Richard Madden is giddy at the prospect of going dark. Hunched attractively in a leather chair at a Beverly Hills hotel, the 32-year-old Scotsman, known for playing doomed scion Robb Stark on Game of Thrones and the trauma-stricken David Budd on the BBC’s Bodyguard, is eager to shed his broken-good-guy image. “I really enjoyed being a bastard,” he says, punching his right fist in his left hand like a ball in a mitt. He’s referring to his role as John Reid, the rebrand manager and former lover of Elton John (played by Taron Egerton) in this month’s fantastical and much-anticipated Rocketman biopic. “He just loved fighting people,” Madden says. Reid also had moments of charm and generosity, the actor acknowledges, but his manipulative side was much more fun to play.
In person, the actor is a riveting combination of flinty and safe. He looks like the guy to trust in a crowd, but then his nerves seem spring-loaded, like when he catches a bottle top falling off the table like it’s a grenade. We talk about getting a beer but order sparkling water instead because it’s early in the afternoon and pouring rain and, well, that combination can make for a booze-soaked slippery slope—especially in London, where Madden’s lived for 14 years. “There, it’s dark by 3 p.m. and it’s raining and miserable and you go, ‘I just want to sit by the fire with a bottle of red wine in the pub,’ ” he says, slipping into an almost incomprehensible back-and-forth Scottish brogue: “ ‘Eh, we’re shot.’ And you’re like, ‘Well, I’ll have another one.’ ” Pause. “ ‘So, are you shot or not shot? All right, cool, I’ll have another one.’ ”
Madden will abandon his beloved London for Los Angeles next month, but he still hasn’t secured a job or a place to live. Also, he’s single, maybe. A few days ago, the British press crowed about the actress Ellie Bamber breaking up with him, but he shuts down all talk of his love life. Don’t ask him about rumors that he’s the next Bond, either. “It’s all just noise,” says the actor, a pleasant aftereffect of his success in the title role in Bodyguard, the BBC’s most-watched drama since the season finales of Downton Abbey, for which he recently won a Golden Globe for Best Actor. “By March, there will be another British TV show with another young male actor, and then he’ll be the next James Bond for the following two months.”
Things might be a bit up in the air, but Madden is loving it. “I feel quite free at the moment,” he says, like any man worth his scruffy beard. “If I’m going to be reading scripts for two months, I’d rather sit by the pool than sit in a pub in East London.” Plus, he’s got some great friends in L.A., like Elton John, who whisked him off to his concert in Sacramento last night, and fellow Iron Throne heir Sophie Turner, whom he’s going to try to meet up with tonight. “It’s quite nice because we were so close when we were kids, and then we went off and did other things but reconnected as adults,” he says of Turner and other GoT costars like Kit Harington, Gwendoline Christie, and Maisie Williams. While some of his pals are still going strong on the show, he has a no-spoilers policy: “I have to be like, ‘Just let me watch it.’ ” He does, however, have a Season 8 prediction with regard to Turner’s character, Sansa Stark. “People thought she was weak and wilty,” he says, “but she’s our mother’s daughter, you know….” Since getting offed in the infamous Red Wedding scene, Madden has enjoyed watching as a fan. “It’s weird because they talk about Robb Stark, and I don’t associate myself with it anymore,” he says. “But then I remember, ‘Oh, that’s me, I played that part.’ ”
In preparation for Rocketman, Madden spoke with a number of Elton John’s and Reid’s friends. Donatella Versace, in particular, helped Madden get a better grasp of his character’s righteous zeal. “She said, ‘The thing about John Reid was that he was never wrong.’ ” And even as the relationship deteriorated (Elton John cut ties with Reid’s management company in 1998 and later settled financial disputes out of court; Reid has since retired from music management and lives in Australia), the two men shared an intimate bond. Madden and Egerton re-create that dynamic—sometimes clad in ’70s-style double-breasted suits and stacked Cuban heels, other times naked. When asked about Rocketman’s much-hyped sex scenes, Madden shakes his head and says, “I dread doing these things.” But, to him, the differences between male and female costars are negligible. “With one you get stubble rash, right?” he says. “That’s basically it. Otherwise, there’s no difference. It’s storytelling.”
Clearly, he’s a good guy at heart, though his whole body rejects the idea that he’s anything like his most famous characters. “It’s incredible to think about me in one of them,” he says with a shiver. “I don’t like it one bit!” But whether he wants to be or not, he’s bound to the code. “I suppose there’s a thing with a lot of these characters I play—to do the right thing, to look after people,” Madden says, taking a swig of sparkling water. “I suppose that is something.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of ELLE.