After ‘Rocketman,’ Taron Egerton transforms again for ‘Black Bird’
By Sarah Bahr
Taron Egerton channeled a pop god in the Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” winning raves — and a Golden Globe — for his portrayal of how a shy piano prodigy blossomed into an international superstar.
But in his latest role, as a convicted drug dealer in the new Apple TV+ drama “Black Bird,” he had no outlandish sunglasses or feather boas to cast off when shooting wrapped each day. For “Black Bird,” which is based on a true story, he had to cast off something darker: the confessions of Larry Hall, a man convicted in connection with one girl’s death who was suspected to have kidnapped, raped and killed many more.
“As much as it was a great experience creatively, there were days where I went home feeling like, I don’t really want to listen to this stuff anymore,” Egerton, whose character’s task is to elicit those confessions, said in a recent video call from his London kitchen.
Egerton, 32, who has lent his soulful tenor voice to characters both flamboyant (John) and furry (the mountain gorilla Johnny in the animated musical “Sing”), could have taken his pick of just about any musical role after “Rocketman.” And then there are those chiseled good looks and piercing green eyes, which seem to beg for a cape and spandex.
Instead, he wanted his next major on-camera role to be one that showed the world he was more than a song-and-dance man.
“I wanted to do something that felt really different from ‘Rocketman,’” he said. “People tend to think of you as the last thing you did. They don’t want to take that risk on giving an actor a role that they’ve not seen them do a version of before.”
He found it in the psychological thriller “Black Bird,” a six-episode miniseries that author and screenwriter Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”) adapted from the prison memoir “In With the Devil,” written by James Keene with Hillel Levin.
The series, which debuts July 8, centers on Egerton as Jimmy Keene, who is offered a chance to commute his 10-year prison sentence with just one condition: He must convince Hall (Paul Walter Hauser) to tell him where he buried the body of at least one missing girl, and perhaps a dozen more.
“A part like Jimmy — or, indeed, a part like Elton — they are absolutely the roles I want from my career,” Egerton said. “That’s not to say everything I want to do needs to be heavy and dark — I’m definitely drawn to that stuff — but it’s really, really creatively nourishing to have writing like that because it makes you want to bring your absolute best.”
Egerton wasn’t always so enthusiastic about acting. He was born into a British working-class family, with a father who ran a bed-and-breakfast in Liverpool and a mother who worked in social services. They divorced when he was 2, and he moved with his mother to Wales.
When he was 12, he moved to a different part of Wales, Aberystwyth, which left him feeling desperately lonely. “I lost all my friends I’d had as a child when I moved,” he said. “I was quite cocky and quite confident, but that was to mask the insecurity I was feeling.” He didn’t dabble in acting until he was 15. “It was as much about trying to be social and make friends as it was an interest in acting,” he said.
The acting stuck. After he graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2012, he landed some smaller roles, performing in a stage production of “The Last of the Haussmans” at the National Theater in London and appearing in the British TV dramas “Lewis” and “The Smoke.”
Then came his big break: Director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class”) cast him as the street-rat-turned-spy Eggsy in the 2014 British action-comedy film “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” The role made him a co-lead, alongside Colin Firth, despite Egerton’s having never been on a film set.
“He came in and did a perfect audition,” Vaughn said by phone. “He was Eggsy. I liked that side of him in the role because Eggsy was also about being around a world you’ve never been in and growing.”
On the heels of the success of the first “Kingsman” film, which grossed more than $414 million worldwide, he landed roles in “Eddie the Eagle,” the Disney animated film “Sing” and a sequel, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.”
Then he hit a rough patch, first in the title role in Otto Bathurst’s 2018 “Robin Hood” adaptation, and then as the antagonist of the 2018 biographical crime drama “Billionaire Boys Club.” Both were critically lampooned box-office flops.
“I ignored my instincts on those two jobs because I was offered quite a lot of money to do them,” he said. “And that’s just fatal. You can’t pick roles that way.”
“But I feel like I should be kinder to myself,” he continued. “I was a 25-year-old kid who was raised by a single mother with very little money. I wanted to make money, not just for me, but for people who are important to me. And as much as I was not pleased with how those two movies turned out, I can see very clearly, in retrospect, why I did them.”
Things turned around with “Rocketman,” for which he learned to play the piano and sang many of his numbers live.
“He has an incredible singing voice,” said Dexter Fletcher, who directed “Rocketman.” “But he was also an actor who was willing to go to a place where he wasn’t afraid to make a fool of himself. He wasn’t wrapped up in being this supercool, emotionless, good-looking dude.”
Vaughn, who was a producer of “Rocketman,” said he believed the role had helped prove that Egerton could “literally play any role.”
“He’s in a rare, rare club,” Vaughn added. “Hugh Jackman is the only other guy who’s genuinely an action star and a musical star.”