Elton John Goes Inside the Mind of Richard Madden, Hollywood’s Strongest and Silentest Leading Man
Marlon Brando. James Dean. River Phoenix. With his star-making turn as a damaged war veteran hired to protect the Home Secretary in the BBC’s wildly popular six-episode series Bodyguard, Richard Madden entered a pantheon of charismatic, complicated Hollywood heartthrobs. But this transformation did not happen overnight. The 32-year-old Scottish actor made his stage debut at the age of 20 playing Romeo at the Globe Theatre in London, before graduating to playing a king for three seasons on HBO’s Game of Thrones, until his character was massacred on the show’s infamous “Red Wedding” episode — a tragedy that still has fans shouting “King of the North” at him on the street. Yet it was Bodyguard that really gave Madden the chance to flex his muscles — acting and otherwise — at the intersection of vulnerability and hypermasculinity, in the process earning him a Golden Globe for his performance. In Madden’s upcoming film, Rocketman — a biopic, refracted through a disco ball, about the one and only Elton John — he plays the legendary singer’s manager and onetime lover John Reid, a character he bluntly describes as “a cunt sometimes.” The project gave Madden the opportunity to play against type, and it sparked a unique friendship between him and Elton John. The two met at John’s home in Los Angeles to discuss pub fights, nude scenes, and why compromise is such a dirty word.
JOHN: What made you want to be an actor?
MADDEN: I started acting because I was shy. I was going to a really rough high school on the west coast of Scotland, so I went to the youth theater to get some confidence. It became my everything. Getting famous as a kid was a shitshow, but that’s just what I felt I needed to do. I stopped going to school because I got famous.
JOHN: Was that validating?
MADDEN: Not as an adult. I think any other choice would have been easier in terms of dealing with day-to-day life. Not being an actor would have been easier.
JOHN: I was so shy as a child, and I am shy still. Getting onstage and doing what I did was an escape from having to be shy.
MADDEN: Nothing is more terrifying to me than standing up in front of a room of ten people. I was presenting at an awards ceremony the other week, physically shaking onstage, so much that I was sweating. But I can get naked onstage in front of 2,000 people as another character and it’s not an issue.
JOHN: For me, it was always a problem when I’d come off from doing a show, becoming myself again. What was your first role?
MADDEN: I was 11 years old. It was a film called Duplicity, and I played a boy who got raped in the forest by this large ginger Scotsman, and then I beat him to death with a log. That doesn’t help you out with your street cred very much. People can’t differentiate between what’s real and not.
JOHN: If you’re young and in show business, most people think you’re either a poof or you’re a show-off. How did you cope with that?
MADDEN: Not very well. I was absolutely destroyed at school. I kind of retreated with my one or two close friends. I managed to take over the school radio because that was the only room in the building that was soundproof that we young ones had a key to, so we could be in our own little world. We never had a drama department.
JOHN: When I was a kid, I loved the cinema because it was an escape. It was just so magical. I’m much, much older than you are, but did you find that in cinema?
MADDEN: The movies took me away to a different world. There were a bunch of films on VHS that I wasn’t allowed to watch as a child because they were adult films. I remember clearly on the day of my grandfather’s funeral, when all the parents were distracted and no one was going to tell me off, I watched two films: Shallow Grave and Taxi Driver.
MADDEN: I was completely fascinated by the process of how a film works, and I still am. People ask, “How do you prepare for a role?” But every single job is completely different in terms of the approach.
JOHN: I sing the same songs time after time after time, but I try to approach them a little differently every night. There is no way of preparing for a concert. You just go on, you know what you’re going to do, and then you do it.
MADDEN: What about when you’re making music? Is there a routine?
JOHN: It’s a collaboration and it’s happenstance. Sometimes when the red lights go on, you don’t do as good a performance as when you’re rehearsing. Now I have the advantage of the tapes and everything, but in the old days, when the red light went on, you felt yourself tensing up.
MADDEN: Absolutely. When they say “rolling” to me, that’s when I get shocked.
JOHN: What was your big break?
