Does box office success equate awards potential? It’s the question of the season when it comes to Joker, a divisive comic-book movie that has somehow vaulted its way the fore of this year’s Oscar conversation. The gritty villain origin-story has cannily maneuvered the circuit ever since launching on the lido at the Venice Film Festival, winning the prestigious Golden Lion and moving on to a loud encore in Toronto.
The controversy surrounding the movie’s seemingly cavalier approach to violence and anarchy was at first seen as a potential barrier to accolades, then an attention-grabbing benefit, and now largely unrelated to its chances entirely — another backlash cycle, come and gone. What we’re left with are hard data — a decidedly mixed overall critical reception, record-breaking box office numbers — and gut reactions.
I’ve been skeptical of the movie’s awards chances for awhile now. Joker undeniably dominated talk at the fall festivals, at least early on, but the movie has rarely been held up as a favorite where it counts. On the ground in Toronto, where the film had a splashy screening, it felt like an afterthought as Cannes premieres like Parasite entered new phases of campaigning and similarly recent debuts like Marriage Story more effectively built on their first wave of buzz. The top 3 for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award — the vibrantly unpredictable Parasite, the emotionally wrenching Marriage Story, and the poignantly satirical winner Jojo Rabbit — were drastically different from one another, but each firmly asserted their place in the running well before the votes were counted. The deeply unpleasant Joker, by contrast, generated plenty of debate over its value, but wasn’t taken seriously as the best of the crop.
We’re now at that point on the calendar where the Best Picture field starts narrowing down; beyond the pair of potentially major titles we haven’t seen (1917 and Richard Jewell), things are starting to take shape. The conventional wisdom — including for most here at EW — is that Joker rests on the bubble, with a shot but hardly a lock for a nomination. The main argument for why it’ll make the cut? Box office. The movie is hugely popular — more-so than any other contender this year, or most years. And voters will give it a fair shake, since leading man Joaquin Phoenix feels like a safe bet for a Best Actor nomination, at minimum.
But put simply, it is quite rare for a nihilistic comic-book movie that critics are decidedly mixed on — Joker sits at a 59 on Metacritic — to land a Best Picture nomination. You could say unprecedented. It’s true that popularity changes the equation some; see Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody last year, or Get Out the year before that. But those movies’ appeal — either socially groundbreaking or comfortably crowdpleasing — aren’t really comparable.
And equally common are the movies that sail to surprising box-office success, score with guilds and various precursor groups, only to fall short come Oscar time. Tough genre sells (and ultimate Best Picture snubs) like comedy Bridesmaids and spy thriller Skyfall were major critical and commercial hits that hovered over their respective years as possibilities; Straight Outta Compton made the final cut at SAG, PGA, and WGA before getting shut out of the Academy Awards entirely, save for a screenplay nom. More specifically, many dark, arty, financially successful films in Joker’s vein have been tipped for major embraces before getting passed over — stuff like Gone Girl, David Fincher’s highest-grossing pic ever, or of course, that other prestige Joker movie, The Dark Knight.
Where else might box office play more of a factor? Look, first and foremost, to another male-targeted film hitting theaters Friday: Ford v Ferrari, James Mangold’s muscular, star-studded racing drama which got off to a strong start in Telluride but has since tapered off. It still has what it takes to be a major awards player; high theater grosses could offer the winds it needs in its sails to regain momentum. Recall last year’s studio-backed prestige pic that came running out of the gate before losing ground: Damien Chazelle’s First Man. Once that film underperformed at the box office, its prospects for major recognition really dimmed. Ford v Ferrari is at a similarly pivotal point in its awards journey. It needs the people.
Beyond Ford, which is fronted by generally good guys, it’s a banner year in film for meditations on toxic masculinity. Two prime examples, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman, arguably lead the pack for Best Picture. But in those movies’ cases — as in Ford — there’s a tender, nostalgic quality, a fresh treatment of old stories and archetypes that feels simultaneously like homage and subversion. It’s the best of both worlds for an Academy that sticks to what it knows, while still grudgingly moving with the times.
What we can say for a lot of these movies — for Irishman, for Hollywood, for Ferrari — is that they offer something to root for. A comeback. A swan song. An underdog. You’ve got Martin Scorsese out there passionately advocating for cinema; some may be annoyed by the digs at Marvel, but for others, they’ll resonate. You’ve got Tarantino finally making a movie about the industry he so publicly adores. Voters need a story they can get behind. I’m not sure Joker has a persuasive one to tell.
