Taron Egerton stepped into a bold new life chapter as he climbed the famed Cannes Film Festival steps for the May 16 world premiere of “Rocketman,” standing shoulder to shoulder with Elton John, the internationally famous rock star he portrays onscreen.
The 29-year-old British actor has enjoyed an enviable career as the cheeky spy in the “Kingsman” franchise and dramatically transformed as ski jumper Eddie Edwards in “Eddie the Eagle.”
But after “Rocketman” launches this weekend (in theaters nationwide Friday), Egerton will be known as the actor who shot for the moon in audacious style as the flamboyant rocker. The R-rated musical highlights John’s beloved songbook and glorious stage outfits, pulling no punches as it depicts the turmoil in the gay icon’s life.
It’s a high-stakes gamble, even after a rapturous standing ovation at Cannes and stellar reviews.
Review: Taron Egerton’s spot-on Elton John hits all the right notes in groovy ‘Rocketman’
“It feels like a crossroads. It could be a big moment in my career, which is exciting, but also scary. Because if it’s not a big moment, there’s a fear that I’ve failed,” Egerton says, speaking by phone from France, still audibly buoyant two days after the premiere. “There are many versions of how the next couple of weeks go. And the week after that.”
“It’s a high pressure but exhilarating time,” he says. “But I wouldn’t have this any other way. It’s a fantastic ride to be on.”
The journey started with music-mad Egerton’s devout love of John’s music growing up in Wales. As a 17-year-old aspiring drama student, he found inspiration performing John’s “Your Song” for his successful audition to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He tapped into the well again when he stole the 2016 animated musical “Sing” as a soulful gorilla singing John’s “I’m Still Standing.”
“The universe has tied us together in a way, really,” says Egerton of his cosmic connection to John.
Previously: ‘Rocketman’ Taron Egerton is ‘at peace’ as R-rated Elton John film lifts off
Their paths first met up when John, now 72, shot a cameo for 2017’s “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” The real-life rocket man met Egerton while the actor was shooting a wedding scene, and they immediately hit it off.
“He was lovely. He made me blush a bit and was quite cheeky, telling me, ‘If I was five years younger, it would be me that you were marrying now,’ ” Egerton recalls.
When “Kingsman” was completed, director Matthew Vaughn signed on to produce the long-gestating Elton John biopic along with John and husband, David Furnish, which had Tom Hardy attached to star. But Vaughn pushed for his musically talented “Kingsman” star to take on the part.
Egerton recorded audition versions of John classics “Your Song” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” for Paramount and earned the role.
John and Furnish not only approved the casting but embraced it, inviting Egerton and his girlfriend, Emily Thomas, to their Windsor estate as frequent guests. They granted the actor access to the diaries John kept from 1970 to 1976, his days of early stardom depicted onscreen.
‘Rocketman’ first reactions: Elton John musical called ‘triumph,’ ‘fantastic’ in Cannes
“It was pretty surreal. I was very nervous reading them, fearing I’d spill coffee or drop them in water,” says Egerton, who read the words near a pond on the estate. “They’re precious artifacts.”
John had only one bit of advice after hearing the actor’s vocal tracks: To stop mimicking and do the songs in his own style. Egerton took it to heart and proudly proclaims that it’s his voice and interpretation heard in the movie and the soundtrack: “Every bit of vocals you hear is all me.”
Furnish says Egerton “took on Elton’s energy. It’s not an impersonation. But he became Elton on a molecular level. That’s what I see onscreen. He has Elton nailed on a spiritual level.”
There has been some criticism that Egerton, who is straight, was cast rather than a gay actor, an argument he had foreseen and discussed with Furnish.
“When we first started this journey, I asked David if this was a problem. And (Furnish and John) felt it wasn’t. They wanted me to portray him since I had the skill set. That was good enough for me,” says Egerton. “As long as you believe me as a gay man in the film, I’ve done my job properly. And as long as the movie doesn’t attempt to remove that aspect of the story, then our integrity is intact.”
Far from removing, director Dexter Fletcher’s film highlights John’s gay awakening, including a sex scene between the young singer and his manager/lover John Reid (Richard Madden).
“Rocketman” also unflinchingly shows John’s struggles with alcohol, drugs, anger and depression. It’s a depiction Egerton calls “brave,” even as the film maintains the vitality of John’s music with vibrant, stylized dance numbers and a rousing finale.
“We retained the commerciality, even if we didn’t circumnavigate some of the darker elements of the story,” says Egerton. “I don’t know if that’s a risk. Only time will tell.”
Comparisons to last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which Fletcher completed after original director Bryan Singer was fired, are inevitable; that film went on to earn awards acclaim and more than $900 million worldwide. It’s “probably not a healthy way of looking at things,” Egerton admits, considering the audience-limiting R-rating alone. “But ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ shows there’s an appetite for this type of movie,” he adds.
After John’s portrayal consumed more than a year of his life, Egerton received his own validation sitting next to John and his longtime songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (played by Jamie Bell) at the Cannes premiere.
For John, who purposely kept out of the shooting process while on world tour, it was the first time to see the finished film. Egerton watched the movie at an angle to monitor the most important audience member of all.
“He was audibly sobbing for the last 15 minutes – I was a little worried about him, if truth be told,” says Egerton. “To see the man you have spent so long depicting and celebrating, be so profoundly moved was incredibly validating for all of us. It’s his opinion that matters most to me in the world.”