Rocketman, the movie chronicling Elton John‘s tumultuous rise to fame, premiered to rave reviews in May 2019. The musical biopic genre can feel a bit played out — pun intended — but Rocketman breathes new life into what could have been a cliched narrative. It’s clearly John’s story the way he wanted it to be told, no holds barred.
Taron Egerton, whose portrayal of John earned Oscar buzz from critics, played the part so well that it’s hard to believe he wasn’t the first choice for the role. Initially, Tom Hardy was slated to play the musical icon — he was attached to the project as early as 2013. Although there’s no denying Hardy’s talent as an actor, Egerton ended up playing John on the big screen. Why did the producers pivot from an Academy Award-nominated actor like Hardy to Egerton, who didn’t have nearly as much experience under his belt? Here’s how Taron Egerton unexpectedly ended up playing his musical hero Elton John.
From Justin to Tom
In 2001, John and his husband David Furnish started the long process of trying to produce a biopic of John’s life and career. But making headway proved impossible — studios weren’t eager to release a musical biopic with an R rating, while others wanted to tone down the surreal fantasy scenes that John hoped to include.
John wouldn’t settle for either. He had a certain vision for the film, one that illustrated his past through his own eyes. By 2012, the gears were finally in motion, and John announced his first choice to play himself: Justin Timberlake. Why Timberlake? The pop star had already played John in the video for his single "This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore." Not only had he already done a "superb" job of portraying John while lip syncing, he can also sing, dance, and act — at the time, he was an obvious first choice.
But in 2013, Hardy was brought on board to play John — perhaps because Timberlake announced his return to touring in 2013 after a long hiatus.
Doubt behind the scenes
Throughout 2016 and 2017, producer Matthew Vaughn kept busy shooting, editing, and promoting his film Kingsman: The Golden Circle. During production, Furnish talked to Vaughn about the uncertain future of Rocketman. They were having budget issues, and the studio was still hesitant to go ahead with a script that would undoubtedly saddle the film with an R rating. But Vaughn saw the potential in the film, and although he was busy with The Golden Circle, he decided he wanted to finance Rocketman through his own production house.
However, there was one aspect of the film that Vaughn wasn’t totally on board with: casting Hardy as John. He had plenty of respect for Hardy, calling him "one of the best actors," but he wasn’t sure that he was the right choice to play John. He was convinced that if they wanted to move forward with the project, they’d have to rethink their star.
Lip syncing isn’t as easy as it looks
Hardy is an exceptionally skilled actor, but he doesn’t sing. Therefore, the original plan was just to have him lip sync during the musical scenes. A lack of musical ability didn’t have to take Hardy out of the running for the part, right?
But Hardy himself admitted that even lip syncing realistically was more challenging than people would assume. "I’m not a singer. I have no idea, really," Hardy told The Sun. "I’m really trying because of Rocketman, but it’s hard to open my mouth in that way."
Vaughn also wasn’t enthusiastic about Hardy lip syncing in order to play John. Yes, finding someone new meant delaying the film further, but it would be worth it if they could hire an actor who could carry a tune. John and Furnish were unsure about letting go of Hardy, but they were willing to hear Vaughn’s suggestions for alternatives.
An awkward fit
Tom Hardy has taken on a wide variety of roles — he definitely hasn’t been typecast, and he truly disappears into every character he plays. But it isn’t like musicals have ever been his forte. Action films like Mad Max? Sure. Filming in freezing cold conditions for months on end for The Revenant? No problem. But starring in a musical? It’s just never been a goal of his.
"I’m not really drawn towards singing and musicals and that stuff," Hardy told The Sun. "I did some rap when I was a kid but I’m somebody’s dad now so it wouldn’t be too cool to crack that out!" That’s not to say that Hardy wasn’t honored to be extended the opportunity to work on the film, but he probably recognized that it was out of his comfort zone. Sometimes, an actor just has to step back and admit that someone else is better suited to a particular role — that’s just business.
Hitting the note
Clearly, John originally wanted a singer to portray him, hence his efforts to get Timberlake on board. When Hardy signed on, John planned to re-record his hits for the film. But for a musical biopic, it would obviously be ideal to have a star who could not only sing John’s hits on his own, but who naturally sounded a bit like John, too.
That’s why Egerton stood out. John was especially impressed when he heard Egerton sing "Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me," admitting that he personally really struggled with the song when he originally recorded it in 1974. John said that Egerton’s rendition of the song "astounded" him. Egerton’s voice just happened to be a perfect fit for John’s most beloved songs — it’s possible to tell them apart, but the resemblance is definitely noticeable. Egerton can make the songs his own, yet they don’t sound so different that it would ruin the immersion of the film.
Mutual admiration society
Something else that helped Egerton land the role? John and Furnish already knew and liked him. They met on the set of Kingsman: The Golden Circle. John had a small part (playing himself), while Egerton was returning to his role as Gary "Eggsy" Unwin from the first Kingsman film.
