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In Depth

People In Film | Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Aaron Taylor-Johnson | Dashing Count

When it came time to shoot ANNA KARENINA, filmmaker Joe Wright made several bold departures from Leo Tolstoy’s panoramic 19th century novel of the same name. One was to stage most of the romantic tragedy inside a Russian theatre; another was to toy with the outward appearance of his leading male character, Count Vronsky. As portrayed by British actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Vronsky is every bit the young and handsome cavalry soldier who opens Anna Karenina’s aristocratic eyes to passion. But he is no longer the “squarely-built dark man” with the “short-cropped black hair” as described in the novel. Here he is the epitome of St. Petersburg’s gilded youth, with the flaxen locks and piercing blue eyes to match. “I'm kind of like the typical blond in the movie," Taylor-Johnson told The Observer. "It's a golden age, and I'm this dashing blond young officer in a white uniform. It's a study in privilege, really. That was all Joe's vision, and I played around with it a bit.” When it came to casting ANNA KARENINA, Taylor-Johnson had already been on Wright’s radar as “perfect for the role of someone who is seductive and sensitive.” But never looking quite like this. Up until then the raffish young newcomer was known for his trademark dark hair, a bushy corkscrew tangle that was used to full nerd effect in Kick-Ass and was slicked back to play John Lennon as a teenager in Nowhere Boy. Characteristic of many actors who became professionals during childhood, Taylor-Johnson exudes a maturity beyond his years. He was only 21 at the time ANNA KARENINA was being filmed and yet had no problem connecting to its timeless themes. "It's a beautiful, magical love story. It taps into everyone's fears and ambitions. It's that moment you fall in love with someone or you see that someone across the room. You know instantly: you take a leap of faith or move on and regret it for the rest of your life. I think people can relate to that or feel moved by that." The fact that ANNA KARENINA also involved elaborately choreographed dance set-pieces appealed to Taylor-Johnson. As an overactive child, his parents encouraged him to try swimming, gymnastics and kickboxing –– acrobatic skills which he got to show off in last year's music video for R.E.M.’s “Überlin”. Here he got to waltz around the stage. "I prefer using physical movement to express emotions and feeling,” says Taylor-Johnson. “That's where I feel most comfortable, so I was thrilled that we were being asked to convey so much in that way – and with dance, which is part of a lot of my favorite films." It's just as well that such pirouetting comes naturally to him. "I only had a day or two of dances lessons," he recalled. "The rest of the them had f**king six weeks."

Aaron Taylor-Johnson | Rising Star & "Sex God"

Growing up in what he calls a "nothingy" British village just north of London, the young Aaron Taylor-Johnson – born Johnson, he added “Taylor” after his marriage to Sam Taylor-Wood –– only had one thing on his mind. "I was always told at school that you have to have a back-up plan, but all I ever wanted to do was act. There was no Plan B for me," Taylor-Johnson told The Observer. Fortunately, he never needed one. By the time he was 16 and appearing as Edward Norton's character as a teenager in The Illusionist, Taylor-Johnson was already an experienced actor on both stage and screen. Starting out in a detergent commercial when only six years old, Taylor-Johnson went on to perform as the son of Macduff in a 1999 version of Macbeth, played a young Charlie Chaplin in Shanghai Knights, and had a string of UK TV credits to his name. The big breakthrough came in 2008 with Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. Based on two teenage novels by Louise Rennison, this coming-of-age film revolved around a teenage girl’s efforts to land a boyfriend before her fifteenth birthday party. Taylor-Johnson played Robbie, the love interest who is dubbed the Sex God. In interviews at the time, Taylor-Johnson claimed to have little in common with this cool band-playing dreamboy. Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before Taylor-Johnson’s image was plastered on teenage bedroom walls across Britain and beyond. Much as he winces now at such pin-up infatuation, Taylor-Johnson happily acknowledges how playing that Sex God role paved the way for his lead role in Kick-Ass. The first film from Nickelodeon Movies to receive a PG-13 rating in the US, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging was directed by Gurinder Chadha. She happens to be the same British filmmaker behind the 2002 comedy-drama Bend It Like Beckham that first drew the world’s eyes to the acting talents of a young Keira Knightley, the same star who’d become Taylor-Johnson’s love interest in ANNA KARENINA.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson | Kicking Ass

