The 32-year-old plays an imprisoned drug dealer facing an unusual choice in the Apple TV+ series, written by Dennis Lehane.
Taron Egerton channelled 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 chiselled 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, centres 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 Theatre 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 US$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."
It was that versatility that caught the eye of Lehane, who developed, wrote and executive produced Black Bird, when he was looking for a leading man.
"I'd just seen Rocketman," he said, "and I was like, 'My God, the range on this kid.'"
Egerton needed more than range to shoot Black Bird; the series was also incredibly heavy. Lehane said that crafting a scene in Episode 5 had made him cry — the first time he had experienced that while writing a script. Hauser said he was so affected by his role as Hall that his life began spinning out of control. He eventually had to get sober.
"Being Larry Hall 12 hours a day, you want to go home and eat junk food, drink booze, have an edible," he said in a recent phone call. "It was like living in a haunted house."
But Egerton, whose character serves as a sounding board for Hall's disturbing revelations, managed to remain largely above it, Hauser and Lehane said, despite a taxing six-month shoot in New Orleans.
"It's a hard thing to do," said Egerton, who bulked up to play Keene, a burly former high school football star. "Especially with long days, working nights, it can be hard to switch off. But you find a way."
Egerton, who also earned his first executive producer credit with Black Bird, said he was immensely proud of the result, particularly his scenes with Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, Field of Dreams), who played Keene's father. Liotta died in May, and the role appears to be Liotta's last for TV.
"I loved that relationship," Egerton said of his and Liotta's characters. "These two complicated, very, very flawed, imperfect men, but with this real love for each other."
"He had such an edge and such a toughness to him," he added about Liotta, "but also this incredible capacity to be very open and quite childlike and vulnerable."
IN THE THREE YEARS SINCE THE RELEASE OF ROCKETMAN, Egerton has done a lot of voice work and also returned to the stage. In March, he made his West End debut in a revival of the Mike Bartlett comedy Cock opposite the Bridgerton star Jonathan Bailey.
On opening night, however, he collapsed onstage at the first performance and, after a successful but brief return, tested positive for Covid-19. Ultimately, he left the production, citing what producers at the time said were "personal reasons."
"Toward the end of last year, a close family member was diagnosed with cancer, and I dropped out of a film to come home and be with that person," he explained. "I thought that, with the play, I was ready to go back to work, but I wasn't. I had to leave, and it was sad, and absolutely one of the hardest decisions I've had to make."
Things appear to be back on track, and looking ahead, he has no shortage of acting work. He has a starring turn as Tetris Co. founder Henk Rogers in the Apple TV+ film Tetris, which is scheduled for later this year, and a return to the Kingsman franchise.
He also hopes to succeed Jackman as the next Wolverine and has met with Marvel Studio executives, including the company's president, Kevin Feige.
"I don't think it would be wrong to say that," he said, laughing. "I'd be excited but I'd be apprehensive as well, because Hugh is so associated with the role that I'd wonder if it'd be very difficult for someone else to do it."
He paused, then flashed a grin. "But hopefully if it does come around, they'll give me a shot."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Sarah Bahr
Photographs by: Ana Cuba
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