Acclaimed actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson fronts HERO 27: Upside Down, in conversation with Andrew Garfield.
Fresh from exchanging blows with Brad Pitt in the upcoming action thriller Bullet Train, and with filming currently underway for his next leading role: Kraven the Hunter. In an experimental, cut-up, re-worked and reimagined series of images created in collaboration with Taylor-Johnson, we redefine what a portrait of an actor can be.
Interview originally published in HERO 27 – buy a copy of our latest issue here.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson creates characters that are difficult to digest. Personas that burn hot with multitudes and rattle the mind. Energy, grit and delight. Reflect on his critically-acclaimed oeuvre, and whether manifesting as a DIY superhero (Kick-Ass), a rugged knight (Outlaw King), an addict at death’s door (A Million Little Pieces) or a toxic killer in Nocturnal Animals, the British actor delivers intuitive performances that reverberate far beyond the screen.
Taylor-Johnson’s next two roles provide more to chew on: first as a sword-wielding assassin alongside Brad Pitt in David Leitch’s action-thriller Bullet Train, before transforming himself into Spider-Man’s nemesis, Kraven the Hunter, in J.C. Chandor’s upcoming blockbuster detailing the Marvel character’s story.
In a wonderfully warped multiverse mash-up, for this feature Taylor-Johnson sits across from Andrew Garfield, fresh from donning the famous red-and-blue suit once more for Spider-Man: No Way Home. In conversation, these friends reconnect as two generational talents crossing paths; accelerating at each turn.
Andrew Garfield: How are you Aaron, are you in London now?
Aaron Taylor-Johnson: I’m good! I’m in England, I’m not in London but just outside, close to the production office [for Kraven the Hunter]. I’m staying here because I’ve got a bunch of stunt training to do for this movie, so the director and I are bunking up for the next couple of weeks. I’m trying to think of the last time I saw you, when was it? Was it Christmas or New Year?
AG: New Year.
ATJ: Yeah! New Year’s Eve. I hadn’t seen you in a while and I really wanted to have a moment to catch up, but it was quite busy. We were outside, but it was crowded, it was one of those moments…
AG: I had the same feeling, I had a couple of friends in town from London to hang out in this new trailer I got in Malibu, and two of them had just tested positive for Covid so they were having to quarantine in a neighbouring house. We had been exposed but we were still testing negative. So we went for a New Year’s Eve walk then suddenly the whole of that community was on the beach! I was like, “Ah fuck, I want to hug everybody!” especially you and Sam [artist and director Sam Taylor-Johnson, Aaron’s wife], I was really worried that we were going to be spreading it, but it was such a lovely surprise to see you there.
ATJ: Three of my daughters were there, I didn’t get a chance to introduce them to you, but it was brilliant because we had just seen Spider-Man [No Way Home] and they recognised you, and after we all walked off, they were like, “Oh my god!” It’s always lovely I think, especially because my kids get to see actors in real life, to say, “This one’s a good one, you can say hello to this one!” [both laugh]
AG: That’s very kind of you.
ATJ: My two younger ones are ten and twelve, and their generation’s Spider-Man is Tom Holland. But the fifteen-year-old said [about Andrew], “He’s my Spider-Man!” Then our generation’s is Tobey [Maguire]. [both laugh] The new film is just actually fucking fantastic [Holland, Maguire and Garfield are all in the movie], I had one of the best experiences in a cinema I’ve probably ever had. It was a combination of so many things, and I think the undercurrent is that the whole world has experienced this thing together over the last two years – every generation – and in this film you’ve got every generation coming together to fight evil. There’s nostalgia in a lot of movies at the moment, like with Ghostbusters… reflecting but embracing it all at the same time to say, “Look at how far we’ve come.” It was really moving. I don’t know if you ever got to be in a cinema seeing Spiderman but fuck, boy, the whole audience! Firstly, I haven’t been to a cinema like that – where we’ve all got masks on, everyone was vaxxed – it’s a packed-out cinema and the whole crowd is like, “Ohhhh!” and then like “Ohhhh!” Screaming and cheering, that atmosphere inside a cinema is what’s going to bring back movies in such a big way. It’s a commercial, big blockbuster but it tapped into so many emotional beats and delivered in such a way that I don’t think any other Marvel movie has been able to accomplish. It was just brilliant and moving.
