Given that Aaron Taylor-Johnson has a strict rule of choosing just one project a year, opting to put family commitments first, the British actor’s choice of roles is frequently fascinating.
Having made his mark with a memorable turn as John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, Taylor-Johnson has quickly gone on to mainstream success. Whether it’s blockbuster a (he fronted Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla reboot in 2014 before assuming the role of Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron a year later) or more modestly budgeted fare, such as Kick-Ass, which have gone on to garner cult success, his varied filmography is nothing short of impressive.
His latest role in Nocturnal Animals, director Tom Ford’s follow-up to his striking 2009 debut, A Single Man, is a far cry from the more likable roles that audiences may have come to expect. Here, he inhabits the role of Ray, a sadistic killer and rapist. Perhaps even more intriguingly, his character forms the backbone of a film within a film, of sorts, as a manifestation of the imagination of Amy Adams’ character, Susan, who receives a manuscript from her jilted ex-husband, which she interprets as a veiled threat for past discretions.
When Clash meets Taylor-Johnson, he’s fresh off a plane from New York, in the midst flying visit to London, promoting the film in the run up to its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. Paul Weedon nevertheless found him on fine form when he sat down with him to discuss the film, which sees him collaborating with Michael Shannon and Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as his experiences working within the Marvel behemoth.
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Is this something you ever really get used to - the travelling and the press junkets? There’s a misconception that it’s a glamorous lifestyle but I think most people realise that that’s not really the case day-to-day.
It’s fine. It’s not like that everyday. When you’re promoting something like this film, it’s actually exciting. I loved working on it and I think Tom’s incredible, so that’s a pleasure. And we’ve been to Venice film festival and it was really we received… And Toronto. And that’s really nice – to be at the London Film Festival – it’s really nice to be back on the festival circuit. It’s been a while, so that’s actually been really exciting.
And you do get used to the press thing. It’s a different part of the job. It was something that I had to, definitely, learn. I’m very in my element and happy to dive in to a character, but to go to these events and actually be yourself is actually quite daunting, I find.
And I guess, to an extent, you don’t really want to give too much of yourself away.
Right. There’s also an intrusive side of it, I suppose. You’ve got a private life that you want to keep separate.
I think that culture has made it quite difficult for a lot of journalists to have meaningful conversations with actors. Some can be very invasive in their line of questioning.
Yeah and then you feel like you’re on the defence… Yeah, there’s a side of it, obviously – this “glamorous lifestyle”… My lifestyle is just like any other person who is a parent and has kids. That’s what I love doing the most: waking up in the morning, making breakfast, taking them to school and doing their activities and things like that. And I really do enjoy that. That’s why I only do one thing a year. I take a little time out to do something. And that’s interesting because it actually means I have to choose something that I’m really passionate about that I specifically want to do, so it’s not just a waste of time.
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My lifestyle is just like any other person who is a parent and has kids.
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That’s something I wanted to ask you about, because Tom hand-picked you for this role. That must have been a gift, to have someone like that come to you and say, “Look, I really want to work with you.” Did that make it an easy decision?
Well, yeah. Absolutely. I was instantly flattered that he thought of me for his second film. His first film was fantastic and Amy Adams had already been brought in… and Jake Gyllenhaal, so it was already becoming quite magnificent. But the role that he thought of me for wasn’t an easy one to just accept straight away. It was one that I had to mull over for a while and it came with a lot of discussions with him. Because it’s not really a character you can easily relate to. [Laughs]
Not really, no. And it’s quite a big departure from some of your recent roles where you’ve been a much more likeable character.
Right. Yeah. Maybe that’s why he thought of me.
Doing something against type, yeah.
I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, he’s very smart and able to do that. I’m just grateful that he gave me the opportunity to be able to explore that. It was great to collaborate with Tom on that character, because it wasn’t a character that popped off the page so easily. He had lots of inspirations and ideas and he knew what he wanted. And that’s great and that’s why we got that, because he’s so eloquent and able to express what he wants without being condescending. It’s just really beautiful and endearing and you just feel secure around him. I put a lot of trust in his hands and was able to collaborate.
But it took a lot… Three months prior to making the movie I was researching and reading about serial killers and documentaries about psychopaths – Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and people like that to kind of root this character, because it’s essentially just a fictional character in the story. I’m just a character in this book and a part of Susan’s imagination, so that kind of also gave us a realm to be really creative and elaborate, which he wanted. He wanted something to be quite magnetic on screen – to pop against the contrast of what he was shooting with Amy. So there were many layers to it, visually. It was just extraordinary to be in his presence, really.
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It wasn’t a character that popped off the page so easily.
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Did he give you a lot of scope to improvise? There’s a great moment in that first scene where you’re dancing by the roadside. Was that something Tom wrote or something that came out of working with Jake and developing the scene together?
Yeah, that sequence… there was a lot of improvisation, but it was really weird. It was really beautifully orchestrated by Tom. He’s got an ability to be able to allow you to be free and improvise, but within limitations and boundaries. The moment it started to go off course we’d just cut and we’d just go again.
We shot on film, so we just let the film run out. And that was quite refreshing to do and I think what it allowed by the time we’d finished it was we were starting to sort of have out-of-body experiences, you know? It was out of control of what we were doing. We weren’t conscious of the choices we were making while we were in it. There are some things that I did when I first watched the cut of it that I was quite taken aback and shocked by – some of the things I said and I was doing. I couldn’t quite…
Is that quite liberating as an actor, to be surprised by your own performance?