When Hideo Kojima, the prolific game-maker behind the Metal Gear Solid series, was a boy, he had a vision of what the 21st century would look like. “There would be no war, no poverty. It would be like Star Trek. All the world would be like one.” He recalls this, through a translator, backstage at a Manhattan gallery, the site of a one-night art exhibition showcasing all the concept illustrations that went into his latest project, Death Stranding. “That’s what it was supposed to be.” Obviously, we never reached that future, but Kojima and his videogames have become considerably better at tapping into the cultural and political zeitgeist before anyone else.
In 2017, players were convinced Kojima had predicted their current reality through the story of Metal Gear Solid 2, released about 16 years prior. A scene between the characters of Raiden and The Colonel from this gaming franchise took off online at the time, way before “Fake News” became a rallying chant for the current sitting president. Kojima’s characters remark how “trivial information is accumulating every second” in this “digitized world” that also “selectively rewards development of half-truths.”
Now, in 2019, the cast of Death Stranding believe Kojima again “connected” — a word they use quite often in trying to describe the videogame — with something entirely new. “It’s not a kill-them-all, be-the-last-one-standing game,” says The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus, who portrays the star character, Sam Bridges. “The whole point is to connect and you have to fight to get there and you have to grow as a person. You have a billion people all doing that at the same time. That’s going to do some good, and I think now, especially, is a good time for that to happen.” The extent of Mads Mikkelsen‘s videogame knowledge prior to Death Stranding started and ended with Space Invaders. (Like, the original Space Invaders.) But, for the Hannibal veteran, who portrays an antagonist to Sam named Cliff, Kojima’s new world “has persuaded me to start over and recapture some of my lost game play.”
The presence of these Hollywood actors in a game that also features roles for Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro, James Bond actress Léa Seydoux, The Leftovers‘ Margaret Qualley, and The Bionic Woman herself Lindsay Wagner already gives players some idea of what Death Stranding is. Each delivered voice roles and motion-capture performances to bring their characters to life, but Death Stranding is definitely not a film. It’s also not entirely a videogame, at least in the traditional way that we’ve come to think about videogames.
One word seems to come up repeatedly when trying to describe the experience: “connection.”
In the story, Reedus’ Sam is a “porter.” In other words, a deliver man. Sam traverses America for a company called Bridges, transporting packages and supplies to a now-disconnected civilization. In this world, beings from the space between life and death — called BTs for “beached things” — entered the world during the Death Stranding. Most of humanity walled themselves off inside their respective cities to stop from being consumed by the Death Stranding and becoming BTs. It becomes Sam’s job to travel across what remains of the Land of the Free to connect everyone again through the same online network.
There are also obstacles at play, like “Timefall,” which is rain that vastly accelarates the aging process of whatever it comes into contact with. (A single drop can me unconcealable wrinkles.) There are also elements like “BBs” (for “bridges babies”), infants with a connection to the other side that are farmed and used to help porters to see and detect the presence of BTs.
“I didn’t really know exactly where my part fit into the whole picture,” Mikkelsen says of the first few conversations with Kojima about the game. Playing through about 4 hours of Death Stranding, the feeling is understandable. Through Sam’s BB, we see flashes of memories of Cliff before he shows up later in a more sinister form.
A filmmaker friend advised Mikkelsen to become a part of Death Stranding, Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed the actor in Valhalla Rising and also plays a different character in the videogame. “It was like a graphic novel, and I’m a big graphic novel fan,” Mikkelsen notes of seeing early concept art designs. “I had a hunch that I really wanted to be a part of that process.”
Reedus had a similar experience: “Guillermo del Toro originally called me and goes, ‘There’s a guy that’s gonna contact you to be in a game that we’re making. Say yes.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean say yes?’ He’s like, ‘Trust me.’ Guillermo got me my first acting job. I have a huge respect for our friendship. I know if someone presses Guillermo that much, I’m going to love him.”