“The biggest thing we took out of [Covid] is when something negative happens, you can all stick together and create something positive out of this chaotic moment.”
AG: That’s so cool man. I think that’s a really wise interpretation of why it’s been such a galvanising film for people. It doesn’t pull any punches, it’s kind of a grown-up film actually, it’s got all the things that you described. My ten-year-old nephews went the other night and one of them sobbed, I don’t want to give any spoilers but when ‘blank blank’ died, and Tom has to contend with that, he sobbed, he laughed, he cried – it was a whole meal. Then for me… I did go and sneak in on a theatre with Tobey one night in LA, just me and him.
AG: We were just two guys with masks and baseball caps, no one knew any better, it was cool to see that moment of people cheering. But then beyond that, the journey Tom goes on with the character and the sacrifice he makes, it kind of tore me open. As you just said, we’ve all been through these two years of sacrifice, I can’t even imagine for your kids. To be a kid right now and have to avoid hugging mates, avoid playing with friends, being held back… I know for my nephews it’s been really really hard, and how amazing for them that they got to go to a cinema and cheer and scream and argue about who’s the best Spider-Man.
ATJ: They love you all! [laughs] But you’re right, what’s been incredible is the strength of my kids’ adaptability. My fifteen-year-old, bless her, she went into middle school, spent a year in it and then spent another year out of it, now she’s just gone back in, and next she’s going to high school, so she missed a big chunk when it all went to remote learning. But to be honest, they all adapted in different ways. I think for the most part what was really important to me and Sam was that, at the beginning of lockdown, we all huddled in together and decided to get out of town, to get into nature a little bit. I could see that remote learning was just a lot, and obviously there was a lot of news and I think [looking out for] mental health was a big part of survival. The biggest thing we took out of it is when something negative happens, you can all stick together and create something positive out of this chaotic moment, I think we all came through in a whole other way and found new things.
AG: That’s cool. What you said about nature as well, that feels like the main medicine for the experience we’ve all been going through. My dad has created a tropical garden in our family house back in the south of England, he’s created moats and waterfalls, he’s gone absolutely nuts in the best way.
ATJ: He sounds like someone I want to hang out with, that’s so up my alley. [laughs]
AG: He’s a good dude. So, you guys found solace getting out into the wilderness?
ATJ: Yeah, we moved a little bit further out. We’re in California as you know and I think it was that thing where you realise there’s actually the ocean in California. [both laugh] We’ve been here for eight years and not got a surfboard and jumped in the ocean – my girls took to it really quickly, they’re great surfers.
ATJ: I think it was great just to wash away the day when they’d been on the laptop, I would come by and just slam the laptop down and go, “Right, let’s all go out!” We’re pretty outdoorsy. We were renting a little spot and all crammed into a very small space, so I built a yurt outside. That was the school, our little hippie commune almost. [laughs]
AG: That’s the dream. When you say you built a yurt what does that mean, you put up a tent?! What did you do?
ATJ: Yeah, a friend and I put together a sort of deck. I suppose it’s more of a teepee than anything, you order it and put it all together. It was about 25ft, a big thing.
AG: Oh, that’s awesome.
ATJ: Then we built a little stage and things like that for them. Did you work, did you do a project through the pandemic?
AG: Yeah I was in the middle of doing tick, tick…Boom!, then Tom Hanks got Covid and the NBA shut down and we realised that we were in trouble! We were two weeks into shooting and then I had the first three months in New York just on my own thinking it would blow over in a couple of weeks.
ATJ: How much prep and rehearsal did you do for that? You had singing, dancing and piano, it’s absolutely phenomenal what you and Lin [-Manuel Miranda] put together. How did that come about? Did Lin see you on stage?
