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Dexter Fletcher talks ‘Rocketman’

The north London actor-writer-director on his Elton musical, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and having Christopher Walken round for dinner.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Since making his first screen appearance, aged ten in ‘Bugsy Malone’, Dexter Fletcher has acted for some of the directing greats (David Lynch, Derek Jarman, Mike Leigh), faced down one or two personal demons and made the leap into directing (with the terrific ‘Wild Bill’). More recently, he quietly took the reins of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ when Bryan Singer left the production. And now he’s finally stepping into some limelight of his own with Elton John musical ‘Rocketman’. As he explains, it’s definitely not ‘Bohemian Rhapsody 2’.

What was your first Elton experience? Have you always been a fan?
‘I always liked Elton. My first experience was going to my cousin Caroline’s house when she’d just been to four Elton shows back-to-back at the Rainbow [Theatre in Finsbury Park], and she had the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album. We’d listen to it incessantly. I was seven or eight, but that stuck in my memory.’

He was a producer on the film. Were there any red lines?
‘Nothing was off-limits, but I had to be considerate. I don’t want to make things uncomfortable for him; I just want to tell a good story. Sure, it’s R-rated but that’s the lifestyle he was leading in the ’70s and ’80s. There are highs and there are lows, and you can’t show the lows in a PG way.’

I understand where you get to when you’re sniffing a line of coke and you’re paranoid 

You’ve talked about your own struggles with addiction in your twenties. Was that something you connected with?
‘It was certainly something that I had a handle on, and I spoke to Elton about it. My struggles are maybe a bit different from Elton’s, but the result is the same – it’s something to get through. I understand where you get to when you’re sniffing a line of coke and you’re paranoid and you feel like everyone’s betraying you. That’s what the film is dealing with.’ 

Amma Asante on setTaron Egerton as Elton John

Originally, Tom Hardy was going to play Elton in the film. Were you involved at that point?
‘No, I wasn’t. I saw that and was like: Oh, interesting choice. But Tom’s an incredible actor and I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised if he’d been amazing. But Taron [Egerton] seemed like a really smart fit. He’s physically more like Elton – stockier – and I knew he could sing.’

How do you look back on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’? 
‘[Producer] Matthew Vaughn called it my “‘Rocketman’ boot camp”. It was a unique set of circumstances and I’m very proud to be part of it. I love Rami [Malek] and I’m made up for him [that he won the Oscar]. If it had gone badly, I could have gone: “Well, nothing to do with me!” That’s why I’ve not said anything, because it’s not my project. I directed 30 percent of it.’

Some people felt the film straight-washed Freddie Mercury. Do you feel a need to defend it from those criticisms?
‘I’m not the spokesman for it. The only thing I can say about it is that they set out to make a PG film and that’s what they made. All the other issues are for other people to talk about. I understand the debates around it [but] I personally don’t think it’s answerable to it. “Rocketman” isn’t answerable to it – I just want to do what is responsible. There is a love scene in my film. There’s drugs. But in a PG film, you don’t expect that. “Rocketman” is very different [from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’].’

‘I had Alan Rickman and Christopher Walken over for dinner. It was quite something’

Is it true you once hosted a dinner party with Christopher Walken, Hugh Jackman, Alan Rickman and Jamie Oliver?
‘It was quite something. Walken was over for two days to film “Eddie the Eagle” and I invited him over because he wanted to meet Rickman. He was the first to arrive and he sat on the sofa with me and my wife, and we talked about being child actors. Then Rickman turned up, so you had Rickman and Walken sitting at opposite sides of the table and one’s talking about working with Tennessee Williams while the other’s talking about Brecht. Jamie Oliver’s looking at me, like: What the fuck is going on? Jackman bought this amazing bottle of wine. It was a special night.’

Alan Rickman was your best man. Did he give you a grilling in his speech?
‘He took the piss, yes. It was at a little Polish restaurant, Patio, in Shepherd’s Bush. We had no money at the time. Yeah, he’d known me since I was 14, God rest his soul. He was always very supportive and loving towards me. He was brilliant at boosting me up.’

‘Rocketman’ opens Wed May 22. Read our review

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