Playing Elton John in Dexter Fletcher’s film Rocketman, Taron Egerton scales the falsetto heights of “Crocodile Rock,” nails each pose at the piano and pulls off some of pop history’s flashiest ensembles. But for the 29-year-old British actor, preparing to play the singular artist amounted to a lot more than vocal training (he sings all the songs in the film) and learning to walk in platform heels: As part of his process, he studied the tiniest details of John’s persona and performance style while leaving room for his own interpretation of the star. “We set out to be creative within a movie that is a tribute to someone,” says Egerton. “It’s a biographical film, but it’s not a biopic.”
The Stage Presence
“He trained at the Royal Academy of Music, so there’s a real classical influence,” says Egerton of John’s position at the piano. “He has a very straight back; his elbows are very tucked. That was kind of the starting point, that relationship with the piano that he formed as a young man.” John’s performance style evolved in large part out of his desire to make the piano a part of the show, not a barrier between himself and the audience, much like two other consummate showmen who influenced him: Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. In one scene, “my feet are slamming on the piano, and I’m jumping ’round, kicking my chair back,” says Egerton. “All of that is very Jerry Lee and Little Richard; all about creating anarchy behind the piano.”
The Keyboard Skills
Egerton practiced a couple of hours daily for three months. “It’s tricky,” he admits. “I can’t pretend that I do the playing in the film, but what that work did was get me familiar enough with the piano to be able to convincingly make it look like I’m playing, which is a challenge in itself.” He did pick up a few real skills: “I can kind of fudge my way through ‘Your Song.’ ”
Among John’s many festive looks on- and offstage, Egerton particularly loved “the things that make you feel larger and stronger — the big heels, things with wings, a crown, a huge skirt. I think that’s partly why Elton wore them: He always said he didn’t feel that he was as pretty as some of his contemporaries — the Bowies, the Jaggers, the Marc Bolans.” Those costumes were key to Egerton finding his own inner rock star. “You feel very empowered and imposing” wearing them, he says. “I wanted to portray not only his vulnerability but his strength, particularly his prowess as a stage performer.”
John’s voice changed over the course of his life — not just his range, but his accent, which Egerton notes “became more trans-Atlantic, less London.” Because the film doesn’t present John’s songs chronologically, the actor “couldn’t track his voice exactly the same way he did; my register would be jumping back and forth.” Egerton was particularly at home with “Your Song” — he sang it for his own drama school audition and, recently, at a friend’s wedding. “It sits in my range comfortably, and I enjoy singing it,” he says. “I actually did it live on set.”
This article originally appeared in the May 25 issue of Billboard.