AG: Yeah, he saw me in Angels in America and he thought, “I don’t know if he can sing, but I know that his voice can handle that.” …that eight-hour play. He gave me a year – he was a first time director so I think he wanted to give himself the time to get his chops up and feel confident – and he was absolutely incredible. So I had a year to really study the character to the point where, by the time I got on set, I had that feeling you get where you feel prepared enough to just let it all go. To let it fly and be spontaneous and trust that whatever happens is meant and is the character. I actually wanted to ask you about Nowhere Boy  because it must be such a big thing for you, in terms of the beginnings of your career, and such a big fucking responsibility. I felt a responsibility playing John Larson [in tick, tick…Boom!]… about eight per cent of the people that know about John Lennon know about John Larson, you know what I mean? I especially wanted to check in with you now because I love this new Beatles documentary, did you see it?
ATJ: Yeah, it’s fantastic.
AG: What was that was like in terms of watching the new footage and reflecting back on that time?
ATJ: I felt Iike I would’ve been very happy to have had that footage fifteen years ago! It would’ve been handy research. [laughs]
AG: John Lennon came across like such an alien in that footage, in the sense of being totally unique, totally on-another-planet-genius more than ever. I’ve never seen John in that frame before, I thought it was really interesting.
ATJ: Yeah. I mean, to be fair, I had a little bit of wiggle room as the part of his life I was playing was never documented, so there was a little bit of creative license there for me to be able to do some kind of adaptation of it, I suppose. I remember reading the script and not actually knowing it was about John Lennon until the very last page.
AG: Oh wow.
ATJ: I remember reading it as this really moving coming-of-age story, it was only at the very last page it was like, “He goes off to Hamburg with the Beatles.” And you’re like, “Oh shit, this is extraordinary!” I’d already been quite moved reading the script, Matt Greenhalgh is a brilliant movie writer. It’s rare I find, especially these days, to get a script that is fully-formed with great structure and beautiful dialogue. When I went into the research it was sort of just sniffing around the character, it was really about his influences, about who he listened to. Buddy Holly and Elvis and all these other people. As well as digging into whatever footage there was of Lennon at the time, and there was plenty enough. And then also later years with him and Yoko [Ono], it was actually kind of interesting to be able to see the fondness and the relationship he had with Yoko and try to almost use that touch with the women in his life, like his mother when he got to know her and then lost her. Mimi [Smith] was another strong influence in his life. And, you know, did I feel the pressure of letting down a whole bunch of Lennon fans? Yeah, obvs! [both laugh]
vest stylists own; trousers by THE ROW SS22; sneakers by SAINT LAURENT by ANTHONY VACCARELLO SS22
“I think there are certain performances where you really get to see fresh eyes on things, where you’re taken away.”
AG: How old were you then?
ATJ: I must’ve been about eighteen or nineteen.
AG: Maybe you were young enough and stupid enough…
AG: … to not feel the pressure of it. Like, “Fuck it!” [laughs]
ATJ: I know what you mean, I think also at that age there’s an, “I ain’t got anything to fucking lose” mentality, because the trajectory from there is just to go all in and hope you can continue with a career. I think I had some serious fucking balls and confidence, I doubt myself far more now than I did then, I had this drive and motivation that was like a killer instinct, I had a drive that was just… disgusting. [both laugh] To be fair, Sam [who directed Nowhere Boy] is a master, she’s amazing at being able to command her set, she’s a real director in every sense of the job. She created a bubble around us and the crew, and really deflected all these people coming in with a lot of negativity who were saying, “Are you doing this? Make sure you’ve got that.” We didn’t even have rights to some of the songs that we were using, so at the end, Sam had to show Paul [McCartney] and have his blessing. He watched the movie with her and cried, and said “Yeah, you can have this.” Then she had to go and do the same with Yoko [Ono], then Yoko gave the rights to certain other songs that she had, they had a connection, and since then we’ve sort of had this ‘part of the family’ thing, we see them now and again. There was a launch for that documentary where I saw Sean [Lennon] and the whole family, it was quite bizarre – it was quite moving.
AG: That’s beautiful, man.
ATJ: For me, Boy A [2007, starring Garfield] came out and that was just extraordinary. It was the newest, freshest kind of authentic film, and your performance was just so raw and unpredictable. You were this new actor on the scene, and I remember you really were the talk of the town from then on. You stepped right onto the scene in London, in a big way. Did you go to drama school?
