Taron Egerton is, as he will tell you himself, easily best known for his role as Eggsy in Kingsman and its rapidly incoming sequel. In fact, so much of what I knew about Egerton comes from watching him in charm up the screen in Kingsman and Eddie The Eagle that I was a little surprised to see just how good a job he also does in Sing, playing a singing gorilla who’d rather tickle the ivories than drive get-away for his family of bank robbers. Singing is a particular skill of course but, as Egerton and I discussed, so is providing the voice of an animated character.
We met last week and chatted about Sing, Kingsman chapters two and beyond, and what else Egerton has on his To Do list. Here’s how the conversation went.
Let’s start by thinking about the differences between a voice-only performance and an on-camera performance. What would you say the major distinctions are?
For my money, when you’re doing an on-camera performance, unless it’s for something particularly stylised, you are by-and-large striving for naturalism. Certainly the past twenty years – I say like I’m some sort of specialist – there’s been a trend towards uber-naturalism. I suppose is a lazier way of looking at it is that you just throw everything away.
But I realised very quickly that, when it’s an animated film, you have to be very expressive and muscular in your performance or, otherwise, it can become quite muted on screen. I don’t know if it’s do to with the disembodied nature of it or the fact that the characters are larger than life but you have to really vary the tone of what you say, be super muscular and ennunciate. That was the big thing I learned.
How did you come upon this idea, then? What told you this was right?
They play stuff back to you in the studio and you sometimes think “That was really quite boring.” You give a delivery of a line that you would think sounds one way but when it’s played back to you, you realise that it sounds, frankly, a little bit dull, not particularly characterful or emotive. You have to artificially contrive a larger than life way of speaking so that it’s interesting on screen.
To play the Devil’s advocate, though, if you’re on set and you watch a take in video village, you don’t just hear yourself, you see yourself too. So… in this case, could it not be simply a side effect of the fact that you don’t see anything? If, as if by magic, the animation was already there for you to look at, might the more natural performance not feel suitable?
Quite possibly you are exactly right, but what I didn’t mention but which is important, is that these performances are geared towards working for children too. If you watch a television show made by accomplished professionals of children’s TV, it’s all very expressive.
They do hit those beats.
It’s all landed, it’s up and down in pitch, it’s more interesting, maybe easier for a child’s ear to tune into. I think that’s also something that I felt. I went in giving a performance of the kind I normally strive for when I’m acting, something that feels the same as when I’m just having a conversation – that’s what will make it real. But with this… I think it’s more interesting to be expressive. I don’t know. I could be talking crap.
It has music to it, the more expressive performance.
Can you remember your early conversations with Garth [Jennings, Sing’s director] about this character?
When I first spoke to him about it he was calling it The Lunch Project purely because of it being engendered over lunch, that was the inception of the idea. He said “I had this idea, I imagined these animals and all the things they can do. The gorillas were always bank robbers, the rhinos were always police.” And in his head, they’d always been cockney.
He wanted a teenage, soulful character and my agents thought I might fit the bill because I said I wanted to sing. I auditioned for Garth over a live link because he was in Paris and it went really well, we had such fun together. Obviously you’re a fan of his work, and he is an amazing energy and presence to be around.
For the audition I read a couple of scenes and he wanted me to sing something from a list of songs but I decided, in fact, I’d do some Otis Redding instead.
When it came down to it and you had the role, how many sessions did you do and how long was each one?
They varied, really, from about two hours to about five hours. The longer ones were for the singing. I must have done… ooh, about six, maybe.
So about twenty hours?
Yeah, it couldn’t have been too much more than that.
It’s a remarkable ratio. Such efficiency, from an actor’s point of view, compared to a live-action film.
It’s really quick. But the other thing I haven’t accounted for is that there were quite a few hours spent practising the songs, at least on my part. The songs you hear me do a snapshot of, I sang the whole thing, there is a recording of the whole thing somewhere. I sang four numbers: The Way I Feel Inside by The Zombies, Stay With Me by Sam Smith, All Of Me by John Legend – a very beautiful song you don’t get to hear much of – and one complete number, which is I’m Still Standing by Elton John. Let’s say that took eight hours of tuition on top of the recording. Probably accounts for two full days work.
For somebody’s contribution to a feature film, through which they are threaded the whole way…
It’s not a lot. The animators are the ones who…
They’re the ones who carry a lot of work for each character on their backs.
Then the actors, we’re the ones who promote it, who sell the film. That’s why people are so aware of us.
But then something weird happens, because if I go see the film in Germany, say, or in the Netherlands, it’s not your voice I hear, it’s somebody else.
I’ve not heard any of that yet. It is a particularly weird thing. I presume they’re then going to sing foreign language versions of the songs?
I don’t know that they necessarily do that, some songs will still have English lyrics, I assume, but they have cast singers, not just actors who can do the spoken lines.