Furnish had nothing but good things to say about Egerton after meeting him. "Elton and I were like, ‘Wow, this guy is really handsome and has a real striking presence,’" he told The Hollywood Reporter. "We took a real shine to him." The positive first impression definitely worked in Egerton’s favor. When his name was suggested as a potential replacement for Hardy, John and Furnish were open to the idea. Some might even say it was fate — Egerton probably never anticipated that he would end up portraying John in his own biopic after meeting him, but in any industry, it’s all about who you know.
Taron Egerton has always been a huge fan of John’s work. In fact, he even performed "Your Song" at his successful audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Talk about coming full circle — nearly a decade later, he’d be singing it again in Rocketman. But that wasn’t his only pivotal performance of one of John’s biggest hits.
Egerton was part of the star-studded ensemble cast of the 2016 animated musical Sing, in which he voiced a teenage gorilla named Johnny. He happened to perform "I’m Still Standing," which Vaughn remembered when they were figuring out who to cast as John. Sure, it was a very different kind of film, but Egerton clearly loved John’s music, and he’d already proven that he definitely didn’t need to lip sync. Who knew that his role as a singing cartoon gorilla would turn out to be a step on the road to playing Elton John himself?
Buy-in from the boss
Although it was originally Matthew Vaughn’s suggestion, Elton John and David Furnish had the final call on casting Taron Egerton in Rocketman — and they definitely approved. "When they heard him sing, it was like a no brainer," Vaughn told The Hollywood Reporter. "They were like, ‘Okay, he’s unbelievable.’"
John didn’t want to spend too much time on set or micromanage Egerton’s creative expression, but he did want to start the process by steering him in the right direction. After Egerton officially landed the role, John gave him old diaries to study. This was the start of a real friendship between the two.
John was very happy with the footage he saw before the film was released — he didn’t watch it in full until it actually premiered — but Egerton admitted that it was a good thing he wasn’t always hanging out on set. "There’s really nothing more intimidating than performing in front of Elton," he told The Hollywood Reporter.
An older Rocketman
Another issue with the potential Hardy casting? His age. Hardy is in his 40s, and he wouldn’t have been realistic as John in his younger years. Yes, the film spans a few decades, but it was easier to make Egerton look older than it would have been to make Hardy look younger. At 29, Egerton looks youthful enough to play a convincing teenage John at the start of his career, and a few clever tricks from the hair and makeup departments aged him up for the later scenes.
To give Egerton a receding hairline, they shaved his head just to mid-scalp and used a razor to thin it out. "It was just horrible," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "They had to re-shave it every day. I looked like Krusty the Clown."
John was amused by Egerton’s frustration with his new look. "Welcome to my world, baby," he joked in an essay in The Guardian. "At least yours will grow back."
A natural resemblance
Taron Egerton isn’t exactly a dead ringer for a young Elton John, but he does bear a passing resemblance in a way that Hardy just didn’t. Given Hardy’s uncanny ability to leave people saying, "Wait, that was Tom Hardy?" after seeing one of his films, perhaps he would have looked the part — but even John admitted that there’s just something about Egerton’s performance that just embodies the essence of who Elton John really is.
"He isn’t doing an impersonation of me, he doesn’t look uncannily like me," John wrote in The Guardian. "But he’s like me, he’s captured something of me." In fact, John went so far as to say, "I didn’t think it was Taron. I thought it was me" after watching the film in full for the first time. There’s no higher form of praise. It’s safe to say that in the end, Egerton was the perfect choice for this role.
All’s well that ends well
Sometimes, losing out a role can be a blessing in disguise for an actor. While Rocketman was shooting in 2018, Hardy had the chance to take on a role that was a much better fit for his strengths: the infamous gangster Al Capone in the film Fonzo, which chronicles Capone’s life after his release from federal prison and his descent into dementia.
This crime thriller is definitely the type of film where Hardy can really shine. He’s shared a few photos from the set on Instagram, and it’s already easy to believe that he was the right choice to play Capone. If he’d stuck with Rocketman, he probably wouldn’t have been able to be a part of Fonzo, too. Director, writer, and editor Josh Trank claims Fonzo is his best project yet, so expectations are already high. Knowing Hardy, he’ll exceed them.
Tom Hardy’s filmography is already extensive, while Taron Egerton has appeared in comparatively few productions. The up-and-coming star was ready for a role like this one — a film that would challenge him to rise to the pressure of lofty expectations and fully lean into all of his talents.
Although casting a straight actor to play a gay man proved to be a somewhat controversial choice, Egerton took it all in stride and had a straightforward answer to the criticism. "I’m an actor, and I did not get into acting to just play people like me," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "You have to draw the line somewhere, and I don’t want to live in a world where straight people play straight people and gay people play gay people."
Rocketman has been a massive professional achievement for Egerton. It might be tough to beat the experience of playing Elton John with such high praise from the man himself, but there’s little doubt that he’ll go on to have an impressive career.