Such a complex and layered story like Death Stranding stems from Kojima’s personal struggles. Following his tenure developing titles for Japanese gaming company Konami, he set out to construct his own studio, what we know now as Kojima Productions. “[Death Stranding] was about the days when I was going independent and had nothing,” Kojima explains. “I was like, ‘I want to make something.’ I only had dreams and hope, I didn’t have anything around me to start.”
In 2016 at the E3 gaming expo, where studios and developers gathered to preview their upcoming releases, Kojima first announced Death Stranding as his next project and his sense of isolation broke. “I found out there was already fans and I had connected with fans,” he says. Those connections also extended to Sony Interactive Entertainment, which now partners with Kojima Productions on Death Stranding, as well as Del Toro, who was working with Kojima on the now-canceled P.T.Silent Hills videogame. “When I tried to lead all these connections together, I thought I would make a game based on connection.”
At the same time, it’s almost “a sarcasm to connect,” he adds. In the real world, technology tends to isolate users; people feel more concerned with the life of their social media personas than their actual lives, while text messaging and anonymous comments online often replace in-person conversations. In Death Stranding, technology becomes a way to bring people together. For instance, if one player builds a ladder to climb up a mountainside or a bridge over a stream, another player can utilize those same structures. The game actually encourages players to pay it forward — even if some are doing so to selfishly make their own lives easier.
“I’m not saying yes or no to connection. The answer is up to the players to think about,” Kojima says. “If you play the game, you may feel a connection is not bad after all. So what I wanted to say in Death Stranding is the fact that we’re isolated using the state of our internet, but don’t deny the technology that we have. It’s how you use the technology.”
Kojima leads by example in the way he uses the technology at his disposal. His efforts with motion-capture, by no means a new concept to the Hollywood engine, brings more realism to his characters. At times, it’s too realistic; one function allows players to make Sam urinate where he stands. (Really!) On the opposite end of that spectrum of signature Kojima weirdness, the mastermind personalized the characters to the actors. When he saw Mikkelsen taking a smoke break during one of their filming sessions, he programmed the actor’s character to smoke in the game. “I don’t think I did something really new here,” Kojima notes. “Performance capture is something that was there [already]. I’m just using in a different way.”
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
The results bring a more cinematic experience to Death Stranding that Kojima, too, takes advantage of. There are your standard easy, medium, and hard levels of difficulty for players to choose from, but there’s also a very easy setting designed with cinema lovers in mind.
“When I announced [Death Stranding], I got responses like, ‘I’m a great movie fan and I saw your game, but I haven’t been playing games,’” Kojima recalls. “I wanted to set the bar really low and that’s the very easy mode. All of these people that are movie fans, they say games nowadays are just so complicated they can’t do it anymore… I want people to come back to playing games again. It’s totally different than watching a movie. It’s basically easy, but you have to control it. You’re not just watching it.”
Though he’s interested in one day tackling a movie of some kind, it’s important for Death Stranding to exist as a videogame. The nature of choice lends itself to the idea of connection. (There’s that word again.) “If it’s a movie you just see the character connecting, it’s not you,” Kojima continues. “Everyone who sees the movie could watch it from a little bit of a distance, but in the game it’s interactive. You’re the one deciding and you’re the one connecting.”
Following this same idea strand, Kojima is now looking ahead to streaming for some future project. Well, specifically, the intersection between streaming and A.I. technology. The man is fascinated with the thought of what he predicts will be “a wave of creating things” stemming from artificial intelligence. He says, “I want to do something really weird or something unique on the streaming platform. Technically, I’m trying to experiment already.”
Kojima has a lot of ideas bouncing around in his mind. When asked about turning Death Stranding into another series of games like Metal Gear Solid, he mentions, “It should probably be done, but I don’t know about my whole schedule and my physical condition, too.” Still, he keeps coming back to streaming, if only because, with so much content available on streaming platforms “there are a lot of things in between [a movie and a game] you cannot define.”
Coming from a film and television background, Mikkelsen is intrigued by the potential of interactive storytelling. “The whole idea that people can go in and be a part of the story themselves, it’s probably not something that’s going to happen in the movie industry for a number of years, but it’s definitely something that will be on the table somehow, working together with the gaming world and the film world,” he says. “I think there’s definitely a future to that.”
