For the last 18 months, Taron Egerton has lived, breathed and endlessly talked about Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s been an exhaustive run, starting with five weeks worth of auditions for director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn back in 2013 and then continued with filming the gloriously insane action-comedy in London, doing a series of meet-and-greets with press outlets, and attending secret and promotional screenings all across the globe. The last few months have been spent chatting about the finished, ready-to-release Kingsman to every film website that’s eager to push Vaughn’s hugely entertaining, must-see February highlight.
On this early February afternoon in New York City, Egerton is a bit under the weather - he’s been feeling sick for over a week now, and the effects of a serious head cold are right there in his voice, a gravelly mix of cordial British gentleman and a younger Harvey Fierstein. It’s currently his final interview during the seemingly nonstop Kingsman press run, and he’s relieved. Not that he’s complaining, though - after all, Kingsman is the 25-year-old newcomer’s first big movie, and he’s well aware of the fact that every other 25-year-old guy in the world would kill to be in his position right now. He’s just ready for the film to be yours now, not only his. “In one way, it’s kind of sad,” says Egerton, via phone from a Manhattan hotel suite. “Despite having been involved in a couple of other projects, Kingsman really has dominated my life for the last year and a half. Frankly, I’m kind of glad now. It’s out there, people can enjoy it, and my responsibility to it has ended. The movie can now speak for itself.”
Based on its reviews so far, Kingsman: The Secret Service isn’t just speaking to people - it’s joyously smacking them upside their heads. An audacious, hard-R-rated blast of cinematic abandon, Vaughn’s follow-up to X-Men: First Class is a jolt of summer movie euphoria during what’s otherwise the doldrums of first-quarter Hollywood programming. Inspired by classic British spy movies, namely the 007 franchise, yet never beholden to their at times stodgy elegance, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman have repurposed Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar’s comic book The Secret Service with the same kind of kinetic recklessness they brought to Millar’s comic Kick-Ass.
Egerton is the film’s nucleus, playing “Eggsy,” a London street ruffian whose long-deceased father’s legacy connects him to suave badass Harry Hart (Colin Firth). Hart is a member of a secret organization known as, yes, the Kingsmen, a group of James Bond-esque agents who routinely save the world without anyone ever knowing about their heroic exploits. Eggsy is one of the Kingsmen’s new, young recruits, but he’s clearly at the head of his class. He’s the one who’ll ultimately have to face off against the villainous Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a billionaire tech guru whose lisp and playful demeanor mask his megalomaniacal plan to unleash a rage virus onto the planet and cause a worldwide genocide.
Kingsman features a pair of excellent performances from two A-listers: playing drastically against type, the usually stoic Firth kicks an absurd amount of ass, particularly in a show-stopping one-versus-dozens massacre set inside a church full of religious extremists, while Jackson owns every single moment of ridiculous comic relief, whether it’s with a perfectly timed one-liner or a spot-on and emphatic “What the fuck?” reaction. But Kingsman is neither Firth’s or Jackson’s movie - it’s purely Egerton’s show, and the previously unknown rookie gives one of those star-making turns that get Hollywood execs and producers all hot and bothered. Think Chris Pine in J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek movie, or Chris Hemsworth in Thor.
The industry has taken notice, too - Egerton’s name was mentioned as a possible Cyclops in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse (the role went to Tye Sheridan), and he’s already signed onto to star in the sports biopic Eddie the Eagle, alongside Hugh Jackman. “It’s a really exciting time, but it’s also overwhelming. It’s all happening so quickly. My peers and people I meet all have lovely things to say about the film and my performance, which is great - who doesn’t love that kind of validation?” The trick for Egerton, though, has been to treat Hollywood’s interest as one of secondary importance. “For me, the best reactions have been from my friends back home. They’ve all told me how much they love Kingsman, and hearing those compliments from them keeps me grounded. If they didn’t like the film, I’d be crushed.”
