all the singing, they haven’t used Elton’s vocal. Of course, I have tried in some ways to emulate him but a lot of it sounds like me.
“I hope that is exciting and interesting for people, and they aren’t left wishing they could just hear Elton!”
When it came to the music, Elton had one piece of advice for him. “He said: ‘stop trying to sound like me’. He wanted me to create my own take on it, which is nice because it’s sort of freeing.
“I don’t think he was interested in hearing someone do an impression of him, he wanted to hear things recreated.”
Taron cites his favourite songs from the film as 'Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting' and 'Your Song'. From our first-hand glimpse of Taron’s vocal prowess to the advance footage we’ve seen of Rocketman, it’s clear he can carry a tune, and even clearer now why Elton trusted him in the role: not because he can meticulously emulate the musician, but because he can stand his own ground against the legend.
After all, reinvention is something Elton values, understanding it’s the key to longevity, by embracing change and allowing his songs to be sampled or covered by younger artists.
“He released those albums last year, which were compilations of his work, done by Miley Cyrus, Florence Welch and Lady Gaga,” Taron reminds me. “One was a country album, Restoration, and another was more pop-y rock, called Revamp. And if you think about those names, [you realise ] he likes things to be rejuvenated and done differently.”
Taron says the songs that appear in Rocketman are not a chronological guide to Elton’s incredibly expansive catalogue for the simple reason that the right music was selected to best fit the narrative. “That’s part of the fun of it,” the star adds.
“You don’t know what’s coming next.”
Away from the glitz, when the music ends and the camera stops, whether Rocketman succeeds in carrying us away relies on the strength of the story’s emotional pull. Taron confirms that the film doesn’t shy away from representing Elton’s story. “This film is a gay film, it is produced by Elton John and David Furnish,” he says. “There is no world in which this is not going to deal with that.”
Although largely set in the 1970s and 1980s, Taron didn’t have to look far to find examples of people close to him who had struggled to accept their identity. “My best friend from drama school, who I lived with, came out to me. I lived with someone as they came to terms with their sexuality,” he reveals.
“I’ve had someone cry in my arms about the fact that they were so terrified and at a loss at what to do.”
Taron channelled everything he could into capturing the thrill and trepidation that comes with exploring your sexuality for the first time.
“The rawness of that experience, the fear of that experience, but also the joy of the experience of Elton’s first kiss is in our film, I play it as if it’s the most wonderful thing. I don’t treat it any differently than if it was the first time I really fancied someone in my life and the first time I kissed them: it’s electric, it’s exciting, your stomach is doing somersaults. I treat it with the same love, care and affection I would as if it was my first experience of falling for somebody.”
As a straight actor playing a gay man, he just hopes he has done Elton justice. “There is a limit to being able to imagine how terrifying and how alienating that may feel in some ways.”
To this extent, Taron highlights how Elton himself didn’t quite understand the feelings he had towards other men. “Early on, Elton didn’t realise he was gay, he just felt very drawn to other men. He was a virgin until quite late, he wasn’t a particularly sexual person until [then]. I think he felt quite drawn to other men and just thought they were cool characters.”
One of Elton’s earliest relationships with a man was with Dick James, a musician and producer at his record company, although Taron says the film doesn’t touch on this affair. In fairness, Elton’s life story — like Freddie Mercury’s — is one deserving of a The Crown-like Netflix series, rather than a two-hour edit of 70 years of living.
Instead, the film focuses on Elton’s first serious relationship with a man, his manager John Reid, played by Richard Madden.
Which, of course, means getting naked with him. Not a bad pairing for an actor’s first sex scene. “I think it’s very beautiful and something we are quite proud of, the version of the film we shot,” he says, aware that the film still has to be edited.
“I would not have played this character if: one, I wasn’t allowed to show Elton being a nightmare, because he has been; two, if we weren’t able to explore his drink-and-drug addiction because I don’t think you can tell a story without it; and three, if I didn’t think we could make a film that the gay community would watch and feel a sense of ownership over. What right do I have to play Elton John if I am not going to go the same lengths to portray a gay relationship as a gay actor would?”
So, how intimate are the scenes?
Yes, we want to know.
“I felt Richard’s penis,” Taron answers, drawing a wide grin from me. Oh, Taron, you know how to make a boy smile. That’s practically gay catnip.
“I mean I don’t want... the studio will get frightened about me saying,” he laughs, and gestures to his side. “On my leg... we shot a scene where we are both naked on a bed and we are rolling around. I don’t really know how much further we could have gone.”
I’m sure our readers can offer him some helpful suggestions.
“In the script, this is the scene of Elton losing his virginity and we wanted to try to do that justice, and also at that point their relationship hasn’t broken down yet.
“They were falling in love and it’s beautiful because it should be,” he says, the mention of which sounds as if it will have Attitude readers buying extra tickets for further screenings.
“We didn’t want to play like they were a couple who were eventually going to fall apart, we wanted to play it like two guys in their early twenties who are falling in love and who are incredibly sexually attracted to each other, so we both stripped down to nothing and rolled around in a bed together for half a day.”
I clutch my pearls and ask, hesitantly, if Elton offered any advice. “No, no, he didn’t,” Taron smiles. “He kept asking if it was done yet.”
But, for all the titillation that Taron Egerton and Richard Madden can bless us with, it’s certainly no spoiler alert to say Elton and Reid’s relationship ends badly.
“It does get ugly,” Taron says of the much-documented nature of a situation scarred by substance abuse. “There is domestic violence between the characters [on screen].”
If Taron is sure of one thing, it’s that the film works at shining a light on Elton’s darkest moments as well as celebrating his momentous highs. “That’s the thing it says about him: he is a survivor.”
When it comes to sexuality, Taron himself has been the subject of speculation since October when he posted a picture of another guy on Instagram with the simple caption: “Cutie. My boy .”
