Elton John‘s life, music, and now the musical biopic about his journey are filled with rousing highs and crushing lows. Rocketman doesn’t fast-forward through the rough patches and consequences to get the good times, either. It’s the real-deal warts and all biopic that depicts John as an extraordinary musician but also as a deeply human and wounded man. That sounds familiar, yes, but it’s a contrast depicted without aggrandizing and with an immersive intimacy sorely missing in too many music biopics.

Responsible for some of the hard times in the story is John’s mother, Sheila Eileen Dwight, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. In the movie, no amount of success, acclaim, and money soften any the emotional blows John takes from her. It’s a cruel character that, like the film as a whole, Howard doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat. She is like a bulldozer in this movie, just crashing through the fantasy and dragging John back down to earth.

John turned a lot of that pain from his relationship with his parents into beautiful art, a common occurrence that’s both inspiring and, especially to Howard, saddening. We recently spoke with Howard about John’s relationship with his mother, the healthiest motivator for an artist, and what it took to play Elton John’s mother.


I’m a big Elton John fan and thought the movie just did a great job of capturing the feeling of his music. 

Oh, that’s great. That’s so great. That’s perfect because Elton was a part of making this and was a collaborator in this, so it should feel authentic to him and his work and his and Bernie’s voice.

Was it surreal watching the movie with him at Cannes?

Yes, it’s certainly a little intimidating to know that him and Bernie were there watching the story of their lives unfold with their music accompanying it, and it did really seem like Elton felt right about the movie and that it really represented him. That was incredible.

Where did you begin researching Sheila? Was there any concrete information about her online?

You know, there wasn’t a ton of stuff online. To me, when I first read the script, I had a lot of questions because I had concerns that Sheila was seeming like she was being vilified, and I sort of was like, “I don’t know if I believe this.” So I sought out, and production didn’t realize this, but I sought out a few people who knew Sheila. I talked with them confidentially, and it really confirmed that it was a very broken relationship between the two of them, and that Sheila herself seemed to be a really sad, unhappy, possibly not mentally well person at the end of the day.

There was a point in which I actually reached out to a friend who’s a psychiatrist, and I was like, “What?” I was able to empathize with this up to a point, and then I wondered, “Is this psychosis? What is happening? Why is she so cold? Why so cruel? Why so vindictive? What could possibly be going on?” And it’s kind of crazy to think about it, I didn’t know that Elton John was a prodigy, and the thought of him receiving anything other than praise as a child is so surprising, you know?

Right, and how it drove him, too. He said in an interview once his dad’s disapproval gave him more ambition and drive.

Yeah. I mean, for me, I’m always trying to push back against the narrative that sometimes these destructive relationships can be used in the positive, and I don’t like that. I feel when someone is faced with an obstacle, a personal obstacle, and they’re still able to overcome it, it’s not because of that obstacle, it’s in spite of that obstacle.

And for Elton, and I think in part because my dad was a child actor and his parents were so great, and every person is going to be the person that they’re going to be, it’s not all about the parenting. They certainly didn’t harm him, but the childhood that Elton John had instilled in him a deep insecurity and feeling of unworthiness, and that was something that continued on throughout his life, that feeling. It’s difficult for me because I don’t want to think about what would have happened if his parents wouldn’t have been that way, if they had been supportive. I think the music would have been just as extraordinary, and he wouldn’t have had to suffer as much. So it is very painful that he had to go through that.

And like you said, he was born with it and probably would’ve become Elton John anyway.

He would have. He actually would have. To be motivated by being inspired is so much better than being motivated because you’re trying to prove yourself. It is so much healthier. While that was part of his experience, definitely when he was able to let go of that and to find peace within himself and to fight for his own life, that’s really when things actually started clicking in his life. So it’s sad that he wasn’t able to have that earlier, but thank God he was able to discover it when he did.

With Sheila, what makes it more heartbreaking is you see moments of love or pride she’s capable of having for Elton, like when she watches him sing “Your Song.” What did you think she’s feeling at that moment? 

