Taron Egerton: the man who would be king

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Everybody remembers their first time. And Taron Egerton is no different. It was October 8, 2013, when he first walked onto the set of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. It was memorable for a few reasons. He wasn’t just popping his cherry as a leading man on the big-budget spy caper — right there on the call sheet alongside venerable acting types like Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Firth; this was his first time on a film set doing anything. Oh, and Vaughn was also planning to drop him from a 60-foot-high crane.

“It was the final part of the descent from a sky-dive,” laughs Egerton. Well, he can laugh about it now. “I don’t quite know how I got through that, really. It was a baptism of fire, but Matthew didn’t have any doubts.”

Taron EgertonTaron Egerton, photographed exclusively for Empire by Sarah Dunn.

When Vaughn was looking for someone to play Eggsy, Kingsman’s walking-ASBO-turned-gentleman-spy, he boiled it down to a straight choice between two young British actors: John Boyega and Egerton. Post-Attack The Block, Boyega was a known quantity; Egerton less so. At that point in his career, he had made something of a splash on the London theatre scene in the likes of No Quarter at the Royal Court and The Last Of The Haussmans at the National Theatre, but film hadn’t come his way. Vaughn faced a dilemma. “It was a tough call — Boyega is a fabulous actor, but there’s something about Taron,” the director says. “You have to listen to your instincts about who that role is. John’s probably thinking, ‘Thank fuck he didn’t cast me!’ because he might never have been in Star Wars!”

There’s a real relish in messing with people’s expectations. ‘Oh, you think I’m this, do you? Well, I’m actually this.’

A surprise smash, grossing $414 million worldwide, Kingsman may have had its big-name stars, but it’s hard to overestimate the importance of Egerton. Looking good in both Savile Row suits and shellsuits that seared your eyes, Egerton held his own alongside his illustrious co-stars.

Vaughn — who previously discovered Charlie Cox, Chloë Grace Moretz and Aaron Taylor-Johnson — had done it again. He’d found a kid who could not only handle the physical demands of action, but also transform himself completely and convincingly. So, when he was looking for someone to play the title role in Eddie The Eagle, for which he’s producer, he knew just the guy.

On the surface, playing the most (in)famous ski jumper in Olympic history might seem an unlikely next move for Egerton. It’s a smaller film, for one. And Eddie Edwards, the icon of the 1988 Winter Olympics with his inch-thick specs, wispy ’tache and shock of ginger hair, is as far removed from Eggsy as they come. But that’s the point. “I’ve been offered quite a few rude boys of late,” he says, in a Welsh accent forged in that village with the long, unpronounceable name. “And there’s a real relish in messing with people’s expectations. ‘Oh, you think I’m this, do you? Well, I’m actually this.’ Eddie was a great way of doing that. It’s a nice opportunity to do something that’s very un-Eggsy. Eddie’s altogether more delicate. He’s a bit more of an innocent.”

Dexter Fletcher’s film is frothy fun, the sort of unashamed crowdpleaser that performed well but won’t win major awards. Yet it confirms that Egerton is the real deal. Here, the only muscles he exercises are acting ones, bringing real charm to the hapless Edwards. And again he goes toe-to-toe with an experienced star (Hugh Jackman) and emerges with the film tucked under his arm.

Taron EgertonTaron Egerton with Hugh Jackman in Eddie The Eagle.

Fletcher admits he was initially hesitant to cast Egerton. “I thought Taron was way too good-looking to play Eddie,” he says. So producer Matthew Vaughn, supremely confident he had the right man for the job, flew the actor to New York for a screen test with Jackman that finally convinced the director. “He put his jaw ever so slightly forward and had these glasses that magnified his eyes and it was like, ‘Wow, there he is.’ He’s not just a fast-car-driving, martini-drinking, women-bedding hero. He has more range than that.”