The following is an excerpt from It’s Garry Shandling’s Book, edited and introduced by Judd Apatow. The book features never-before-seen journal entries and photos, as well as essays and contributions from various beloved comics and celebrities, charting the life of the late comedy icon. This section of the book includes behind-the-scenes photos and original journal entries by Shandling concerning the making of The Larry Sanders Show, his Emmy-winning HBO series. Read on below. It’s Garry Shandling’s Book publishes Tuesday and is available for pre-order.
GARRY SHANDLING: There was an episode we did on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show where Garry goes on a morning talk show. And I thought, Man, there’s a story about the people who host this show that I know. And I always had that in the back: There’s another show here about the person who hosts the show.
And at that juncture I was offered two other late-night hosting jobs. Because Letterman had already gone. So those spots at different times came open. The CBS one was interesting to me because I respected Letterman. I had to really consider if I wanted to do a talk show. Again, I had the opportunity. That was a big decision because the CBS offer was an actually big financial offer. And my girlfriend at the time said, “Take the money. Take the money. Take the money. Take the money. . . . Take the money.”
I called Roy London up and I said, “Roy, I have to make a decision here. Is there a way that I can learn about myself and the world and people and what this is all really about and get down into that shit and the essence of people’s lives and how they cover it . . . on a talk show? Or can I do it on a 1992 show about a guy who hosts a talk show?” And then we started to talk about the guy who hosted the talk show and realized that it isn’t about a guy who hosts a talk show. It’s the ability to have that world within which you could tell the story of human beings.
And so it was never about a guy who hosts a talk show. That show really became a lab for a study of human behavior.
When The Walking Dead first debuted on Halloween night in 2010, nobody expected much. While the show was based on a hit comic book and put together by a Hollywood heavyweight in Frank Darabont, expectations were still somewhat muted. It was, after all, a show about zombies. One of the main reasons AMC greenlit the program was to act as a companion to its bevy of Halloween programming to help brand the cable channel as a destination for seasonal spooky programming. No one could have foreseen what happened next.
While most assumed The Walking Dead would be a mere genre show, the series shocked the industry by premiering with 5.35 million viewers. Many assumed it was a Halloween one-night wonder, but viewership steadily kept rising, turning the show into not only a mainstream hit, but the highest-rated show on television and the biggest scripted show in the history of cable TV. An incredible 22.37 million watched the season 5 premiere, and even two years later — when the show should have been experiencing natural viewer attrition — 21.53 million people tuned in to the season 7 premiere to discover the identity of Negan’s victim(s).
However, many consider that point to be the beginning of the end. That natural audience erosion finally came, as new streaming options like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and others siphoned off viewers. Meanwhile, complaints poured in that the brutality of the Negan regime made the show too depressing (which is saying something about a story that centers around people being devoured by zombies on a regular basis). Viewership steadily declined, with the recent Oct. 14 episode (the second installment from season 10) garnering 5.61 million viewers over seven days — just 25% of the show’s peak audience, meaning three out of four viewers have moved on.
That’s a shame, because those who have moved on are missing a program that has been revitalized in seasons 9 and 10 under new showrunner Angela Kang. (Former showrunner Scott M. Gimple has become chief content officer for the franchise, overseeing all three scripted TWD series, including a new one debuting in 2020, as well as an upcoming Rick Grimes theatrical film.) Five episodes in, the current season has felt like one of the strongest in years.
While The Walking Dead may not dominate online watercooler discussion every Monday morning like it used to, it is still easily the most watched scripted cable series on television. And the fans who are still watching have been rewarded for their devotion with some of the best story lines and developments in the show’s long, illustrious run.
Why is The Walking Dead having such a creative renaissance? Here are five reasons.
1. Great Villains
A group of humans who hide among the dead and wear zombie skin masks over the faces, the Whisperers are one of the most formidable and intriguing baddies in The Walking Dead comics. But how would that translate from page to screen? The answer: tremendously.
Samantha Morton is electric as the cult-like group’s leader, Alpha, displaying both public power and private vulnerability. Her off-kilter speech patterns and posture make every scene with Alpha an adventure, and her mysterious — and sometimes seemingly contradictory — motivations help to make her the most unpredictable villain we’ve ever experienced on the show, and that includes Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
Meanwhile, Ryan Hurst has given Alpha’s lieutenant, the enigmatic Beta, an equally creepy and quiet strength. The battle between Beta and Daryl (Norman Reedus) was one of season 9’s highlights, and now that the big fella and Negan have crossed paths, another duel could be in the future. But Beta is more than just muscle. The fact that the character never takes his mask off gets at some serious trauma that has yet to be fully explained, and Kang promised EW that when we do see Beta’s face it will be “Walking Dead weird.”
