One of the wonderful things about Rocketman, of which there are many, is the film's willingness to peek into the raw, unsavoury, and often heartbreaking moments that peppered Elton John's wildly successful career. Despite the musical biopic's sheen of fantasy, with all its glitz and glamour and bedazzled orange devil suits, there's a darkness lurking just below the surface that director Dexter Fletcher deftly dips into, like an uplifting, peppy melody paired with a set of tragic lyrics.
One of the most painful parts of John's life, unquestionably, is his relationship with his mother, Sheila Dwight. She's played to perfection by Bryce Dallas Howard, who trades in her signature red hair for a dark wig that, for fans of the music icon, will likely immediately bring to mind his friendship with the late Elizabeth Taylor. Just like in the critically acclaimed season three episode of Black Mirror, "Nosedive," the film offers Howard the chance to show off her impressive range as an actress. She saunters into every scene with a red lipstick-stained cigarette draped between her fingers, spitting out barbed insults to her son, her husband, her . . . well, whoever's in the room. Oh, and that's on top of adopting an English accent and in between belting out John's classic songs.
Ahead of Rocketman's release, I hopped on the phone with Howard to discuss searching for reason in Sheila's cruel behaviour, why speaking with an accent is basically second nature to her, and her hilarious first introduction to costar Taron Egerton, who plays the man of the hour, Elton John.
POPSUGAR: I just have to say that I saw the movie a few days ago, and I haven't been able to stop listening to Elton John songs since. I'm obsessed.
Bryce Dallas Howard: That's how I feel, too! Ever since filming the movie, I got really into it, listening to all his music. And there was music that I had no idea was even his. Like, "What? This is an Elton John song?!" I can relate.
PS: Speaking of that, how much did you know about his childhood and his mum, Sheila, before you signed on to the film? There was so much about his life that I didn't realise, even though he's such an icon.
BDH: Yeah, same situation for me. I mean, I realised you don't really discover Elton John — you learn about him. He's such a mainstay in our culture and in rock and roll. He was Mozart. And absolutely one of, if not the most, prolific artists of our time. I thought I knew about him, but I had no idea that he was a prodigy, or really anything about his childhood. I had no idea about his relationship with Bernie [Taupin] and their musical partnership, and just how beautiful that was. So, it's been such an amazing career that I got to do a deep dive on, and get to know more about Elton John and the individuals in Elton's life who impacted him.
PS: Of all the characters we meet from Elton's life — Bernie, John Reid, and the rest of them — Sheila's obviously not the film's most likeable, and often verges on being straight-up cruel. What would you say drew you to playing his mother in particular?
"He's such a mainstay in our culture and in rock and roll. He was Mozart."
BDH: I would say I was drawn to the project, not the character's personality. It was really fascinating to me because when I read this script, I immediately loved the story, which was written by the same writer as Billy Elliot. At that point it was already very close to production. So, what I read in large part is what you saw [onscreen]. But Dexter wanted to make sure that we authentically captured the dynamics between Sheila and Elton even with limited screen time. So, I spoke with some folks outside of production who knew Sheila, who basically didn't have any skin in the game. It was really enlightening, but of course, it was also very sad.
It seems that she was a woman who came from a difficult situation. She was a very young mother. She's a single mother. And then when Elton was six years old, she and Elton's father got married, but they absolutely loathed one another. As a person, she was someone who certainly never felt fulfilled in her life. That fracture — and also given that she had a personality that was very charismatic and witty and cutting — and that kind of stewing anger gradually evolved to be a break, and she became a broken woman. And it was very, very, very damaging for a child, of course.
PS: That really comes through in the scene of Sheila and Elton, towards the end of the film when she's talking about buying the retirement home at dinner, and they have this bitter, heartbreaking fight. Were there moments like that that where you found yourself empathising with her at all?
BDH: Of course. I mean, it's more I think understanding. Understanding a person's mindset and belief system and emotional landscape. There was actually a point when I reached out to one of my friends who is a psychiatrist, and I talked to him about it because I was like, "This is understandable to a point." I kind of felt like there might have been something more going on. I don't know if it was personality disorder, or if it was narcissism. I don't know. I don't know. But it was very helpful to talk to him, and to talk through what I'd been hearing.