MADDEN: I’m sure other people would say Game of Thrones, but for me it was getting cast as Romeo at the Globe when I was 20. I played Romeo again at the age of 30, and I found the process much less enjoyable. I think by that point, I knew too much as a human to be present.
JOHN: You were too old to be Romeo?
JOHN: In Game of Thrones, your character was killed off. Do you still get nerds coming up to you asking you about it?
MADDEN: “King of the North! King of the North!” I still get that a lot, but it’s in a beautiful way. I’ve been lucky that the characters I’ve played are ones that audiences have liked. There are actors on that show who people walk past on the street and yell, “Bitch!” People have a fondness for my character. I died too young.
JOHN: It must have been fun to do. It seems to me that kind of series has a lot of camaraderie.
MADDEN: You need it on that kind of job. Me, Kit [Harington], Maisie [Williams], and Sophie [Turner] — we were all children when we started there. We went on a kind of journey growing up through the show. I don’t know any other jobs I’ve done where I’m still friends with so many people from it.
JOHN: I’m a great believer in kismet, and how the universe spins around and throws people into their path.
MADDEN: If you come away from the theater or a television series or a film with one person you’re still in touch with, then you’re winning. That’s more than average.
JOHN: Let’s talk about Bodyguard. When I first started watching it, I watched an episode a night, and then I was going away for Christmas and thought, “I can’t not see the whole thing.” So I watched three hours. It was a riveting series that really catapulted you into another kind of stratosphere. People knew you before, but now you’ve won a Golden Globe for Christ’s sake! Do you feel the series has put your name in lights?
MADDEN: I’m still overwhelmed, and also hugely grateful for it. Often, you work so hard on things, and then it comes out and people go, “Yeah, all right.” And you go, “Fuck, doing that nearly killed me. It took a huge part of my life out of me.”
JOHN: It was a very sexy series. As soon as I saw the first episode, I just knew you were going to fuck the Home Secretary. I said to David [Furnish, John’s husband], “He’s absolutely going to fuck her.” Was there anything in Bodyguard that you weren’t comfortable with, where you said, “I think we should do this a different way”?
MADDEN: Oh, God, every day we had arguments. I fucking hate compromise. Compromise is a word I cannot stand.
JOHN: We were very lucky on Rocketman because we got you right when you were becoming successful. And it’s great that you’re Scottish, because John Reid, my manager who you play in the film, was Scottish.
MADDEN: Born in the same place.
JOHN: Again, kismet. What was it like playing him?
MADDEN: As an actor, your instinct is always to try to make something beautiful and to be liked. There’s lots about John Reid that’s not very likeable. It was really fun to play with that and be a cunt sometimes.
JOHN: You have to be both tender and a bastard.
MADDEN: And really manipulative.
JOHN: I have seen a bit of the trailer, and it’s the weirdest thing seeing someone portray you. Taron [Egerton] is so eerily like me that it makes it even weirder. I’m looking forward to seeing it, but it’s hard enough to look at myself in the mirror. And then to see a film about me, it’s like, “Oh my God.”
MADDEN: Do you have a connection to it when you see it, or can you disconnect?
JOHN: I have to disconnect, because it’s not a factual film. It’s based on fact, but it’s actually a surreal version of my life, a fantasy. That makes it more interesting, because biopics — unless they’re really good, like the Tina Turner one with Angela Bassett — are terrible.
MADDEN: I’ve never seen it.
JOHN: You couldn’t do a fantasy of that, because what she went through was so hard. My life has been a crazy fantasy all the way through. One of my favorite film scenes ever is when Ann-Margret gets covered with baked beans in Tommy. It just makes me laugh. Cinema has to transport you to another place. I didn’t want this film to be earnest because I am not earnest. I’ve done some fucking raving, ridiculous things in my life, both good and bad.
MADDEN: It has points in it that are very earnest.
JOHN: I always try to be as honest as I can, but also with my tongue in my cheek. If you take yourself too seriously, you’re fucked.
MADDEN: I’ve spent so many years — as many artists do — in this place of turmoil trying to get somewhere. I’m interested to see what my art’s going to be like now that I’m in a happier place.
JOHN: Can you sing?
MADDEN: Not great, no.
JOHN: But you can carry a tune?
