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The Performance: 'Nowhere Boy's' Aaron Johnson

The young actor channels John Lennon in his latest role, and his intense focus guides him on and off the screen.

October 07, 2010|Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times

When Aaron Johnson walked in to audition for "Nowhere Boy," which centers on John Lennon's teenage years, the film's director instantly felt the young actor exhibited the same intensity and swagger as the music legend.

"I had a pretty good instinct right away that he was going to be Lennon," said Sam Taylor-Wood.

The connection between the 43-year-old director and her 20-year-old star proved to be profound. The two fell in love during the production of "Nowhere Boy"; the couple is now engaged and have a child together. But during a recent interview at the Chateau Marmont, a casual Johnson, wearing cargo shorts and flip-flops, seemed perplexed by the fact that their May-December romance is getting so much attention with the U.S. release of the film.

"It really doesn't …matter at all," said the actor, who frequently punctuates his speech with a particular expletive that would be impolite to repeat here. "It doesn't matter what age you are, what race you are, what sex you are. If you're in love, you're in love. I think society sadly is still against women in so many ways. It's so …sexist."

It seems that Johnson — best known for his starring role in "Kick-Ass," the dark satire of superhero mythology — doesn't really care about living up to any sort of societal norm, especially in Hollywood. In fact, he said, when he meets strangers, he rarely reveals his profession.

"When people say, 'What do you do?' I hate …saying I'm an actor," he said. "Everyone just associates them with wankers, you know what I mean?"

Johnson stopped to dig into a massive bowl of berries and then began telling a story about running into an industry type at the hotel.

"I bumped into someone, and when I said I was an actor, they started saying, like, 'Oh, I just worked with Orlando Bloom,'" Johnson said, rolling his eyes. "I grew up in a town where that …didn't happen."

Johnson does seem to take the job of being an actor quite seriously, however. He spent two months preparing to play a young Lennon growing up in the 1950s. He read biographies about the musician, watched old footage on YouTube, tried to learn the distinct Liverpool accent and even how to sing and play guitar despite having no prior musical experience.

"I wasn't a musician, and the producers were pretty determined that well, if they were gonna go with me, they'd get someone else in to play the guitar and cut to his hands strumming and get someone to dub me," Johnson said.

The actor said he strongly objected to that idea. "Why would I do 60% and let someone else do 40? Especially when you're playing John Lennon, how can you not do the music element as a part of him? It's quite a big influential part in this film, so it kind of made me want to prove them wrong."

Taylor-Wood said she and Johnson realized only after production what a responsibility they'd taken on in trying to accurately portray Lennon.

"Obviously, I felt that we were going to sort of be looked at with heavy scrutiny, and it was important that we got to the essence and the soul that was fundamental to Lennon," she said. "I told Aaron that we didn't just want to copy who he was later in life."

Ultimately, Johnson's performance helped the film earn the seal of approval from Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, who ended up licensing the song "Mother" to the filmmakers to play over the end credits.

"She saw the film, loved it, cried and everything, and she's just been hugely supportive and complimentary on all of our performances," said Johnson.

Johnson has yet to commit to any upcoming projects, but when he does, he says he'll be looking to play a character who is as "far away" from his own personality as possible. For now, he's focused on being a father to his months-old daughter Wylda Rae, and Taylor-Wood's two daughters from a previous marriage, ages 3 and 13.

"The only thing I've ever been sure about is with Sam – wanting to be with Sam and wanting a family," he said. "… of course, it's a huge responsibility when you become a parent. But it's what I wake up for every day. To be with my girls."

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