AG: Thanks for that man, I love that movie, it was a seminal change for me in terms of how I worked. I went to Central School of Speech and Drama in North West London, in Swiss Cottage. I was there for three years between the ages of seventeen through to twenty, my university years. Then I got out and I did a bunch of plays; I did plays at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, Soho Theatre and Sound Theatre that no longer exists in Leicester Square. Then I did a tour of a play, then I did a couple of plays at The National, it was from then that I did my first movie which was in LA and then the second film I did which was a TV film, Boy A. I think that came out before the American film I did, but that was one of my first times in front of a camera in a lead role and I was so scared. If you talk to John Crowley [director, Boy A] about that – he’s wonderful, an amazing theatre and film director, he’s so sensitive and such a great storyteller – I would work with him on anything… You talk to him and he’ll say, “Andrew was a very needy actor on that set.” Because I felt like a baby, I felt like a child that was just totally naked all the time, had no idea what the fuck I was doing, had no self-belief even though I’d done theatre or whatever. But even with that, you’re kind of winging it… even now there’s an element of me that goes, “When am I going to get found out?” I know we all share a certain element of that when we are creative people and we’re actors because it is so ephemeral, it is so hard to hold on to, but with Boy A I was at the height of my neurosis and I felt so vulnerable, so stripped-back. I was working with Peter Mullan, have you ever worked with him?
ATJ: No I haven’t, he’s a legend though, he’s phenomenal.
earring, worn throughout, AARON’S own
AG: He is a legend and he taught me about screen acting. The first screen test I did actually, before that, was for a film based on a book called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which is a Michael Chabon book. I did a screen test in London, I was doing a play at The National at the time, I remember they brought seven or eight actors in to do combination screen tests with and I remember working with Ryan Gosling.
ATJ: Fucking hell, really?
AG: Yeah, there were other actors I was doing these scenes with but, I was doing scenes with Ryan and I didn’t know who he was! I’d never seen his work, I’d never seen The Believer or The Notebook.
ATJ: Lars and the Real Girl must’ve been about that time too.
AG: I’d never seen any of it. I get chills thinking about it now because I was on set, I was sharing a scene, I was sharing the screen with someone who was in the school of Marlon Brando style of acting. Very alive, spontaneous, improvisatory but very generous as well, bringing you along… And it was the first time I had that experience where suddenly everything had to be thrown out the window and all I had to do was be alive, listen, respond, because he was a wild animal and it meant that I, in order to survive, had to be a wild animal as well. I was like, “This is it!” This is the screen acting I want to participate in. And then later on meeting Peter Mullan [who also starred in Boy A], who was basically just talking to me before takes and I was like, “Peter! I’m trying to focus on the scene and get it right and know where I’m going to sit and stand and know all the feelings I’m feeling.” He was just trying to coax me out of trying to get it right, and he was improvising before scenes, they would be saying, “Rolling, action.” He would be ignoring it and would take his own cue to enter the room. He’d stop and put his coat down at a different point take-to-take, he’d say hello to someone else on the side, he’d eat his doughnut at a different moment every take, he wasn’t concerned about continuity or pleasing anyone. He got me out of that ‘pleasing place’ and into life, of course, the character was such a raw, alive character in Boy A, and John allowed it – he really gave space to that.
ATJ: I didn’t go to drama school, I left school at fifteen and then it was just sink or swim. I put my training down to that method that you just explained. I didn’t have a coach or a teacher, but I was lucky enough to be opposite some phenomenal, experienced actors who didn’t necessarily have to give advice, it was just about observing and picking up the rhythm, or what it is that they were doing. Acknowledging that Peter was trying to get you out of your head… you throw the lines away and you just start to be. You’re like, “Oh shit, that is a lot scarier, that must be what acting really feels like.”
“I do go to work and put myself through the wringer every day, but if you haven’t then you aren’t getting that feeling – you’re not challenging yourself.”
vest stylist’s own
AG: It’s a vulnerability, we have to open up our ribcage and go, “This is all I’ve got, let’s see where it goes.” Who are those people for you, do you mind saying?
ATJ: It’s interesting – it can chop and change a lot. If it’s a group of actors our age… Jack O’Connell, for instance, is someone who is a raw, talented, unpredictable wild beast, which is beautiful. Miles Teller has that, I think Daniel Kaluuya has that – you want to go on the journey with them. You’re not anticipating the next move or line, I think Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name had it.