MADDEN: Well, with a bit of autotune we’ll get there.
JOHN: Most Scots can sing pretty well.
MADDEN: I could be better.
JOHN: It’s so weird, I’ve had this huge connection with Scotland all my life. Before I even met John Reid, I used to go on holiday in Scotland and drive around. I’ve had a Scottish guitarist in my band, always Scottish roadies. Do you go home a lot to Scotland?
MADDEN: As much as I can. It takes me roughly two days of driving about the hills and coast and islands to adjust, and then my brain settles into something which I feel is more like myself. I sometimes think Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world. Even if the weather is really bad.
JOHN: It actually makes it even better. But it must be difficult to go up there without people sometimes picking a fight, like in the pub.
MADDEN: People in the pub are usually quite good. They just want a snap or to chat to you for a minute, which is lovely.
JOHN: Does America hold an attraction for you to come here and live?
MADDEN: I’ve been rather disinterested in living in L.A. for most of my career, but I’ve recently spent a lot more time here. It suits me more, it’s a much more proactive place. I can be lazier in London than I can be in L.A.
JOHN: When I first became successful, I bought a house in L.A. that I loved. It’s good to have chop and change because cities have energy, and they lose the energy, and then they come back. At the moment, I feel L.A.’s got a lot of energy. But it can be New York, L.A., London. It’s definitely not Paris. Paris is a beautiful city but it doesn’t have energy whatsoever. Berlin has energy.
MADDEN: What was it like when you first moved here?
JOHN: It was incredible because all the wonderful music was coming from California, and it was the beginning of FM radio. There was something so romantic about driving down the freeway listening to music in your car. There wasn’t as much traffic as there is now. It is an otherworldly place. When I came here, I went, “Ooh, it looks exactly like The Beverly Hillbillies.” I was so impressed by the palm trees.
MADDEN: I’ve been in London for 14 years now. I think it is time for a change.
“Slam me in a bunch of Lycra and ask me to be a superhero.” —RICHARD MADDEN
JOHN: Where would you like to be in five years’ time?
MADDEN: I have no idea. I want to be happy. I want to be settled, calmer than I have been in my twenties. I want to be in a solid place where I can keep trying to get better at what I’m doing.
JOHN: Were you wild in your twenties?
MADDEN: I think I was.
JOHN: Well, you’re Scottish for fuck’s sake. Have you got a temper?
MADDEN: I don’t have a temper. It’s a strange thing. I don’t have a lot of anger in me, or I have a lot of repressed anger — it’s one or the other. Anger is the easiest choice to make in acting or in life, but the easiest thing is never the most interesting. I think that’s why I’ve pushed anger out of my psyche.
JOHN: I’ve been successful for a long time, but I try to leave my persona onstage. I think you’ve known me long enough to know that’s quite true, and that my happiness is so important in my life. It wasn’t always the case. I became successful so quickly that my fame overtook my personal life and I didn’t have any balance. But you seem to have a little balance now in your life, at 32 years of age. That’s a nice thing. Would you ever do a blockbuster movie, like a Marvel movie or a Star Trek?
MADDEN: If it was the right thing. I’m just happy to give people entertainment. I don’t have to be doing these really intense parts all the time. I don’t think they’re always good for me to do, either.
JOHN: You get shoved down a cul-de-sac?
MADDEN: You learn different skills from doing different things. Slam me in a bunch of Lycra and ask me to be a superhero, okay. Let’s work out how to do that and be honest within it.
JOHN: I think your future is going to be so bright. And this is an amazing friendship we’ve started, and me at 71 years of age. I think that’s fucking amazing.
Grooming: Barbara Guillaume using R+Co and La Mer at Forward Artists
Production: Helena Martel Seward at Lolly Would
Digital Technician: Morgan Acaldo
Photography Assistants: Scott Turner, Ryan Hackett
Fashion Assistants: Dominic Dopico, Abi Arcinas
Tailor: Susie Kourinian
Production Coordinator: Heather Blum
Production Assistants: Em Hoggot, Zack Osterlund
Post-Production: Two Three Two
Special Thanks: Giggster; Four Oaks Farm, Simi Valley, C.A.