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Nowhere Boy - Aaron Johnson interview

Aaron Johnson in Nowhere Boy

Interview by Rob Carnevale

AARON Johnson talks about stepping into the iconic shoes of a young John Lennon in Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy, learning to sing and play guitar and dealing with the press in light of the film’s success and his relationship with the director…

Q. Were you nervous about playing John Lennon?
Aaron Johnson: I guess a little bit. To begin with, when I read the script, I fell in love with it and instantly related to the character and sort of jumped into it naively. I didn’t really think about it as Lennon and got carried away with it as just a story. It was only a couple of weeks before we were going to film in Liverpool that I turned to Sam [Taylor-Wood] and said: “Oh f**k, what sort of shoes am I going to jump into?” But she was really positive and really good at making us feel confident in the fact that we were always going to do it the way we wanted to do it. We did enough research to sort of just put it to the back of our heads and try and tackle it in a natural way and just tell a story, rather than getting carried away with it being Lennon.

Q. How did you relate to Lennon?
Aaron Johnson: This story is about him really discovering who he is and where his art form lies and being able to express himself and find love. I understand all of that. I’ve had to do exactly that. Working at an early age has sort of matured me. I’ve been doing it since I was six and it’s the best experience you can get.

Q. How much did you know about John Lennon before you took on the role?
Aaron Johnson: A minimal amount, which is why I wanted to make it accurate and to feel confident in playing the role. I had to do as much research as possible. One of the things that scared me the most was that I’m not a musician. So, that was one thing that I really wanted to knuckle down and get good at so that I could feel confident when filming those sort of scenes involving playing up on the stage and with the band. So, I had about two months’ preparation before we started filming, which was a great amount of time to really sort of get into the character and crack the accent and the music.

Q. Were you surprised, through your research, just how much influence Lennon had?
Aaron Johnson: Yeah. Obviously, reading the script was the first sort of insight and seeing the back-story. I got carried away with it as a story but at the end you’re thinking: “S**t, this is about Lennon…” Not many people know this particular story. So, it did start me off in wanting to find out more. I read a lot of biographies and focused really on the earlier stages [of his life]. It was important to find a young boy who was going into a young man, and finding a vulnerable side, and a side that most people don’t really relate to Lennon. They see this boisterous, aggressive guy on the outside with The Beatles.

But there’s this great interview he does with Rolling Stone when he left The Beatles in which he says that The Beatles was a front and he was very bitter when his mother died. He talked about how he was with his auntie… it was around the time he was with Yoko [Ono] and the sort of affection and love he showed for Yoko. It was quite apparent from the script that it was that sort of love that he came across when you see him with his mother and how affectionate she was, and what a free spirit. So, we used a lot of that.

Q. Do you think he needed his Aunt Mimi to ground him?
Aaron Johnson: Yeah, I mean he lost his mother twice – once when he was five and again at 17. His Aunt Mimi took care of him. You get to see a little bit of Uncle George at the beginning of the film and he’s got a huge influence on John because he used to be the one that took him to bed at night and bath him. He put the radio up in his room and they listened to The Goonies and stuff like that. So, a lot of his humour came from there. But Mimi was very kind of strict and taught him to be very well mannered. She taught him Oscar Wilde and van Gogh. He was really into his poetry, so he had a really good grounding. But then when his uncle died, Mimi had to still bring up a young boy and also deal with her husband’s death.

So, it was kind of being able to keep that emotion in and put the barriers up. And so she taught him how to really deal with those sort of emotions and feelings. Then when he discovered his mother, who was a free spirit and really affectionate and out there, he saw a completely different side. She was another strong woman and she really influenced the music side of him, and rock ‘n’ roll. That music became the voice of his art form… his poetry. But when she died, he almost went back to the way Mimi taught him and put the barriers back up and kept it all inside and hidden. So, he had two very strong women to look up to and that was embedded in him.

Q. Did you listen to much music from the era and has it informed the music that you listen to now?
Aaron Johnson: Definitely… I had to listen to a lot of Elvis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran. I also watched a lot of footage of Elvis and Buddy on stage because they would have been the sort of inspirations that he would have watched. I tried to almost pick out little bits of how they moved as that’s what he would have done. Because I had to pre-record the songs before we started filming, I’d be in the recording studio and must have sung about 20 songs, of which five we could get the rights to do for the film. It was a good laugh and a good training ground. It was a fantastic era given the fact that 1950s Liverpool was the port for where rock ‘n’ roll was coming into. It was the place to be in the ’50s.

Q. Were you tempted to speak to any of his family members? And did you know that Yoko Ono has endorsed your performance?
Aaron Johnson: It’s quite strange really. I think Sam [Taylor-Wood] probably talked to a few guys from The Quarrymen and friends from school. I think it was almost like Sam was protecting us – the cast and the crew – from those things because we didn’t really want to get affected by what people had to say at that point. When we were filming, there was a bit of back and forth. Sometimes they’d call up and want to say something – there would be little details that would come from places that would prove useful. But then they’d back off for a few months. So, it was quite strange. But I think Sam dealt with those really well.

It was quite shocking because we had a screening the other day for Liverpool and a load of John’s cousins were there. It was really overwhelming. It went down really well. At first, we heard that some of the family were going to be there but they didn’t sort of raise their hand and say who they were. They just sort of hid away in the audience. I think… I kind of had the feeling that they just wanted to be angry at us… or something. But they came out afterwards at the party and came out of their shell. They all just said they were blown away. It brought back memories and the film was done just the way they remember it. They had tears in their eyes. It was quite mind-blowing really. They were very complimentary about us all, really, which was nice. It’s the best compliment you can ask for… from people who really knew him. Yoko has been very supportive as well.

Nowhere Boy

Q. Do you have any favourite Lennon songs?
Aaron Johnson: There’s a song that I sing in Nowhere Boy called In Spite Of All The Danger, which is one I really love. It was great to be able to re-record that in the same sort of style. It was the very first song they ever recorded… Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Lennon. I also love Mother and I think it was fantastic that Yoko let us get the rights to the song because it just finishes the film off perfectly.

Q. How have you found the press intrusion into your private life?
Aaron Johnson: I still keep my private life private. You’ve just got to handle it in some way, I guess, and don’t let it get too far and intrude.

Q. Does it put any extra pressure on your relationship with Sam?
Aaron Johnson: No, it just keeps us tighter and stronger.

Q. What’s next?
Aaron Johnson: Well, I’ve got another film coming out in April called Kick-Ass, which is a comic book movie, about an American kid who is really into comic books and dresses up as a superhero. He doesn’t get very far. There’s these cocaine drug-lord gangsters and these two assassins who end up killing all these drug-lords off, who dress up as superheroes. My character Kick-Ass gets caught up in that and framed for all the murders. It’s a dark comedy that Matthew Vaughn has directed. There’s an 11-year-old girl who goes around chopping guys’ heads off. So, it’s pretty dark. This has been a fantastic challenge and I’ve really been able to sort of push the drama side of my acting as far as I could. [Going forward] It would be really nice to find something as challenging and another really interesting character again.

Q. How does Sam Taylor-Wood compare to directors such as Matthew Vaughn or Gurinder Chadha?
Aaron Johnson: She’s very different. All three are different. It’s very funny, I went from Kick-Ass, which was all stunts and very male, testosterone-driven to this, which was more a spiritual, emotional journey. It’s a true story and it’s about Lennon. But Sam is fantastic. She really understood how to work with actors because she’s an artist. She can understand how to work with people with creative minds. She already had a fantastic working relationship with Seamus McGarvey [the cinematographer]. They have the same sort of vision, so they’d set it up in seconds because they knew exactly what they wanted to shoot visually. So, that gave her more time to work with the actors.

I can imagine it being really tough… two really strong female artists [Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff] and Sam having to drive both of those energies. She did fantastically well and got great performances from all three of us. On days when emotions were flying all over the place… there was one day when we had a huge confrontational scene in Mimi’s house with all three of us together. Everything got really dark and we had to go really deep in our own thoughts. But Sam was able to channel what we were thinking so we could play out the scene. That was excellent because you don’t often have that.

Some directors just let you get on with it and you can go all over the place. It becomes a muddle. But she drove what direction it had to go in. Sam and I had to go on such a journey… you really need to see a progression in Lennon from a young boy to a young man. I couldn’t have done that without Sam to guide me. I think she’s the perfect director. She really knows what she’s doing.

Read our review of Nowhere Boy

Read our interview with Sam Taylor-Wood