In the hands of lesser actors, characters walking around in costumes pretending to be zombies could come off as hokey and cringe-inducing, but Morton and Hurst have somehow managed to give Alpha and Beta depth while also making them legitimately scary. That’s no easy task, they just make it look easy. Speaking of villains…
2. A Kinder (but Not Gentler) Negan
As great a character as brain-bashing Negan was when he was first introduced in issue 100 of the comic, he became even more interesting after losing the All-Out War and being stuck away in a cell by Rick (Andrew Lincoln). The same has been true on the TV show.
While there were complaints from fans about the Negan villain years, the problem was never with the character itself, but rather the reaction our heroes had to that character. Watching Rick cower in fear, Daryl be tortured, Aaron (Ross Marquand) get the crap beaten out of him, and everyone generally just be miserable was tough to take for a prolonged period of time.
Now that Negan is no longer the source and cause of all that suffering, it’s as if the character has been freed — and I don’t just mean literally, as in his recent cell departure. Kang and her writing team have done a masterful job of showing a somewhat reformed and evolved Negan. The trick is that the dude is still kind of an a—hole. Even when Negan does something heroic, like saving Judith in the season 9 finale, he manages to find a way to piss people off with his attitude. Or he goes and saves someone, like a blinded Aaron a few weeks ago, but only after leaving him by himself in the woods and silently watching him struggle before stepping in at the last minute. The producers keep taking great pains to not make Negan too nice, which is a welcome change from television’s often unbelievable transformations.
Perhaps the best example of Negan 2.0 occurred this past week, when Negan befriended a young boy. After telling the kid what it was like to be a on a plane (“It’s like voodoo magic, man”), he went on to espouse the joys of “nut tapping.” On one hand, Negan was taking the time and making the unprompted effort to bond with a boy in need of a father figure. On the other hand, he was doing it by espousing the joy of hitting other dudes in the balls. So, twisted and demented, but also kind and caring. Oh, and when wannabe Negan disciple Brandon killed that boy in a misguided attempt to impress his idol, Negan bashed his brains in with a rock, proving he is as dangerous as ever if you cross him.
That’s the new Negan, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been engaging in a master-class performance bringing that character to life. Instead of being the guy you love to hate, Negan has now become the guy you kinda hate to love.
3. Going Old-School
It’s no accident we’ve been seeing a lot of Daryl and Carol (Melissa McBride) scenes so far this season. And it’s no accident that we will see even more of them next week. As the only links back to the show’s first season, Daryl and Carol are Walking Dead royalty, and they are being treated as such.
The season premiere scene in which Daryl referred to Carol as his best friend and they spoke of hopping on his bike and heading out west together was a treat for longtime fans. At the same time, the show may be setting up Daryl — the only longtime major character on the show who has not had any sort of love connection — to finally find romance. He has become close with Connie (Lauren Ridloff), even learning sign language to better communicate with her. Whether their relationship will fully blossom remains to be seen, but even having Daryl flirting with flirting allows the character (and viewers) to experience something new 10 seasons in.
As for Carol, her two scenes with Alpha — who stuck the head of Carol’s adopted son, Henry, on a pike — have crackled with intensity. The character of Carol is always at her best when she is on a mission, and the promise of another confrontation with Alpha has fans buzzing with anticipation. One of the strengths of season 10 is that it all feels like it is building to something, and you sense that every time Carol is on screen.
4. Still Taking Risks
One of the most remarkable things about The Walking Dead has always been the storytelling risks the show has taken. Generally, the more popular a show becomes, the safer it acts as it tries not to rock the boat while satisfying a big-tent audience. However, even when TWD was the biggest thing on television, Gimple always insisted on pushing the creative envelope by telling stories in a non-traditional manner.
Viewers will gleefully point out the times it didn’t work, like dumpster-gate and the infamous victim point-of-view cliffhanger from season 6, while casually ignoring all the instances in which the risks paid off in big ways, like the surreal and moving season 5 installment in which Tyreese (Chad Coleman) was visited by the ghosts of Walking Dead past before moving on and joining them (“What Happened and What’s Going On”).