Aaron Taylor-Johnson just happened to be in Los Angeles when director Matthew Vaughn was doing the final recast for the lead role of Kick-Ass. On such coincidences, careers can turn. In nailing the role of a teenage dork turned superhero, Taylor-Johnson found himself in an unexpected indie success that opened at number one at the US box office in April 2010 and went on to gross just shy of $100 million from theaters worldwide. Taylor-Johnson plays Dave Lizewski, a comic book geek whose “only superpower was being invisible to girls.” Wondering why he couldn’t be a masked vigilante for real, he orders a green-and-yellow wetsuit by mail and wanders around the streets of New York under his new persona, Kick-Ass. Sure enough, he gets his own ass royally kicked by some baddies – but returns to the streets later under the protection of two real superheroes, a ruthless father-and-daughter team played by Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw remarked of the film’s pop appeal, ”Like an explosion in a bad taste factory, Matthew Vaughn’s teen-superhero black comedy Kick-Ass is a thoroughly outrageous, jaw-droppingly violent and very funny riff on the quasi-porn world of comic books – except that there is absolutely no ‘quasi-’ about it.” And while the film is intentionally over the top, Johnson and his other actors took the story seriously. As Time’s Richard Corliss commented, “everyone has a fairly complex character to inhabit and does so without italicizing every gesture into camp.” While Taylor-Johnson says he is not a big reader of comic books himself, that didn’t stop him from acting out the role of his favorite superheroes as a kid. Taylor-Johnson recounts, “I used to have Tim Burton’s Batman stuff and used to like that a lot and it was my favorites. And I used to have the Spider-Man outfit when I was six and Wolverine, I used to run around with needles sticking out of my knuckles and stuff. I found metal kebab skewers and then I plastered them onto my hand. I think I must have put a couple of holes in the door.”

Aaron Taylor-Johnson | Nowhere Man

Midway through filming Kick-Ass, the then 18-year-old Aaron Johnson was offered the career-defining role of John Lennon during his turbulent pre-Beatles years. His nuanced portrayal of the rock 'n' roll icon in Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy was hailed by critics for capturing Lennon's essence without resorting to easy caricature. "It's all there: the cheeky wit; the mouthy heavy-lidden insolence; the thoughtless, frustrated lashing out at friends and relatives," wrote the reviewer in The Telegraph. The film even won over both Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, and fellow Beatle, Paul McCartney. Remarkably, given all the accolades and compliments, Taylor-Johnson showed up at the audition never having picked up a guitar, far less mastered Lennon's distinctive Liverpudlian cadences. "My mate came with me to read some scenes," he remembered. "I was doing a really terrible Scouse accent. Afterward, he just said, 'Well, good luck, because if you get this, I'll be f***ing gobsmacked.'" As for his limitations as a musician, Taylor-Johnson pointed out to Redblog that Lennon was not so gifted either in those formative years. "He and his band were all over the place and a bit crummy the first time they performed. But up on stage John has that way about him – he puts on the showman. And I wanted to show that Lennon sense of humor. It's a huge part of him, that quick wit, the sarcasm and funny voices, the impersonations. He loved to make you feel uncomfortable; he was very good at that." It was on the set of Nowhere Man that director Taylor-Wood, making her filmmaking debut, famously fell in love with her young lead actor. The romance prompted no end of tabloid coverage in the UK, the result of both her fame as a conceptual artist and because of their age difference. The pair are married now and have two daughters together. "It must have helped that we already had a brilliant connection as actor and director," says Taylor-Johnson, who has vivid memories of visiting London's Tate Gallery and standing in front of her Memento Mori video “Still Life” 10 years before they met. As for the media hooplah, Taylor-Johnson shrugs it off with his trademark frankness: "I'm an old soul and she's a young soul. We don't see the age gap, we just see each other."

Aaron Taylor-Johnson | In Tarantino's Footsteps

Taylor-Johnson has singled out 1994's Pulp Fiction, which he first saw at the tender age of four, as the film that kindled his boyhood interest in acting. "Obviously I wasn't supposed to be seeing that film. My sister kind of sneaked it out and we got to see it. She's older than me. That was something I always used to watch. I loved the scenes with John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson; when I was older I could understand a little more." Having spent his formative years mimicking Pulp Fiction's memorable lines with his sister, Taylor-Johnson finally got to spend actual screen time with Travolta as part of the colorful cast in Oliver Stone's blood-drenched Savages. Sporting another convincing American accent, Taylor-Johnson plays a Californian pot-grower whose blissful involvement in a love triangle takes a violent turn when a Mexican drug cartel with a flair for decapitation comes looking for a piece of his marijuana business. Stone was certainly a stickler for detail, no matter how disturbing, during the four-month shoot. "We had ex-marines on set, former DEA agents, informants, guys who used to be in the Colombian cartel, guys who had been in torture chambers, women who had been kidnapped," says Taylor-Johnson. "I was flying between that and costume fittings for ANNA KARENINA, where I was having discussions about my mustache."

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