Egerton says that he didn’t take the role purely because of Vaughn, but there’s no doubt he thinks fondly of his Kingsman director, not least because he changed his life. “I’d very much describe him as a friend,” he says. “We speak on the phone about things that are totally unrelated to work. He asks for my opinion on things. For a young actor who can count the films he’s done on one hand, it’s a real privilege.”

Everybody remembers their first time. Eight years prior to his film-set debut, Taron Egerton found himself on stage in Aberystwyth, wearing a red dress and matching feather boa — his true introduction to acting.

“I had made a great group of friends, who are still my great group of friends now,” he explains. “Some of them were involved in a youth theatre and I tagged along with them.” Tagging along led to a role in their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Egerton was invited to play Flute, a bellowsmender who cross-dresses in the play within the play. “I remember being so, so nervous and apprehensive about being a slightly overweight, self-conscious 15-year-old putting on this dress and going out in front of a live audience,” recalls Egerton. “When it actually happened, and the audience cracked up, it was just the most amazing feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”

Taron EgertonTaron Egerton, photographed exclusively for Empire by Sarah Dunn.

An amateur psychologist might say Egerton has been chasing that feeling since. It fuelled his desire to apply to drama school (after an initial rejection, he got into RADA), and that initial flurry of stage work. “To be honest, that’s something I really miss. I had dreams of winning Olivier Awards,” he admits. Film, he says, is something he thought might come along later. Now he has over 200,000 followers on Twitter, always a decent measure of star power. A video of Mark Ruffalo’s wife doubling back to shake his hand at the BAFTAs (where he lost out on the EE Rising Star award to… John Boyega) went viral. And on the final occasion we speak to him for this piece, he has to negotiate a crowd of autograph hunters who have gathered outside his hotel. “That takes some getting used to,” he admits. “We’re not talking about the queue for the new Apple product or the new Harry Potter book, but it is very surreal.”

It would be easy for anyone in Egerton’s position to get carried away and turn into a raging asshat, but he has level heads to call upon for advice (“Hugh handles it really brilliantly,” he says of his Eddie co-star), and is determined to remain the same affable Welshman he was when he set foot on Kingsman’s set on that October day. After all, as they say, you can take the boy out of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, but you can’t take Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch out of the boy. “I don’t know that anyone plans for this,” he says. “But I’d be very sorry to see it go because I am enjoying it immensely.”

Nobody remembers their third time. But Egerton is adamant that will change with Kingsman sequel The Golden Circle: his third collaboration with Matthew Vaughn. “I’ve never been given a script before where it was written for me,” he says. “That’s an amazing feeling. It’s exciting to be back.” He’s currently in training for the movie, which starts shooting in April, and while he won’t elaborate on what’s in store for Eggsy, he will say, “It’s demented. Stomach-sickeningly demented at times.”

Taron EgertonTaron Egerton in Kingsman: The Secret Service.

After that comes the title role in Robin Hood: Origins, the latest take on Sherwood Forest’s most famous denizen, which Egerton insists “feels like a very new retelling of that story, and very character-led. It’s set in Robin Hood-y times, but it will have a contemporary feel to it, a bit rock ’n’ roll.” It’s been a sharp ascent since Kingsman, which was only released just over a year ago. As well as bagging the role of England’s merriest outlaw, he’s also been linked with several blockbusters. Some of that speculation has been nonsense (like every white actor of a certain age, he was linked with the Young Han Solo movie), some of it specious (a link with playing Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse), and some of it spot-on (he screen-tested for Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales). But they all have a common link: he’s not interested.

I’m not interested in being Franchise Boy.

Egerton tells us that Vaughn sees more of Eddie Edwards in him than Eggsy, laughing that he’s not sure how to take that, but when he discusses his career game plan, we can see what Vaughn means. He’s ambitious, but not in a predictable way. “I want to play real characters, rather than young leads in very plotty things,” he says. “I want variety. I’m hesitant about strapping myself to another massive beast, unless I really want to do it. I’m not interested in being Franchise Boy.”

This article first appeared in Empire magazine, May 2016 (issue #323). Photography by Sarah Dunn.