Elton John let Taron Egerton read his handwritten '70s-era diaries to prepare to play the rock legend in Rocketman

By Jordan Runtagh
May 31, 2019 10:42 AM

Looking back on his life, Taron Egerton seemed destined to portray Sir Elton Hercules John in Rocketman — the new “based on a true fantasy” musical biopic.

As a teenager, the 29-year-old auditioned for drama school by singing “Your Song,” the 1970 classic that launched Captain Fantastic into orbit. Then, as an up-and-coming star, the Welsh-raised actor crossed paths with John when the rock legend had a cameo in 2017’s Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle.

“We met for the first time when I was filming the wedding scene,” Egerton tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “He was in that scene playing organ, and he just called me up to go and have a chat with him.” The chance to meet the legend in the flesh proved to be “a very, very, very surreal experience.”

The wicked sense of humor they shared made them fast friends, but Egerton’s electrifying cover of “I’m Still Standing” in the animated feature Sing set him apart from other contenders (namely Tom Hardy) to play John in the long-discussed film. Producers, and John himself, insisted upon an actor who could belt the hit-packed Giles Martin-produced soundtrack themselves. Egerton could act, sing and dance — all in John’s trademark platform shoes.

After casting, Egerton was invited to visit the house John, 72, shares with his husband David Furnish, 56, and their two sons, sons Zachary, 8, and Elijah, 6.

“They have a beautiful home and they’re beautiful people,” says Egerton. “They’re very warm and generous and open. And they have just been very, very kind and generous in terms of granting me access to their lives behind closed doors.“

More than just his memories, John even shared his handwritten diaries from his ’70s heyday. “It’s sort of like being transported back in time,” Egerton says of reading the historic documents, which form the basis of John’s upcoming memoir due out in the fall.

“To see the ink that he wrote these songs in, beginning when he’s about 23 and going through to probably when he was nearly 30, was just incredible.”

Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images

RELATED: How Elton John Survived Fame, Addiction and Suicide Attempts — and Learned to Love Himself

Through spending time together, Egerton recognized the two sides of John — the superstar and the man behind the bejeweled sunglasses. “He has a real duality to him. He had this wicked sense of humor and he’s very irreverent, but then he can be so, so sweet and vulnerable and kind. I think that’s something that we share.”

That duality is a recurring theme of Rocketman, in which the adult John tries to make peace with the unhappy and misunderstood little boy inside, born Reggie Dwight in the London suburb of Pinner. “I wanted to include this idea of putting on the mask. I like that idea that someone could be having such struggles behind closed doors and then having this incredible success in front of the public eye.”

For more on Elton John’s astonishing rise to fame and new biopic Rocketman, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands now.

In the film’s centerpiece scene, Egerton as John sings the title song before 50,000 people at L.A’.s Dodger Stadium, the biggest solo show anyone had ever done up to that point. It should have been his crowning achievement, but just days before John had tried to take his own life. Looking haggard during the first half of the song backstage, his face lights up as he goes onstage.

“That iconic Dodger Stadium performance is a part of rock history,” says Egerton. “But the truth of the matter is 48 hours before he went on stage, he swallowed a bunch of pills and he threw himself into his swimming pool. He wasn’t well. He was crying out for help, whether he knew it or not, and for whatever reason he didn’t get that help. But then he had to park his troubles and go be Elton John. I think it’s such an incredible thing for someone to go from such a low ebb to such titanic, gargantuan success.”

The message of Rocketman is clear in a new song John composed with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” which he performs as a duet with Egerton over the film’s closing credits. “The movie is about acceptance of self,” says the leading man. “Although you can kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be, you also have to love your authentic self.”

Though Rocketman was produced by Furnish, John didn’t see it in full until the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. Egerton was right by his side as John watched his life unfold before his eyes.

“He was profoundly moved,” Egerton says. “It’s a story about a man who’s not well becoming well, and I think it was a moving experience for him. And because he was moved, I was moved, and we all got a little teary.”

Rocketman is now playing.

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