Home for Egerton is Aberystwyth, a quaint seaside town in the western part of Wales, UK. In that, he has little in common with Kingsman’s Eggsy, the latter an urbanized youth with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder and an inclination for attention-seeking troublemaking. Rather than marauding around city streets as a youngster, Egerton spent his time in Aberystwyth watching his two favorite forms of entertainment: British sitcoms and animated movies. In regards to the former, he obsessively re-watched the DVDs of shows like Black Adder, Ricky Gervais’ The Office and Only Fools and Horses that his parents kept around the house. Yet animation excited him the most, deriving from his intense love for Pixar movies and the work of the British studio Aardman Animations, the creators of titles like Wallace & Gromit.
“I remember when Monsters Inc. came out, when I was 12 or 13, I went through a phase of drawing all sorts of wacky, crazy monsters,” says Egerton. “Prior to that, I used to make these figurines out of these special little colored blocks of clay you could buy from the local art shop, and you’d build these characters, put them in the oven for about 10-20 minutes, and they’d come out completely hard, as these sorts of ornaments. I made all sorts—I remember one time when I made a Jamaican musician with dreadlocks. Just anything I could think of—that’s how I filled my time, and I’d give them out to my family members.”
Those innocent dreams of becoming an animator faded away once, in his mid-teens, Egerton began attending theater school classes with his friends, all of whom were aspiring musicians and took acting lessons to enhance their stage presences. Long a fan of scene-stealers like Gary Oldman and Brendan Gleeson, Egerton decided to drop the cartoon passion and focus on acting. At age 19 he enrolled into London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he spent three years working on the craft. It wasn’t an easy program. “I found it hard to approach acting with the forensic attitude they teach you in drama school,” says Egerton. “It was difficult to get my head around that kind of thinking. Also, I was young and they generally want people with a bit more life experience, so sometimes I felt like I was lagging behind a little bit. But that experience of feeling inferior helped me, I think, to prepare for what’s happening now. It’s one of those things where you’re always learning. I don’t think you’ll ever say, ‘Okay, I’ve got it now.’ I don’t think people like Gary Oldman and Brendan Gleeson would ever say that.”
That same learning curve defined his approach to Kingsman. Whereas most big-screen novices get to perfect their skills in smaller indie movies before graduating to the big time, Egerton - whose only prior credits are two short-lived stints on the British TV shows Inspector Lewis and The Smoke - has taken the trial-by-fire route, breaking into movies with an ambitious, pricey major studio production. The in-over-his-head sensation complemented his character seamlessly. “There was a kind of wide-eyed wonder for me as I was going through the filming,” he says. “The first time I watched [Kingsman], I noticed that Eggsy’s wide-eyed wonder, as Harry is showing him everything, is a good representation of how I felt while working with Colin and Matthew. It wasn’t hard for me to perform those scenes. The wide-eyed wonder was really there.”
Egerton continues, “There was never one single point during Kingsman where I felt confident that I was nailing it. I was insecure about everything the entire time, frankly. I was always striving towards doing something more. We had these amazing stuntmen showing me how to do things in ways that were far superior to anything I’d ever achieve. Even now that I’ve seen the film, I don’t think that I nailed it, but, at the same time, I don’t ever want to lose that feeling. I know this is my first big movie, but hopefully I can retain this sense of ‘I could have done better.’ Once you lose that, you’ve entered a really, really dangerous point in your career.”
Currently at the polar opposite of a “dangerous point" in his on-the-rise Hollywood career, Egerton is eager to switch gears and anticipate the late-2015 release of his next movie, Legend, a gangster biopic from director Brian Helgeland (42) in which Tom Hardy plays duel roles as notorious British criminals, and paranoid schizophrenics, Ronald and Reginald Kray; Egerton co-stars as “Mad” Teddy Smith, Ronnie Kray’s equally sociopathic boyfriend. Egerton describes the process of making Legend as he and Hardy “constantly trying to out-weird each other.”
For now, though, his primary source of weirdness is Kingsman, the best kind of Hollywood introduction a fresh-faced performer could ever ask for. Even though it’s time for him to relinquish his self-described “coming-of-age as an actor” feature film and let audiences claim it this weekend, Egerton has one last thing he’d like to utter about the film. “By and large,” he says, “I think it’s brilliant.”