That scene that you referenced, I mean, that was based on something real. She was an only child. And she said to him, "The biggest mistake of my life was having children." So, a person in pain who is saying something like that . . . sometimes that pain is not actually connected to things in the past that happened. It could be connected to an imbalance. It can be connected to bad interpersonal habits. Sometimes, with family, you cross the line. You start calling people names and being cruel to the people you love. Suddenly that love turns to something else. Just very, very dysfunctional.
PS: To play Sheila you also had to speak with a strong accent. What was that like?
BDH: So fun! I worked with a wonderful dialect coach, and I actually stayed in the accent the entire time.
PS: Oh, wow!
BDH: Yeah! The process is like learning a language. If you immerse yourself in the country, and you're speaking in a language all the time, your brain is going to connect the dots much faster than practicing in isolated spurts. The fact that we were shooting in the UK, I thought to myself, "I might well just just go for it." I did that as well on a movie that I did years ago with Kenneth Branagh, called As You Like It. I did a British accent on that which was really fun. David Oyelowo was actually the person who told me — encouraged me — to do that. To stay in the accent the whole time. He's a very loving person, and so he made me feel not embarrassed about it. I'm really grateful to him for that! So that's kind of always been my approach to a dialect.
PS: That's dedication.
BDH: Well there's a little advantage that I had because when I was younger, and my dad was filming Willow, we shot a lot of it in the UK. I learned to read and write while going to a school called Cavendish here in London, so my parents told me that after living here at the age of six for five days — or three days, actually, for three days — I had a full British accent. They were like, "You phony!" [Laughs] So, I kept it the whole time. There's so many videos of me as a kid. Oh my gosh. It's just so funny.
And then even my family was visiting here for a large majority of shooting, and by family, I mean my mom, my dad, my sisters, their husband, boyfriend, my brother, his wife . . . I think even my nephew. I mean, my entire family was on holiday coincidentally 20 minutes away from where we were shooting the entire time. And it was so, so, so much fun to get to be around my family. But I stayed in the accent. I felt a little self-conscious. But I also was like, "You know what? They know that I have a job to do, and they're not going to make fun of me, hopefully." And they didn't, which was great.
PS: So on top of staying in a British accent, you also sing in a few scenes. Were you excited about that part of the role? Or did that make you nervous?
BDH: When I first was offered the part, Matthew Vaughn, the producer, sent me a clip of Taron playing the piano and singing. Basically, from that point forward, I just didn't think about the fact that I was singing at all after seeing how much he was doing. [Laughs] Honestly, I got this role and went to the UK, and went pretty much straight from the airport to Abbey Road and recorded the song and got to be in the booth and everything. So, it was kind of fast and furious, like a band-aid that was ripped off. Then that was it! Very fun, very minor, very low stakes. And it's a scene that I happen to love, and a song that's one of [Elton John's] best. I love it.
PS: I really enjoyed all of Sheila's retro dresses and all of her fashion. Was it fun to step into another decade in that way?
BDH: I love it when I get to play a character who goes through a span of time. You really get to lean into the trends of different eras. Also, I just really like the shape of the clothes from the 1950s and the 1960s. By the time I get to the 70s, I'm like, "Oh gosh. Can we just skip forward to certain parts of the 80s again?" [Laughs] That was really fun to go for a classic look for the era. Then, because Sheila had dark hair, and because Elizabeth Taylor was such a big part of Elton's life, we sort of thought to ourselves, especially because it was heightened, "What if we went for that kind of Elizabeth Taylor vibe for her?" We had a lot of fun with that.
PS: Oh, that's so interesting. I didn't even consider that when I was watching the movie but that makes so much sense now that you say that.
BDH: Totally. Totally. Really fun.
PS: Looking back on all your scenes with Taron, do you have a favourite?
BDH: There were many, many, many, many, many. I mean, all of them frankly. But one that was great was my first scene on camera with Taron, where he's moved back home again as an adult. I'm sitting at the table reading a magazine, talking about how much hard work I'm doing taking care of them, while my mother, played brilliantly by Gemma Jones, is actually doing the work. Bernie's there, too, and then Elton comes downstairs and he's just in his underwear. I remember we were filming it and Taron walked in, in his underwear, and I was like, "Oh, good morning, sir! Lovely to begin our filming sequence together." [Laughs] I mean, it's just a testament to this sense of freedom and fun and all of that and playfulness that existed on set because it was so funny. And fun! [Laughs] It was great.
Rocketman is now in theatres.