Yeah, and I think probably the first time I’ve ever really felt that way. I can still pick apart and be the highest critic of myself, but what was nice was that there was a freedom there. There was a world where it was just reacting in the natural state and hopefully we were so embodied in our characters that we were able to do it on autopilot, in a way.
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Was that also the case when you were working with Michael Shannon? He’s got this intensity that’s quite unlike anyone else. Did scenes develop through conversations with him?
Michael likes to keep it very close and internal. I think what’s nice about working with Michael is that there isn’t a discussion or a rehearsal, or a sense of “let’s talk about the scene.” He’s very instinctive and just - not even when we’re just blocking a scene out or rehearsing it - he won’t give you the performance he’s going to give you until we start rolling and that is just beneficial. It’s great for the fact that it makes my job easier, because I’m not anticipating anything he’s already done. It’s all fresh, new and there are reactions and the camera is able to capture it.
I just worked with Doug Liman and he said that his biggest fear is always rehearsing… well, not rehearsing, but he doesn’t like rehearsing scenes because his biggest fear is that he’s going to see something that the world won’t. And I think that’s really beautiful.
There’ll be a moment that happens that he can’t recreate?
Yeah. And why Shannon’s so great is it’s guttural and instinctive and it’s just there. But within that, me and him would be able to… every take would be different and I too would change it up and keep it different. But yeah, being in a room with Shannon and Jake is the best thing for me.
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It’s a team and a collaborative team.
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I wanted to touch on other projects you’ve worked on. You’ve now worked in the ever-growing Marvel machine. I was curious to know how that experience compared to Kick-Ass. For a lot of people, Kick-Ass was the introduction to the graphic novel, whereas the Marvel universe was well-established when you came to it. How did Ultron compare to Kick-Ass?
Well, it’s a team and a collaborative team. I had a fantastic time. It’s a family there, and it is a machine, but I never felt overwhelmed. I felt very welcome and a part of the discussion of collaborating on my character. But yeah, I was very influential on how I wanted the character to look as close to the character from the comic books. And there was a specific comic book that they were kind of keeping to, because there are so many different varieties, especially with those two characters. They were in and out of the ‘House of M’ and then you’ve got the Mutants. And you’ve got Fox. You’ve got a few compromises going on there.
Yeah, it must have been interesting that you had Fox developing a film with the same character in it at the same time. [His character, Quicksilver, appeared in 2014’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past, where he was portrayed by actor Evan Peters, which Fox were developing at the same time as Marvel were developing The Avengers: Age Of Ultron]
You’re dealing with the bigger studios. And you’re like, “Well, what are they doing? That’s not out yet. Who knows?” And I don’t want to get caught up in that kind of thing, so I said, “Look, this is what we’re doing. I’m focused purely on this.” So some of the things I was adamant about were that I wanted to have white hair and I wanted to look like the character and I wanted to have an Eastern European accent. This was an ongoing discussion, but that was a given, really. It took some time to really discuss those things, but they roll with it. And they’re great.
What’s it like against something like Kick-Ass? Yeah, I think there’s a huge fanbase there for it already and the anticipation and expectation is always going to be pretty high, but I put that aside and you just work with what you’ve got, I think. As long as you’ve got prep and focus and research then you can kind of go within those limitations, I think.
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I haven’t got my own intentions or ego to do this or do that.
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You’ve worked with directors of incredible pedigree – Oliver Stone, Hideo Nakata. Every actor learns something new from every project they work on. What have been some of the biggest learnings you’ve taken from working with those guys?
Truly, at this point in time, my main focus when I pick a job now is on the filmmaker. It’s that person’s vision that I want to do. I haven’t got my own intentions or ego to do this or do that. Whatever their point of view is or their vision, and if there’s an interesting character that we can create and collaborate together – it’s about that process and it’s about that experience for me, which is why I came on to Nocturnal Animals, because Tom instantly made me feel secure and able to communicate.
It’s all about communication… I’ve seen actors on set disagreeing with a director and there’s no point. I’ve seen actors go, “No, I don’t think I would do that. I’d do this. I would do that.” And it’s like, why are you fighting with the director when that’s the person sitting in the editing room? They’re only going to pick your scenes apart, so why not be taken on that journey? I enjoy that process. I like being taken to somewhere I don’t know.
I got to be in a room with David O’Russell once and he has this amazing ability to… there is no script. It’s just improv and he literally puppeteers words in to your mouth. “Say this. Say that. Say this. Try this.” And it feels like you’re tight-rope walking across a fucking… you’re on the edge of a cliff and someone’s holding you literally by the reins and it’s an incredible feeling to know that you don’t know what the next step is. You don’t know where you’re going and that’s the most thrilling ride to be on, I think.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given by a director?
As advice goes, it’s always instinct. I think you’ve got to stick with your gut instinct. I’ve made bad choices that I knew weren’t right at the time and I did them for the wrong reasons and it backfired. And now, since Tom, I’ve worked with Doug – those have both been passion projects and they’ve both worked out to be great. I don’t know what the next movie will turn out like, but it’s the experience for me. It’s communication 100%.
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Words: Paul Weedon (@Twotafkap)