Under Kang’s tenure, the show has continued to push the envelope, especially in terms of nonlinear storytelling. The season 10 premiere kept rewinding time to show us the same period in different places. The week after that, we kept flipping back and forth between seven-year periods to see the parallels between the origin of the Whisperers and their current hierarchy. The week after that, we saw 49 hours of a zombie siege in about 2 minutes. None of these were mere gimmicks, however. All worked to frame the story in unique ways that also kept the viewer off balance just enough to keep things interesting.
And as if to prove that nothing is off limits, Kang started the season… IN SPACE!!! While The Walking Dead in space may sound like the most ridiculous thing imaginable, it was anything but — answering a question most of us were not even smart enough to ask: What happens to all those unmanned satellites after the fall of civilization? It was a smart, bold play that not only felt new and fresh, but also set up the conflict to come as our heroes had to cross into Whisperers territory to contain the blaze caused by the downed satellite.
Keeping the core of what made the show great while continuing the take risks and try new things is paramount if The Walking Dead is going to continue to succeed creatively, and so far Kang is off to a tremendous start in that regard.
5. A More Collaborative Environment
Every showrunner has their own style, and when you talk to TWD cast members about Kang, one of the first things that is likely to be mentioned is how open she is to ideas and input. While the showrunner trusts her instincts and is confident in her storytelling choices, Kang also enjoys feedback and consultations with the actors bringing the words to life, and that feedback often leads to big changes and big moments on the show.
One such example involves the creepy mantra we saw Alpha and Beta recite at the end of episode 1002: “We walk in darkness. We are free. We bathe in blood. We are free. We love nothing. We are free. We fear nothing. We are free. We need no words. We are free. We embrace our death. We are free. This is the end of the world. Now is the end of the world. We are the end of the world.”
Instead of being cooked up by a committee in the writers’ room, the mantra was actually something created by Ryan Hurst to help motivate himself before a big scene. As Hurst told EW: “The little story behind the mantra was, I wrote the mantra as a way of what I would say to myself to sort of get in character after I would get my mask on and be in costume and I would say it. And then I told Angela that and she was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re using it!’ I was like, ‘Great!’ And I think the way that they use it is perfect too.”
Another major moment from season 10 — the surprise kiss between a suicidal Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) — was inspired by a chat Kang had with Gurira. “The idea of doing this kiss here came about in an unusual way,” Kang explained to EW. “I was having a conversation with Danai and she said, ‘You know, it’d be interesting if somebody tried to kiss Michonne and she responded.’ Because Michonne’s got all of her own things that she’s dealing with and there has been no exploration of her romantic or sexual side with her since Rick’s supposed death or disappearance. And so we bounced that around and were like, ‘Ah, I don’t think we’re going to do that.’ And then this other pitch came around, which is because we were working on this Ezekiel story, the room kind of came up with this idea of, what if Ezekiel in his depression wants to connect? He just feels so alone, and he feels so sad. He just gets some signals crossed for a second, and then immediately realizes that he kind of screwed that up and pulls back.”
Kang has a comfort and connection with the cast because she has been working on the series since season 2, so when she stepped into her new role of showrunner, she was already well familiar with both the characters and the actors playing them. Trust had been forged on both sides. Often when a new showrunner comes aboard late in a program’s run, it can have the feeling of merely playing out the string, but that is certainly not the feeling with Kang. The cast of The Walking Dead feels revitalized, and with every stellar episode, the show’s viewers are starting to feel the exact same thing.
For more Walking Dead intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.
“I mean, there’s no two ways about it,” Egerton says in a new EW interview for The Awardist podcast. “I’ve never poured so much of myself into something. I’ve never felt so devoted to something over such a protracted period of time.”
Egerton, who in person is affable and sincere, has spent a significant amount of the last three years on Rocketman: rehearsing and filming, recording its soundtrack at Abbey Road, promoting its release, and now extending the movie’s reach into awards season. And where Elton John was known for refusing to take himself seriously, especially onstage, Egerton has approached this role of a lifetime as if it is, in fact, a lifelong commitment.
