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Taron Egerton talks Black Bird, Ray Liotta and his 'pivot' from Rocketman

The actor takes on his darkest project to date in Apple TV+'s nail-biting crime thriller.

Taron Egerton – Big RT Interview
Published: Thursday, 7th July 2022 at 9:00 am
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Taron Egerton is used to playing the hero. Since his breakthrough performance as the unfortunately nicknamed 'Eggsy' in spy thriller Kingsman, the actor has portrayed sporting underdog Eddie the Eagle, music icon Sir Elton John and even Sherwood Forest's legendary protector Robin Hood. That's why it's surprising – and exciting – to see him take such a departure for his latest project, Apple TV+ crime drama Black Bird, where he plays convict Jimmy Keene.

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"It was something I was aware of in making the decision to do this project," he tells RadioTimes.com over Zoom. "I've played largely quite sympathetic, accessible people and that's lovely because it means you get to play people who are likeable and fun... But what I loved about this as an opportunity – and why I was so flattered that they asked me to do it – was it's not really something I've done before. I read it and was thrilled they'd offered it to me, but wondered why they'd offered it to me.

"I suppose I felt there are authentic, tough East Coast guys, who you would think of, perhaps, first. But it was very thrilling to be able to do something especially that was such a pivot from Rocketman, which was such a big event in my life and really did change my life. Obviously, I'm very closely associated with that role and I'm proud of that. But of course, as an actor, I selfishly – probably slightly narcissistically – want to do different things and show that I can flex different muscles."

Inspired by his self-penned book In with the Devil, Black Bird tells the story of how charming hustler Jimmy Keene is slapped with a 10-year prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine – and no chance of parole. On the outside, his father's health is fading fast, with the stress of seeing his son behind bars being a contributing factor. Desperate times call for desperate measures as Jimmy accepts a most unusual deal from authorities: transfer to a maximum security prison, gain the trust of a suspected serial killer and get him to disclose the location of an undiscovered body.

It's a high-stakes gambit; if successful, Jimmy's entire sentence would be expunged, making him a free man once more. But failure would mean, at best, a decade in a hellish institution for the criminally insane, and at worst, a nasty death at the hands of one of his fellow inmates. With nothing to lose, he takes those unfavourable odds and sets to work gaining the trust of Larry Hall; a soft-spoken man with such a reputation for lying that several police officers consider him a dim-witted eccentric. But could there be more to him than meets the eye? A mesmerising performance from Paul Walter Hauser keeps you guessing.

Paul Walter Hauser and Taron Egerton in Black Bird
Paul Walter Hauser and Taron Egerton in Black Bird Apple TV+

"Paul has a tightrope to walk because you don't know what he's done," explains Egerton. "He's supposed to be somebody who could conceivably be threatening and menacing and terrifying, but also completely innocuous, and it's a hard thing to do. I think what Paul does beautifully – it's in the writing, but Paul does it amazingly – is he makes Larry this very childlike, at times quite clownish figure and it's really disconcerting to sit opposite."

The BAFTA-nominated actor continues: "It's a very disturbing performance. But what Paul understood is that the reason it's so disturbing is because there are times where you sympathise with him and that's an uncomfortable place to be as an audience member – and it's a really uncomfortable place for Jimmy to be. The story, I believe, really comes alive when they find common ground."

Another superb screen partner in Black Bird is the late, great Ray Liotta, whose sudden passing in May opened a floodgate of tributes honouring his career and character. Egerton is "quite emotional" about recalling their time together, in which they filmed several poignant scenes as on-screen father and son, describing it as the "most fully realised" working relationship he has ever established with another cast member.

"We just clicked and we were very open and frank and candid with each other," he says. "And I think also just very excited about playing those roles. You know, as an actor, when you are presented with a piece of writing like the one that Dennis [Lehane, screenwriter] presented myself and Ray Liotta with, it's really galvanising and you just can't wait to bring it to life. Particularly when you get a scene partner like Ray, you really feel a sense of opportunity and a thrill."

Ray Liotta in Black Bird
Ray Liotta in Black Bird Apple TV+

There's an admirable openness and eloquence in how Egerton discusses Liotta, whose tragic death aged 67 will surely still feel raw to those who knew him personally. Earlier in our conversation, the Black Bird star had mentioned that he's "quite comfortable" talking about his feelings, referring to it as a "millennial and modern" mindset, which is a far cry from that which hyper-masculine Jimmy Keene demonstrates when we meet him at the beginning of this series. In this sense, the role pushed Egerton out of his comfort zone.

"I suppose for some, particularly men, the challenge is to get in touch with their feelings and [so] it's more challenging to play the kind of sensitive, introspective parts," he says. "But for me, it's actually a more interesting challenge to play someone who is maybe a little bit more repressed... and subscribing to a very old-fashioned idea of what it means to be a man. I loved this part because he's not the finished article at the beginning of the story. There's a lot of flaws in him."

As the series progresses, Egerton hopes that viewers change their opinion on Jimmy, who is now living a very different, law-abiding life in Chicago, which allowed him to have some involvement in the development of this project. Billed as an executive producer here, Keene was kept informed throughout on how his story would be depicted in Black Bird, although Egerton admits that they didn't actually meet until towards the end of production. This was largely due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, but if Egerton had a choice, he probably wouldn't have done things differently.

"To be totally candid and to be really honest with you, I have played a number of real people – some of them living – [and] it's not easy when they're around. It's quite hard. Maybe that’s not something that's good to admit," he revealed. "But I got on very, very well with him when he did join us on set... I got the impression that – and I've felt this before from other people I've played – when they watch an actor bring their story to life, provided it's being done in a respectful, considerate, thoughtful way, I think they normally feel an incredible sense of kinship. I hope he still feels that way."

Egerton also gets the first executive producer credit of his career on Black Bird and tells RadioTimes.com that he's keen to do more work in that area, but adds that he's still "very happy" with standalone acting gigs (or as he describes them, "Shut up and do your job!"). In this case, a desire to work with "collaborative and humble" screenwriter Dennis Lehane was a key driving force behind taking on extra responsibility. Egerton also spoke highly of the miniseries format, which has attracted numerous A-listers to the small screen in recent years, from Nicole Kidman to Kate Winslet.

On the perks it has over a feature film, Egerton says: "You can allow characters to live and breathe, and not put their cards on the table immediately and declare who they are immediately, or at the 11th hour. Things can unfold more organically because you have that breathing room... I really think you can find a richness in the limited series that it's difficult to do in a movie, just because you're working with a constrained timeframe. For my part, I absolutely loved it."

Black Bird premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday 8th July 2022 and new episodes air weekly – sign up for a seven-day free trial of Apple TV+ now. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

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