What followed was a flurry of support for Taron for declaring his sexuality and celebrating his love. The only thing is: he isn’t gay, as he clarified in a Radio Times interview.
“One of the lads was at my London flat and I instagrammed a picture of him, and a million outlets reported I was coming out as gay... I’m not gay but two of my mates came out when I was 15 and it was a joy to support them because, as a group, we are all secure in who we are,” he told the TV magazine.
“I’m certainly not going to stop calling my mates cuties and gorgeous, because they are cuties and they are gorgeous.”
He only felt compelled to clarify the remark because the journalist asked him directly, but at the same time it opened him up to accusations of queer baiting, which he says was far from his intention. All I can judge Taron by is the handful of times we meet, and at every occasion he’s friendly and tactile, bounding with energy.
By his own admission, he’s partial to over-sharing but says he doesn’t feel the need to explain or apologise for it. When we meet for our interview after the shoot, he recalls the awful experience of watching the Take That musical where we first met. He’s not being bitchy, he’s being factual: it is truly dreadful. On Rocketman, he wants to tell me more and has to grit his teeth every time he has to hold details back.
There’s so much in the film that he’s proud of when it comes to its queer representation that he can barely contain the spoilers. I get the impression that Taron is the kind of person who will say what he feels but not with any nasty intention. He’s just honest about feeling things.
This empathy is one of the reasons he found it easy to throw himself into playing Elton John.
It’s perhaps also why he chooses to share with me a story about his teen years, and how he went through a period in which he questioned his sexuality after other people in his school came out.
“When I was 14 or 15, I had a period of thinking I might be gay and I spoke to my mother about it. It was [a time] in my life where I was having anxieties about all sorts of things, panic and fears. I had some therapy and I was latching on to things to be anxious about.”
He continues: “It was part of a period of my life where my mind was figuring things out. You question everything, there are hormones...”
His mother, a single parent, did all the things you would want an understanding mother to do to help. “I think she knew in some ways because I was going through all sorts of other anxieties that I was just in a chaotic ‘looking for things to worry about’ period of my teens.”
These anxieties occupied his mind for about a year before therapy helped him get his head around his angst. “It was about a year where I was worried about everything. I went through a phase of obsessively washing my hands. I just went through a neurotic time.”
Does that still exist in him?
“Somewhere, I think, but that was bordering on OCD, and that isn’t in me any more. I still have a capacity to worry and be anxious about things, but it was crippling then. There were times I didn’t want to leave the house. One of those anxieties was about my sexuality.”
It’s a brave admission for a straight Hollywood leading name, to acknowledge that he has questioned his sexuality. And it’s not all that different to how young people today think about sexual identity as fluid compared with traditional, fixed ideas.
He puts part of that confusion down to a creative side that was at conflict with growing up in a small town in Wales, and being more comfortable in drama class than the traditionally masc activities such as football. The experience helped open his eyes to what his gay friends might have been going through when they were coming out, and the kind of fears they had.
“It was a very real feeling to me and I was very panicked and upset about how I would be perceived. That is not the same as going through it for real but there is some understanding of what it might be like, and I remember that feeling acutely. It was terrifying.
“I am not comparing that to living it for real but I am saying that I guess there is a small kernel of that which I have experienced.”
He also credits his stepfather, who heads a homeless charity, as being a bedrock of liberal, forward-thinking ideas that filtered through to him. “I have never had people in my life who exposed me to any prejudices. People aren’t born prejudicial, you learn it and I never had that. So, it never factored in my thinking.”
It’s impossible to discuss Rocketman and not address the issue that comes up with the casting of a straight male in the role of a complex gay man. Taron’s aware that it’s a tough call, between accepting a dream role and responding to a topic for which there is no simple answer.
“It’s easy for me to sit here as a white heterosexual man and say I should be able to play a part I want, but I completely understand why a gay actor would feel that this is an opportunity for which they would be better suited,” he admits. “The way I feel about it is that Elton asked me to play him in a movie about his life.
“I am proud and privileged to be playing this person who happens to be gay. And I want to live in a world where people are excited about playing people who are different from themselves, and I believe that there is something inclusive and progressive about that.”
It’s a contentious debate. The fact is that currently there isn’t a level playing field and gay actors in Hollywood aren’t getting access to the big roles that straight actors do, which drives gay men to continue closeting themselves. And things are unlikely to change until the major studios start breaking down their prejudices against a gay man’s ability to be cast in the role of a sexually desirable straight man. We are still a long way off seeing a gay actor being cast as James Bond.
As Rocketman nears release — even though he has yet to see a final edit — Taron is confident that the film will deliver.
But even in his own short yet illustrious career there has been the occasional misstep [cough, cough… Robin Hood].
So, what happens when you are half way through a project and you suddenly realise…
“It’s not going to be very good?” he finishes my sentence.
“What you end up doing is convincing yourself that it could still be good, because how the fuck do you get through it otherwise. But you always know,” he says, shrugging off the past.
This time, however, he’s more reassured when it comes to his retelling of Elton’s story. “It wasn’t like that with Rocketman, the opposite thing happened. It felt so good and I had such a good time making it, and I am so optimistic about it that I am paranoid now that I am wrong. But all of my instincts say it’s going to be good.”
From director down it is, he says, one of the finest projects he’s worked on. “Everyone involved worked so fucking hard.
“The story we are telling is such an exciting one, as well as the music we’ve got to tell it with. The movie we shot is R rated, about a very R-rated man. I am at peace with the movie I shot, and that was what I signed up for. I truly hope that that’s what we end up with because that’s what it deserves.”
Rocketman is in UK cinemas now.
Fashion: Joseph Kocharian and Gareth Scourfield
Location: Ham Yard Hotel