There was the usual globe-trotting promotional tour, starting at its May premiere in Cannes — he openly wept as the credits rolled — to a fan frenzy upon his arrival in Tokyo and impromptu performance on Paramount Japan’s TikTok alongside director Dexter Fletcher. He and costar Richard Madden, who plays John’s first boyfriend and eventual manager, John Reid, gamely teased each other in marathon junket sessions and promotional stunts.
But now that the film is long finished, Egerton — who first began talks about starring in Rocketman back in 2016 — seems to be entering a new phase. He and Elton John are steadily sanding down the separation between a 72-year-old rock star and the almost 30-year-old man who has been his stand-in on screen, on an audiobook recording, and in countless interviews about John’s legacy. “I’ve never felt so passionate about something — and so protective,” he says.
“I can’t tell you how weird it is to become so close to someone that you portray,” Egerton says. “It used to be that I’d turn up at his house and my heart would skip a beat before he came to the door because — it’s Elton John. But now… I don’t think my heart would flutter. It has just become a very normal thing now, being a part of Elton’s life, and David and the boys, their sons.”
Gisela Schober/Getty Images
Rocketman, which John and Furnish spent over a decade trying to bring to the screen, could have easily suffered from its subject being too close to both the story and its star. Ultimately it’s more a sweeping series of musical-fantasy sequences than a faithfully realistic biopic, and by most accounts, John was less involved in the daily work than Furnish.
But Elton John is also an extraordinarily outspoken celebrity, especially about the tough stuff. His 1976 coming out interview in Rolling Stone was the first of its kind, making him essentially the most famous queer person in the world. He has been candid for decades about his addictions and his commitment to getting, and staying sober. John’s R-rated exploits frame the film, starting with his stint in rehab for multiple addictions, flashing back through years of substance use, toxic relationships and legendary fits of anger.
“Until I saw the final cut of the movie, I never really relaxed,” says Egerton, who was particularly worried that the intimate scenes between his and Madden’s character would be edited out. “We see him in some fairly compromising scenarios. I always was probably frankly slightly paranoid about those parts of the story being filleted in the editing room or gradually being removed from the script over the course of the shoot. But to be honest, it just never happened.”
That left Egerton able to focus on the distinct unreality of how the story was told. “Rocketman works and thrives when it feels like it’s existing in a realm that isn’t quite our world. It’s not quite our Elton. It’s not quite the music that you exactly know. It’s re-imagined.” Egerton strived to hit notes along that same liminal spectrum. “It’s not intended to be a carbon copy performance of who Elton is. This was an enormous source of anxiety to me — I believed that it would work, but I wasn’t certain of it.”
There were physical transformations — a painted gap between his front teeth, his hairline shaved down to mimic John’s early baldness. “My voice gets deeper over the course of the film, and my accent changes. It goes from being quite London to quite transatlantic by the end of it. But for me, those are the easy things. I don’t feel like those are the things that are the most interesting or taxing. Getting to the core of who someone is and capturing their spirit — that’s what I found most scary and daunting, but also ultimately rewarding.”
Egerton, who is modest at his most self-congratulatory, cautiously approves of the result — which Elton John has specifically praised — in a typically reflective fashion. “I think you accept me as him quite quickly and you invest in the character of Elton John, which is informed and determined and inspired by and in homage to him, but is ultimately my creation,” he says. “And it seems to heighten peoples’ response to and affection for him.”
Egerton started acting when he was 15, then scored a scholarship to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which he graduated in 2012 and within a year was cast as the young lead in a highly stylized spy action film alongside Colin Firth. He seems to have kept his head about him as he’s anchored a nearly-billion dollar hit global franchise (the first two Kingsman films, with one more — not this year’s prequel — to go on his contract) and kept his chin up when other massively expensive tentpole endeavors netted out in the red (Robin Hood).
Amidst those big set pieces, he grounded his performance in an abundance of preparation, even if that meant learning to quick-draw arrows until he could fire as many as three a second. “Filmmaking is inherently a collaborative medium, and to over-prepare to the point where it becomes slightly manufactured — that could be the death of the performance,” he says. “If it’s something that involves a skill that is based around muscularity and muscle memory, I don’t think you can do enough.”
