Taron Egerton is the first to admit that James Keene, his character in Black Bird, isn’t very easy to root for — at least at the beginning of the new Apple TV+ limited series.
So it was already a stretch for the gregarious 32-year-old Welsh actor best known for Kingsman and Rocket Man to play the egomaniacal meathead who agrees to befriend a suspected serial killer (Paul Walter Hauser) in prison in exchange for freedom from 10 years of charges for drug trafficking.
But it gets a little thornier when you consider Keene is based on a real person. His memoir In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Bargain for Redemption, is the basis for the series, adapted for the screen by one of Hollywood’s favorite crime authors, Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island).
“The Jimmy you see onscreen, it’s not the real Jimmy, it’s a character Dennis wrote. So it’s important to make those distinctions before I start saying what I’m about to say,” Egerton tells us in a new interview.
“Which is that the character is not necessarily that likable, certainly at the start of the story. He’s narcissistic, quite violent and very masculine in a way that’s not healthy, I think. But then again, there are things in him that are very appealing and show his capacity for goodness. You know, he’s devoted, and very, very loving toward his father.”
His father, the disgraced ex-cop known as Big Jim Keene, is played by Ray Liotta, the Goodfellas actor who died in May at the age of 67, making Black Bird one of his final screen performances.
“It was a really special experience for me,” Egerton says. “When I learned that Dennis had wanted, and had always wanted, Ray to play the role, I was phenomenally excited. And man, he he did not disappoint. He was an amazing person to act opposite, amazing person to be in the presence of, he was absolutely at the peak of his powers as an artist, I think. He was very, very kind and warm and open with me. It was just a sort of singular experience. It’s kind of difficult to really explain it. It just felt like there was a little bit of magic surrounding my experience working with Ray. It was a special time for me.”
Egerton recalls one experience with Liotta in particular that’s stuck with him.
“The first moment I met him was pretty amazing. He didn’t say anything to me. He just walked up to me and hugged me for a while. And it was kind of weird, but nice. I think it just felt like he was setting the tone by being my dad first and foremost, rather than a colleague. And it was weird and not something I’ve had before, but it really set us on a path with the creative experience that I think really served the work. It was an amazing instinct on his part.”
To play the cocaine-dealing meathead Jimmie, Egerton packed on major pounds of mostly muscle.
It’s the buffest the actor has ever gotten for a role. “Certainly by the sixth episode,” he laughs. “Because I trained [as Jimmy is in prison lifting weights], so I found that I grew along with him in the show. It’s definitely the biggest I’ve been, much bigger than Kingsmen.”
It’s no wonder rumors that Egerton could someday soon replace his friend and Eddie the Eagle co-star Hugh Jackman as Marvel’s perennially shredded Wolverine have continued to swirl in recent years.
“People have been asking me about that for years,” he says, pointing out that also includes us.
“I still love the idea of it, it just kind of baffles me. Actually, you know, now I’m sort of in my early-mid-30s, I kind of am starting to maybe see it more. But you know, when people were asking me when I was 27, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I look 12.’ But who knows?”
Black Bird is currently streaming on Apple TV+.
Watch the trailer: