Stepping into the shoes of a musical icon is never an easy role, particularly when that person is none other than The Beatles’ singer-songwriter John Lennon, a bonafide 20th-century pop giant. Yet in this week’s Nowhere Boy — which explores the rocker’s turbulent teenage life before he was famous — British actor Aaron Johnson manages to move beyond mere impersonation, giving an affecting performance that captures the young Lennon’s essence. That Johnson was just 18 at the time is impressive, as is the fact that he went directly from filming his lead in this year’s superhero riff Kick-Ass to the very different role of a tortured teenager in 1950s Liverpool.
We spoke to Aaron recently about playing Lennon, and whether there’ll be a Kick-Ass sequel; but first, we asked him to run through his five favorite films. “Obviously these are all a bunch of classic, cult movies,” he points out. “It’s probably not that interesting for people to hear me say them, because they’re like the best f**king movies anyway.”
Pulp Fiction (1994,94% Tomatometer)
Pulp Fiction was probably one of the first films I ever saw that really kind of took effect on me. I was about four years old — obviously 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. It was funny, me and my sister would have this little running thing where we’d know the lines to Ezekiel 25:17. My sister actually bought me a wallet that had “Bad Mother F**ker” written on it. But yeah, Tarantino. That was where my appreciation of directors began. It was beyond the actors at that point. Everything he’s touched I’ve loved. I became a huge fan of him and his work.
Fight Club (1999,81% Tomatometer)
David Fincher, man — Fight Club, Se7en, those things. This was another film that when I watched it at the time I had to watch it again, to understand it almost. I was just entranced with it. The performances were fantastic — Helena Bonham Carter, Brad Pitt, Ed Norton. I just thought it was brilliant and shot beautifully.
Apocalypse Now (1979,98% Tomatometer)
Francis Ford Coppola, man. Just the stories that happened on that set. And the soundtrack that they use in that film is so f**king cool. Great performances and a wonderful, entrancing movie — Brando and Dennis Hopper and Duvall. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” — what a great quote.
Boogie Nights (1997,92% Tomatometer)
Paul Thomas Anderson — what a fantastic director. These are all directors that I would love to work with, you know. I doubt any of them could give a sh*t. [laughs.] Boogie Nights. Pretty epic. It just captured that era so brilliantly. Mark Wahlberg, man — great role. Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman — they just blow me away. I could watch it again and again. Great movie.
The Big Lebowski (1998,78% Tomatometer)
I mean, Jeff Bridges, John Turturro — so f**king funny, man. The Coens too.
Next, Aaron talks about a Kick-Ass sequel and how he got into character as John Lennon..
RT: So, I guess we have to ask: is there a Kick-Ass sequel in any stage of development?
Aaron Johnson: No. I mean I’d happily do a sequel and I’d love to do that character again. It was a lot of fun. The comic book writers are writing the comic book and I guess we’ll make the movie when we come around to it, which is not gonna be very soon. It’s gonna be a while.
You haven’t talked to Matthew [Vaughn, director] about it?
Oh yeah we’ve talked about it a bunch of times, but Matthew’s doing X-Men, you know, and who knows — he might take another job on before he goes on to Kick-Ass again. He’s the one who’s got the rights to it, so he might hold off a bit. Sometimes it’s nice to do that. Why bang one straight out? Give it a bit of time for people to digest it, and get everyone’s expectations pumped up; maybe get the comic book out and it might be on peoples’ minds. At the moment there are just tons of comic book movies being made, other than X-Men, Spider-man, The Avengers, Iron Man — all those main ones — there are all these other ones like Red and Cowboys and Aliens. It’s this era where every comic book that comes out is turned into a movie.
You were actually shooting Kick-Ass when you auditioned for Nowhere Boy — is it true that you went in as John Lennon?
Yeah. I spent my lunch breaks on Kick-Ass listening to Lennon and trying to go into that. I had my day off and went into the casting just saying these things off the top of my head — out loud even — these lines that Lennon had said. And I tried to look like him, in a black t-shirt and jeans, and slicked my hair back.
Were you daunted when you got the role?
Not really — just excited, you know. And then I thought, “Sh*t, I gotta do this justice. I gotta do it right.” And that meant just doing as much research as possible and knowing every angle — studying the music, every piece of documentary footage. I watched every interview, you know. I did that every day for two months. I mean, there’s f**king tons of it out there, man. [laughs] There’s not just a couple of hours of tape or something.
Director Sam Taylor-Wood said that it wasn’t until she set foot in Liverpool that she felt the weight of Lennon’s legacy, because everyone there had some connection to him, or had an opinion. Did you find a similar thing happened?
Yeah. You really kind of felt the weight of it when you were in Liverpool because these were the people who, you know — it was their ground. These people were distraught when The Beatles left and went to America, because it was like, “This is our band, this is our thing.” And they still keep that to them, you know. But they’re lovely. You bump into anyone in Liverpool and they probably bumped into Lennon or Paul [McCartney]; it’s that sort of community where it’s, “I knew his mum” or “I knew his cousin” or “We saw him for the first time live in the Cavern.” Do you know what I mean? It’s like they’ve always got stories to tell.
When Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney saw your performance, did they give you any feedback?
Yeah. Yoko was hugely supportive and complimentary of our performances. She gave her blessing, and she’s still going out there now saying “go and see Nowhere Boy” — having that understanding of Lennon and knowing his art and his background and having that insight into that. And Paul, the same, just thought it was f**king brilliant. He said to Sam, “You did a good job.”
Even though he got punched in the face in the film?
He said he couldn’t remember that happening. [laughs]
Nowhere Boy is in theaters now.