I think it’s very interesting what happens to your performance. It starts with you in a booth, then that audio gets shaped by an editor, then it gets animated, the character is interpreted from your audio into something we see on screen, and then somebody else comes in, sees the animated version and perform audio for that. It’s a pass-the-parcel version of acting.
In an animated film, it’s not really ‘your role’. Johnny, I give him voice but if he belongs to anyone he belongs to the designers who designed him and the animators who made him move. They may have taken some inspiration from something I did in the booth but, really, it’s the guys in Paris who made this film, and we just give it a bit of sound and then sell it, really. That’s a particularly sterile way of looking at it.
Well, you haven’t given Johnny nothing.
No, no. It’s a collaborative medium. I’d like to think something of the way in which he expresses himself is born of me.
When you’ve looked at the film, have you been surprised by the performance Johnny gives?
I was overwhelmed when I first saw it. I don’t think I had actually appreciated the scale of what we were doing. I’d seen Despicable Me and Minions, but there’s such a wealth of character design in this, such a wealth of imagination, especially in terms of all the different animals with different personalities, that I didn’t know what to expect. And when I signed up for this, I didn’t know the rest of the cast, or how big a film it was going to be. Kingsman is the film I’m best known for and this is already bigger than that.
Certainly in terms of dollars.
It’s a big earner and something of the humour in it has really resonated with kids. Amazing, mind blowing, really. It’s a smash.
You mentioned earlier that you had told your agent you wanted to sing. What else is on your To Do list?
I’m desperate to get back on stage. I’d like to do a play and I’d like to do a musical.
A stage musical?
Yes. Or, who knows, maybe a live-action film one.
You’d be a good Arthur Kipps in Half A Sixpence.
You’re not the first person to say that. It’s the cheeky chappy thing. But those things are in the forefront of my mind, but I don’t think I can really plan. I’m a working actor, I don’t make my own work, so it’s the opportunities that are presented to me.
You must have many more options now than you did five years ago.
With a film like this, the performance is you, the director and four walls. On stage, it’s you, the audience and three walls. When you’re doing a movie, you’re surrounded by actors. Is there any plus to doing a performance on your own, as you do in an animated movie?
No. And I think it’s harder, in one sense, because I think good acting is always about responding to external stimuli, being alive to all of the things that are around you, what other actors are doing. In this case, I was doing it in a vacuum, which is kind of weird, kind of feels forced and contrived. I know John C. Reilly had a friend come in and act opposite him.
A friend of John C. Reilly’s is probably somebody we’d have heard of…
I have no idea who it was, but I think he did it this way just because he’s just that bit more of an artist. I found it to be a new, interesting thing, more of a challenge. With another actor you can draw energy from them, here, you have to somehow summon it from yourself.
I don’t want to get to fired so I have to ask you some questions about Kingsman.
When I spoke to Matthew about the first film, we spoke a lot about the politics of the film. Some of which, I think, are even more resonant now – particularly these questions of what amounts to British identity. And now the new film is bringing the Americans into the fold and that couldn’t be any more timely, could it?
Quite right. Though I have to be pretty careful what I say – Matthew can say what he wants, it’s his film. I think it very much is political. I think I can say there’s a ‘presidential’ thread that runs through the new film. I think that, each time, whenever there’s a new global threat that arises in the world of Kingsman, it will be something that may have genuine relevance. In the first one, I guess we could say it’s over population, and in this one, it’s a similarly pertinent global theme.
But I think you’re right. It’s a warped, distorted presentation of politics, but I think the themes are definitely there.
Interesting that you say “every time.” It puts me in mind of however Bonds we have – 24, I think. Are we going to get to Kingsman 3?
Matthew is a very much ‘Don’t count the chickens before they’ve hatched’ kind of guy, but he also has a real sense of Kingsman being his baby and he won’t jeopardise it with a crap idea. So it depends what occurs, and whether it feels right to him, but I don’t think for a second that either he or myself, the lovely people at Fox and whoever else is interested in Kingsman, wouldn’t completely love it if this is a continuing series.
Did Mark Millar contribute any of the original story this time around?
He would certainly have been a consultant, but I think Matthew had his own ideas, this time. Something original that he came up with, a script he wrote with Jane Goldman.
Thanks to the poster and a little bit of PR hype, we know Elton John is involved in this one. I know he was definitely featured as himself in an early draft of the first film’s script. He even got to take part in a bit of action, helping to rescue… well, I won’t say who. I wouldn’t want to spoil it. But is the second film going back to pick up any of those same ideas?
Matthew knows and likes Elton, and knows that he brings something that fits the tone of the Kingsman world. I think I can say that there’s a deleted scene from the first one, that I personally thought shouldn’t have been cut, and that’s now in the second film. But what it is… I don’t think I can say.
On that teasing note, I think I will let you go, leaving us all hanging on the hook. Thank you Taron.
Sing is out in UK cinemas tomorrow.