He’d sung in the past for film roles — in 2016’s Sing, as an animated gorilla, he even performs Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” — and along with Eddie the Eagle costar Hugh Jackman he contributed an ’80s-inspired synth-pop track to the movie’s closing credits. For Rocketman, Egerton learned enough piano to passably play in John’s style, or look like it, but was adamant about singing his way through every take of every scene, even when it was clear they’d need to blend together what was captured on set with studio sessions.
“I think there’s wisdom in not being precious about those things, because then you’re doing something for a press soundbite rather than for the betterment of the film,” he says.
But still, “There isn’t one moment in the film where I’m miming. If you’ve got a set with 200 people and you’re singing a song, the audio that’s captured in that moment isn’t going to be unadulterated and pure. It’s going to be compromised by all of the paraphernalia of filmmaking. Where possible, where it felt isolated and just me on set, I was absolutely insistent that it be captured live.”
Because Rocketman is a film about a gay ’70s rock icon, comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody were inevitable, even before both had been released. (Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher, above with Egerton on set, was also tapped to finish up Rhapsody after Bryan Singer’s exit.)
“Bohemian Rhapsody was great, and I thought Rami Malek, who’s a friend of mine, was phenomenal in the role [of Freddie Mercury],” Egerton says. Asked if the constant comparisons might help given the industry’s preference for projects with clear similarities to past wins at the box office or awards, he says, “I think there’s room for both. And mainly I just watched what happened to that movie feeling intensely proud for my friend Dexter.”
One major differentiation is Egerton’s singing; the other is in Rocketman’s direct, tender approach to Elton John’s sexual awakening. The film shows a first kiss, John losing his virginity, even a drug-fueled writhing sea of mostly-naked bodies. (The memoir Me that John published six months after the film bowed is even more explicit about both his hookups and intense cocaine use, all of which Egerton seems to delight in reading aloud for the unabridged audiobook.)
With an R rating — and a studio willing to stick to that creative decision — Rocketman skipped opening in China entirely. “I was most proud of the work that was characterized by being only really suitable for an older viewer,” Egerton says. The film fared slightly less well at the hands of Delta Airlines, which recently pledged to restore at least some of the scenes edited out by a third-party service.
“It’s interesting and frankly a little disheartening to know and begin to get an understanding of the mechanics of what embracing someone’s sexuality in a film of this level does to its global box office and how it performs in certain territories,” Egerton says.
“Elton’s recognizable the world over, and there was a version of this film that we could have released that would have frankly made more money that didn’t deal with that part of who he was. But there are too many people I love that I wouldn’t have been able to look in the eye afterward. So I’m very proud of what it is and what it’s become, the journey it’s been on, because I believe that Rocketman has its integrity intact.”
Like many of John’s close friends he writes about in his memoir — Freddie Mercury, John Reid, Rod Stewart — John gave Egerton his own honorific drag name: Blodwyn Campervan. It’s a combination of the Welsh word for flower and a reference to his love of RV camping. “I think that’s how you know he really likes you,” Egerton says proudly. He repaid the gift by dressing in drag with his girlfriend, then leaving a Polaroid of the look in John and Furnish’s guest book at their house in France.
Egerton has sung on stage with John a number of times now, going back to last year’s Oscar party to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation, where they performed “Tiny Dancer,” up through last month’s show at the Greek, where they belted out “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” the new Taupin-penned duet John and Egerton sing over the Rocketman credits (coming soon to a Best Song nomination near you). After John and Furnish took him to Brandi Carlile’s concert performance of Joni Mitchell’s Blue as an early 30th birthday gift, they all wound up at Mitchell’s house singing “Tiny Dancer” with Carlile.
But he’s quick to reject the idea that he might put out an album of his own. “When I was 20, I said I was going to learn an instrument properly, and I’m about to turn 30 and I haven’t,” he says. “And I will not get to 40 without having done it, because if I do it now and put my mind to it, in three years I could potentially be singing and accompany myself. And I think if I don’t do myself the service of spending time learning that skill, then I’m an idiot.”
That means going back to focus on the piano, though he’s considering a stab at guitar, too. “I just want to have something that can accompany a vocal so that when I sing late at night at parties in a completely unsolicited fashion, it looks a little bit more valid and justified,” he says.
“If I learned an instrument and in 10 years I felt that I was proficient enough to write some music, then of course I would entertain the idea [of an album]. But it’s not going to be something that happens anytime soon. I want to be a good actor first.”