I think awe, I think amazement and shock. I’m a parent, and my son is 12, and my daughter is seven, and there are times when I see them do something that is so beyond their years it’s shocking, and I’m like, who taught them that? And I think that it was really shocking. Elton John being a child and being a musical prodigy, going to the Royal Academy of Music, I mean, this was, I think, a lot to process, and I didn’t get the sense that she was a doting mother, so I think it felt like it came out of nowhere. So yeah, it’s a strange, strange dynamic, the one that they had because that turned to jealousy. It starts off as awe and turns into jealousy, and then that turns into being somehow vindictive or vengeful. It’s insane.

rocketman

[Spoiler Alert]

Maybe the cruelest scene is when she and Elton John are on the phone, and how she responds when he comes out to her. How do you prepare for a scene like that one? 

I think in terms of filming and stuff like that, you want to be present and you’re getting into character and discoveries have actually happened beforehand in a case like that. For me, I spoke with a number of folks who had come out to their parents and it hadn’t gone well, and I wanted to just understand what it was specifically that was so hurtful. Was it the words? Was it the tone? Was it the emotion? What was it like to be on the other end of that, of the receiver when you’re telling your parents that information? And so, it is a thing of just going from apathy to just her demonstrating a belief system that he would never be loved properly when the irony is that couldn’t be further from the truth, but what the truth was was that he could never be loved properly by her. And that is so sad, so those scenes are … that’s not a scene I would want to hang out in and do again and again. I’m happy there wasn’t a re-shoot.

It’s brutal. 

Yeah, and we did it quick. Very quickly. Probably in only two or three takes. Very fast.

Do you prefer working at that speed? 

Not necessarily. I like it all. It’s all fun. Normally, you think let’s explore more and do more and say, “Oh, let’s do another take.” But not with that one. It was like, “Let’s move on. This isn’t fun”

[Spoiler Over]

What did you learn from any of your conversations with Elton John about Sheila? Did you get a chance to speak with him?

I met Elton for the first time four days ago.

No kidding?

Seriously. That’s why it was really important for me to talk with people who weren’t involved in the movie because he’s been so involved in the development of this, and really shared, obviously, everything with Taron, and showed him his diaries and journals and his autobiography, which he was writing. At that point, he had only shown Taron. Taron was the only person who had seen it. So there was a lot of really helpful, insightful information that I think in one on one conversation with Elton, it wouldn’t have necessarily come out just meeting someone for the first time. But that was telling. Everything that I heard that came from him was through Taron. Crazy, huh?

Yeah, for a second I thought it was like an acting choice or something not talking to him. 

Yeah. Hey, it’s not like I was like, “I reject you, Elton John. I refuse to talk to you.” [Laughs] I was cast six days before I was on camera. So I read the script for the first time six days before I went on camera, so it was a whirlwind getting ready, and at that time, Elton had already stepped back from the production. Taron was Elton, and so that’s why those conversations with Taron were absolutely invaluable, but I needed to balance it out with talking to people who actually knew her.

You’ve said you’re a hardcore student when making movies. As an actor and filmmaker, what did you learn from the experience of Rocketman

There were many times when I would go to set when it wasn’t a day I was filming. Dexter comes from this incredible background, you know, he was in Bugsy Malone as a kid playing Babyface. He had so much experience with the theater, musical theater, and his wife is an opera director. Really, I had never been on set for musical sequences, so I definitely wanted to see that process and how they’re put together. I went to some dance rehearsals, talked to the choreographer, and saw how that development occurs and how you piece together a musical sequence. You know, what happens when and how spontaneous are you allowed to be. It’s a little bit like an action scene in a movie where sometimes there’s previz, you know where the camera is going to be, and obviously, you know what the choreography is going to be.

Also, I saw how to do a live musical performance and capturing that. There were many times when Taron was performing live and had to kind of pace himself and achieve that. A live musical performance, again, is kind of like a stunt. There’s only a certain number of times you can do a stunt and it’s going to be 100%, because at a certain time, you just get physically tired and aren’t able to do it 73 times. You can only do 72 times. The same thing goes for a live performance, and that was very exciting to witness.

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Rocketman opens in theaters May 31.

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