ATJ: I think there are certain performances where you really get to see fresh eyes on things, where you’re taken away. But the ultimate people that I looked up to when I was growing up, and saw on screen, were people like Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis. They are just chameleons, obviously. That was always a big part of it for me, how those people can transform, look and move differently, they’re not just sounding different with their accent, they start to walk differently, laugh differently, smile differently. You can change every bit of you.
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AG: You’re talking about the people who go beyond… I feel like we’re in a time in our culture right now where the focus is more on the sizzle than the steak, so I think there’s a temptation to not go to places that maybe you don’t need to. I don’t judge it, I’m of the mind that everyone’s just doing their thing and just because you and Daniel, and I include myself in that, have some screw loose or we’re missing a couple of synapses… There’s something else we feel pulled by, that is shrouded, that we can’t see and drives us fucking mad, it’s an obsession, it’s a white rabbit… We are cursed with never being satisfied, we are cursed with knowing there’s more and therefore we are cursed with probably staying in this profession for the rest of our lives, knowing that we’re never going to get there.
ATJ: It’s going to be painful the whole journey. [laughs]
AG: Dude, but I’m in! That’s the weird fucking thing.
ATJ: I agree.
AG: That’s hot, that sounds sexy to me. It sounds like a great life. If you can’t get down with that then that’s cool. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
ATJ: You’re right, I do go to work and put myself through the wringer every day, but if you haven’t then you aren’t getting that feeling – you’re not challenging yourself.
AG: I know you’re an athlete as well, but I was raised by a swimming coach Dad and he’s a taskmaster, he’s given me a lot. I remember being on set with [David] Fincher and the amount of takes he does, at first it was terrifying but after day two you’re like, “Fuck yeah, give me more!” Because you leave every day knowing you’ve left it all on the field, to use a sports analogy, you know you’ve left no stone unturned, you’re battered, you’re bruised and you’ve given it all.
ATJ: If you’re not scared going to work every day you’re not doing something right.
AG: I think so. I do want to talk about the projects you have coming up, you’ve done so many incredible things and worked with so many amazing directors. I know you’ve just finished working with Brad Pitt on Bullet Train.
ATJ: Yeah Bullet Train, we shot right in the middle of the pandemic as well. David Leitch directed it, he did Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw.
AG: So good, I love those movies.
ATJ: He has an action-comedy style. So, Brad Pitt, David Leitch, I play an assassin – it was a right laugh. There was an audition process and a fight for it, people always ask me if I audition – but usually the ones I want I end up having to audition for [laughs]. The roles that you want you really fight for, that’s the way it should be I think. It was in Sony Studios in Los Angeles, my kids were all at home I was up the road, I was able to go to work, come back and see my kids on the same day. So it was a true blessing, I couldn’t have been more grateful to be able to work in the pandemic. But it was the most bizarre film set I’ve ever been on because of that, we got tested every day, we had masks and then the plastic visor over the top, and then weren’t allowed to interact with one another, you physically can’t shake a hand or, at the end of the day, give your mates a hug. That was an odd atmosphere, when you’ve been lucky enough to have had that intimacy in the past and that collaboration you feed off. Brian Tyree Henry… have you met him?
trousers and blanket both stylist’s own
AG: Yeah I’ve met him, I love him, he’s a great dude and an incredible actor.
ATJ: Phenomenal actor, and then just the sweetest heart ever, I love him to bits. He and I play. this couple of assassins, we’re partners. Originally this thing was quite a dark, R-rated, vicious action piece, but we hammed it up and made it fun. I don’t know what happened, but it became a comedy! [both laugh] I think it’s because the atmosphere was just surrounded by a cloud of fear and ultimately Brian and I felt it was our job to bring light and laughter to set, so if we made the crew laugh it was a good day.
AG: That’s awesome, man.
ATJ: I think it brought an energy. It was Joey King, Brad and Michael Shannon, there was a great ensemble that came on board and we all just had a laugh. David was really open to playing and exploring, it felt like a big breath of fresh air – we had a fantastic time.
AG: That’s so good, the pandemic has changed so many priorities and needs. Being on the set of tick, tick…Boom! the time between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ became even more sacred because, as you said, we got to take off our PPE and actually touch and hold and kiss and dance with each other, and breathe in the same air.
