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Taron Egerton talks character acting and video games for Apple TV+’s Tetris

Tetris star Taron Egerton and director Jon S Baird tell Rachael Davis about the incredible Cold War story behind the iconic computer game.

Tetris. Pictured: (L-R) Nikita Efremov as Alexey Pajitnov and Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers. PA Photo/©Apple TV+.

Consistently ranked as one of the best games of all time, the colourful, delightfully frustrating Tetris is instantly recognisable around the world.

The reason why Tetris has become such a globally-renowned game is because of the actions of one man, Henk Rogers, a Dutch-born, American-raised entrepreneur who, upon discovery of the addictive computer game, made it his quest to obtain the rights and to distribute it to the global masses – knowing it would make him a rich man in the process.

There was one major hitch in Rogers’ plan, however: it wasn’t quite clear who owned the rights, so he didn’t know who he needed to strike a deal with. Soon, he came to realise that Tetris is a Russian-made game, having been designed by unassuming puzzle game creator Alexey Pajitnov.

This is a major obstacle to his dream: it’s the 1980s, the Cold War has been going strong for decades, and securing those rights means travelling to the Soviet Union to negotiate directly with Soviet authorities – and beat his determined competitors to it.

This monumental story is at the heart of Jon S Baird’s biographical drama Tetris, starring Taron Egerton as the gumptious Henk Rogers, which chronicles the charming game’s rise to international prominence.

Pictured: (L-R) Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers and Nikita Efremov as Alexey Pajitnov. Tetris. PA Photo/©Apple TV+.

Far from being his first rodeo in biopic performance, having played Eddie the Eagle in the 2016 eponymous biopic and Elton John in 2019’s Rocketman, 33-year-old Egerton says he approached playing Rogers – who himself worked as a producer on the film – the same way he’s always approached portraying a real person: by largely trying to forget that they’re real at all.

“Obviously, when you’re playing a real person, there’s always a thing in your mind where you’re not wanting to do anything that would upset them, or make them feel misrepresented, but also you kind of slightly have to ignore that as well,” says Egerton of his approach.

“Because, you know, you want to try and maintain some degree of impartiality and serve the story best. And I also, I suppose, feel that when you’re an actor, you’re in service of a script and a story, as opposed to in service of the person who inspired the story. Because it is always just inspiration for a story.

“But I wanted to try and give as accurate a flavour of who he was, both aesthetically – hence big bushy black hair and moustache – but also try and capture something of his personality, which is this sort of puppyish, kind of childishly obsessed guy who loves gaming and video games.”

“I also feel that you have to try and maintain some objectivity and impartiality about the character … to do the job properly, you have to maintain a character’s fallibility,” Egerton adds.

“Because otherwise what you end up with is something that is sanitised or feels plastic and engineered. And audiences don’t stand for it. Because audiences are really, really f***ing discerning!”

For director Jon S Baird, who was also at the helm for 2018’s Stan & Ollie, and 2013’s Filth, combining the responsibility of telling a true story with exercising his creative freedom as a director was also a balancing act.

Pictured: (L-R) Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers, Sofia Lebedeva as Sasha and Nikita Efremov as Alexey Pajitnov. PA Photo/©Apple TV+.

“That’s always at the forefront of my mind,” Baird, 50, says of the responsibility of telling a true story.

“You’ve got a responsibility to someone, even if it’s a character that people don’t like, you still have a responsibility to show that character in a true light. So responsibility, truth is an important thing.

“I always try and involve as many of the real people as possible, and in this one, obviously, Henk, Alexey are executive producers; Maya, Henk’s daughter, is exec producer. So they were involved a lot. And that really helped as well, that helped guide us through that.

“But they were very good in understanding that we weren’t making a documentary, we were actually telling a fictional tale based on the reality that they experienced. And that always helps, when you’ve got subjects who can understand that.”

At the heart of the film’s story – behind the Cold War thrills, double-crossing villains and surprising heroes – is, of course, a video game.

An oft-neglected genre of art, video game narratives are finally starting to make their way into mainstream film and TV – HBO’s series based on Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us being a particularly prominent example – which is something that Tetris star Egerton celebrates.

“I think video games are sometimes marginalised into a category of being more disposable than other forms of storytelling,” he says.

“Yet the industry is one of the most profitable and far reaching in the world, and I think we are beginning to see that manifest in Hollywood now, and I think we’ll see a lot more of that in the coming years.

“I think people are passionate about video games in the way that they’re passionate about films or television, or written fiction.

“And I think Henk’s story is testament to that: just way, way, way before the rest of the world caught onto it, whilst he was somebody in pursuit of a set of rights that were going to potentially make him very wealthy, I think that’s balanced by the fact that he also really, truly, unashamedly just loved the game, and was a fan as much as he was a hustler.”

With another bold character added to his diverse catalogue of performances, where Egerton goes next is anyone’s guess – and that’s exactly how he likes it.

“The main thing is I try and pick things that are different from one step to the next. I don’t want to ever play any two characters that look the same; if I can, I try and make them sound different. And I like to try and pick different types of stories,” says the star.

“I suppose what I’ve always really wanted is to be a character actor who is the lead in things.

“Those are the people that I most admire in terms of actors, you know, I would define great character leads as people like Gary Oldman, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Joaquin Phoenix. They’re the people that I would aspire to be like.

“So I will continue to try and pick things that are different, things that are more sober, things that are more fun.

“And try and not be (bad) in things. Because when you’re (bad) in things, people stop hiring you, and I really want people to carry on hiring me.”

Tetris is available in select cinemas and on Apple TV+ from Friday March 31.

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