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How Taron Egerton, a Straight Actor, Portrayed Gay Icon Elton John

TARON EGERTON AS ELTON JOHN

The Rocketman star talks LGBTQ casting and embodying the world's most famous gay man.

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At a March preview of Rocketman, Taron Egerton stood onstage at the Troubadour, the legendary West Hollywood nightclub where Elton John made his U.S. premiere almost 50 years ago. The venue had been dressed to hearken back to that momentous series of performances in August 1970 that launched the gay singer's career, with facsimiles of vintage posters advertising that now-historic event lining the walls.

In present day, Egerton stood alongside John's husband (and Rocketman producer), David Furnish, as well as castmates Jamie Bell and Bryce Dallas Howard in front of the crowd. Stars like Patrick Stewart, Darren Criss, and Kelly Osbourne had gathered to take a first look at the new biopic directed by Dexter Fletcher.

"I've got a funny feeling that I may have peaked," Egerton joked, right after spotting a famous face in the audience. "Oh, my God, it's Patrick Stewart!" he exclaimed.

Moments later, the film began to play, and the audience was transported back in time, where Egerton, who stars as John, played "Crocodile Rock" on the piano and made the crowd of the Troubadour float off the floor. Diehard fans will know "Crocodile Rock" didn't come out until 1972, and "Your Song" was the first song John had debuted to the crowd that night. However, in his own introduction to Rocketman, Fletcher stressed that John had given the production his blessing for "artistic license" to tell the emotional truth of his life story.

"Pretty much 50 years ago, Elton stepped out onto this stage into a new world and flew," said Fletcher, as read in a statement by Egerton that evening. "He's still flying now and radiating all of his light and magic that launched at the Troubadour in 1970."

After a decades-long career, John has established himself as a rock icon and one of the world's best-selling music artists. Songs like "Rocket Man," "Tiny Dancer," "Candle in the Wind," and dozens more have become part of mainstream cultural DNA; they permeate radio, film, and television and have influenced a new generation of artists, from Lady Gaga to Sam Smith to Ed Sheeran.

The challenge of portraying such a towering figure would be daunting for any actor. Egerton -- a 29-year-old native of Wales most famously known for his role in the Kingsman spy comedy films opposite Colin Firth -- seemed humbled by the trust placed in him. At the Troubadour, he thanked John, Furnish, and Rocket Entertainment "for constantly making me feel like I could do this ... when I really didn't feel like I could."

So how did Egerton go about undertaking his portrayal of the rock icon? "By tackling each of the challenges as they presented themselves and not getting bogged down thinking about the whole," he revealed to The Advocate in a recent interview. "I mainly just felt charged by the prospect of playing him. I couldn't wait to begin and relished every moment."

Portraying John was an education for Egerton. He learned how the 72-year-old singer was once "shy and naive" in his youth. "Meeting him now and knowing how cheeky and naughty he is makes that hard to believe," he said.

The experience also changed how Egerton saw himself as a person and as an actor. "It's stretched me in a multitude of ways. Imaginatively, musically," he said. "I always feel a bit like I've grown through any creative pursuit. This one has been especially fulfilling and I feel a better actor for it."

In addition to being a rock icon, John is also the most famous gay man in the world -- who is not afraid of his femininity in performances. Egerton is straight, and his identity may have presented some hurdles to understanding John's journey of feeling like an outsider, coming out, and expressing this flamboyance -- without veering into stereotypical territory.

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For tackling this challenge, Egerton focused on "playing the character and not his sexuality," he said. "We all know what it is to want someone and most of us know what it is to fall in love with someone; whether it's with a man or a woman, I'd imagine those feelings are much the same."

In recent years, there has been some debate about the casting of LGBTQ roles. Some say these parts should always go to LGBTQ actors due to the entertainment industry's history of discrimination against them. For Egerton, however, being cast as such a famous gay figure "is not an issue for me."

"I became an actor to play people who are different from me and I believe doing that is a great exercise in empathy," Egerton said. "I've always loved the ethos of the LGBTQ community; the exuberance, the irreverence, the warmth and above all the inclusiveness. I don't want to live in a world where only gay actors play gay roles and only straight actors play straight people.

"I can of course understand why people from a specific community would want to preserve job opportunities for members of that community, but I hope that people believe and accept me as a gay man; it has not been something that I have taken lightly and it is an aspect of the story that has been very close to my heart."

In interviews, Egerton has been expressive of his love for LGBTQ people and culture. He told GQ U.K. that he felt "at home" in gay bars, and he expanded on this sentiment to The Advocate. "I feel at home in those places because some of the most important people in my life are at home there," said Egerton, who listed London's Freedom Bar and Heaven as among his favorite queer haunts. "I took my identity as a teenager from having gay friends. It was always a source of pride to me."

Egerton has not been silent on the issue of LGBTQ visibility. When rumors arose that Rocketman might censor its gay sex scenes in China -- similar to what happened in the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody -- Egerton insisted that they remain intact, even if it meant a lower box office. However, despite being vocal about this issue, Egerton rejected the label of an activist.

"I see myself as someone who passionately believes that stories about LGBTQ people and LGBTQ issues are vitally important," he said. "Celebrating all aspects of Elton's life including his sexuality in a mainstream studio movie felt very important to me. I don't think that makes me an activist. It does make me someone who cares, I hope."

And in helping tell John's story, Egerton hopes to not only show the world "the perils of fame" and substance abuse without a support system, but also the evils of prejudice.

Rocketman demonstrates "the importance of supporting your children in anything that they want to do provided it doesn't hurt anyone," said Egerton. "The damage that can be caused by parents being ruled by their own preconceived opinions or prejudices is massive."

Rocketman is out in theaters now. Watch the trailer below.

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.
Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.