ATJ: You feel that translate through the screen. tick, tick…Boom! had life and energy, lightness and humour, it had an emotional depth to it that really transcends from you doing it and feeling it right there to an audience receiving it.
“There is a part of me that just wants to put something out with a bit of positivity – I’m not really drawn to having to do something incredibly dark right now.”
AG: My brother is a lung doctor in London at the Royal Brompton Hospital in Chelsea and he is the quintessential ‘essential worker’ of this time, and I think us being put in the box of ‘non-essential work’ for a while was quite challenging. For me, I was like, “Fuck, I guess we are non-essential right now, and the best thing we can do is stay home so people like my brother and all of his nurses and doctors don’t get overwhelmed.” But then I think, coming back at it, for me anyway it created even more passion, more intensity and this might be a bit high-minded, but although we’re not administering to the body like my brother does, we are administering to the soul. As storytellers we do have medicine, it’s just not as apparent, it’s a bit more invisible. I caught up on the entirety of every television show ever made over the course of the last two years because I fucking needed it, I needed to feel connected to life, to what it is to be a person in lieu of actually being able to be with my mates and my family. So it was a beautiful thing to get back to work and to remember that story is essential.
ATJ: Yeah, there is a part of me that just wants to put something out with a bit of positivity – I’m not really drawn to having to do something incredibly dark right now. I think that’s why Spider-Man was such a success as well, because it came exactly at the time when we need uplifting and it delivered on such a level. You do see there really is a sense of community, of coming together and experiencing something.
“I feel like we’re in a time in our culture right now where the focus is more on the sizzle than the steak, so I think there’s a temptation to not go to places that maybe you don’t need to.”
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AG: Absolutely, and building a stage for your kids, just creating a space for them to play and make something together, the impulse, it’s just so deep and it’s primal.
ATJ: Didn’t you just go off and shoot with [David] Mackenzie as well [for Under the Banner of Heaven]?
AG: Yes, you did Outlaw King with David right? I love David.
ATJ: Yeah. One thing I think Mackenzie’s really good at is creating such an authentic environment and dropping you in the middle of it, he lets you just find it and play. He was really quite extraordinary and refreshing, open to really digging deep – I can’t wait to see that.
AG: Well, talk about something dark! [Under the Banner of Heaven] That’s dark.
ATJ: I know, that’s actually a really dark piece…! [laughs].
AG: But it’s a great book and I think the show will be really powerful, it’s also true crime and I think that genre has really taken off in this time, people are getting comforted by true crime stories! It’s a very weird thing. How are you feeling about Kraven? I envy what you did with Kick-Ass, because you were free to originate something that had a niche following, but then became this huge thing. This very ordinary fantasy fulfilment superhero, I love those films so much, and what you did in it was so charming and so winning, but now you’re stepping into something that people have a real association with, and opinions on. You’re old and tough enough now to be able to withstand it I know, but I’m just curious about how you’re feeling…
ATJ: It comes with its challenges. As you know!
AG: You look perfect right now, your body, your face, that beard, that hair. It looks like you’re straight out of a panel of the comic books, that’s awesome.
ATJ: You do come at it from another angle, which is back-to-front for me. It’s like you’re coming at it from the physical aspect, because that’s what you can see from a comic book. You go, “Oh, he looks like that, so I have to look like that.” You see that and then you start to backtrack and dig deeper, and go, “This is where he originates from, then he has this relationship and that relationship…” You just hope that you’re going to portray something that you can bring to life. There is, again, room for an interpretation and you want to be able to bring something and let it pop off the page. It’s another new challenge, we talk about putting yourself under pressure all the time. I don’t step away from controversial shit, I don’t know what it is, but I’m always drawn to the thing that might actually give me a fucking stroke! [both laugh]
AG: That’s life!
jacket and trousers both by THE ROW SS22; sneakers by SAINT LAURENT by ANTHONY VACCARELLO SS22
grooming ROB TALTY at FORWARD ARTISTS using ORIBE; set design BRIAN PRIMEAUX at WYO ARTISTS; fashion assistants GABRIELLE RAM and HANNAH SCHATZLE