Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t a typical young actor. For starters, he made the unusual decision to add his wife’s surname to his last name: His last name was changed from Johnson to Taylor-Johnson after he married artist/director Sam Taylor-Wood in 2012. (In turn, she changed her last name to Taylor-Johnson. The couple fell in love while working together on the movie “Nowhere Boy,” in which he starred as John Lennon during Lennon’s turbulent teenage years.) Unlike most of his actor peers, Taylor-Johnson has not been typecast and approaches all of his roles as a true chameleon. He has played a drug dealer (in “Savages”), an unlikely superhero (in “Kick-Ass” and “Kick-Ass 2”), a selfish boyfriend (in “Albert Nobbs”) and an ideal son (in “The Greatest”).
In the 2012 movie version of “Anna Karenina” (directed by Joe Wright), Taylor-Johnson plays Vronsky, the military man who sweeps an unhappily married Anna Karenina (played by Keira Knightley) off of her feet. She is so caught up in their passionate affair that she risks scandal in 1800s Russian society when she leaves her stern husband Karenin (played by Jude Law) and their son for Vronsky. Wright made the somewhat controversial decision to make Vronsky a blonde, even though Vronsky is described as having dark hair in the book. I interviewed Taylor-Johnson at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, where “Anna Karenina” had its North American premiere, to talk about his very different portrayal of the Vronsky character. Taylor-Johnson also spoke “Kick-Ass 2” (which is due out in 2013) and what it was like playing an American drug dealer in Oliver Stone’s “Savages.”
Keira Knightley had a great compliment about you. She said in working with you on “Anna Karenina,” she learned how great you are movements, whereas she’s more of a text-driven actor.
We complement each other, hopefully. Yeah, I’m terrible at vocabulary and words. I’m definitely more comfortable in the physical aspect of it.
So did the ballroom scene intimidate you?
The ballroom scene was pretty intimidating. She [Keira Knightley] did incredibly well because she has somewhat of a dance background, I guess. I think I stumbled on her a lot more. What’s great about that dance though is that not only the man leading, the woman at times is leading. It’s very much you lean on that person.
It’s a contrast to what’s going in that their relationship, which is sort of spiraling out of control. He’s in white, and she’s in black. It’s a yin and yang, which I think is part of the visual aspect. The look of it is it’s very much of the mood. The colors and the movement are very much reflected in what’s going on in the scenes.
Do you think Vronsky was in love or in lust with Anna?
I think in the book, the moment they meet on the train, she has such a presence. She was just extraordinary, something he had never seen before, quite exotic. And I think that the first part of the lust and what starts to drive him, I guess. I think the love kind of grows and grows. I think he has to be intrigued at first and it’s that sort of inner beauty that she has or this presence that you want to feel as an audience.
He’s just sort of on a conquest to get her into bed, and then “tick that box and move on.” But he doesn’t. He gives everything up for her. He gives up his promotion. And I think that’s ultimately what you do for love, what he’d do for her. But you [as a viewer] want to feel like you’re judging him throughout.
Who do you think has more power and who do you think has more fear in the relationship between Vronksy and Anna?
I think she has more fear. I think he’s fearless. Joe [Wright] would probably say that [Vronsky] is naïve in thinking that they can do what they want. I don’t see him as naïve. I think it’s more bravery. I think she fears consequences all the time. I think it’s her fears that dive her to madness or her insecurities are all driven through there, in giving up so much for him, who could possible run away.
I think [Vronksy] has more power, in a sense. He has a hold on her, definitely. I think Karenin has more of the power. He seems to be controlling [Vronsky and Anna] both. And in the end, he sort of wins, in a way, by not allowing them to do what they want to do, taking the kids away from her. It’s all manipulation.
What kind of preparation did you do for your role in this “Anna Karenina” movie?
Yeah, I’m aware it [“Anna Karenina”] has been done a bunch of times, but so has “Wuthering Heights.” You don’t need to see someone else play the role that you’re going to do. It’s written differently. Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay, and it’s amazing. It read beautifully and it was moving. And then Joe Wright’s vision for it is somewhere else — completely different, which was intriguing and wonderful and magical and risk-taking. I admire that. I thought, “Yeah, I want to do that version.” And so you don’t really care about somebody else’s.
The book is obviously the backbone of it all, so you need to have that under your skin. You use some stuff from there: ideas, details, things like that. Of course, with my role, there are bits in the book, but the essence of him, the physicality is completely different.
Speaking of which, Vronsky in the book is dark-haired. Whose decision was it to make Vronsky in this “Anna Karenina” movie a blonde and why?
Joe saw Vronsky as from the Golden Age, really. That they were so privileged and had everything. He just wanted [Vronsky] to look like a golden boy. He strongly wanted that and Vronsky in white. I guess because [Anna] was a dark spirit and exotic. He wanted that feeling of yin and yang when they’re together. He just had an idea of her dark hair with his blonde ringlets.
He just kept saying he was feeling that kind of look, whereas I wanted [Vronsky] to be dark and brooding, like he was in the book. It made him more human and more realistic to that kind of privileged royal kind of look, like Prince Harry. So he’s still kind of charming. That’s probably how you see Vronsky at first: kind of cheeky, charismatic, charming, naughty. And when she comes along, he’s kind of pulled in by her.
[Joe Wright] was quite strong on a lot of things like that. And then I realized that there was something in that he obviously wants. You put your trust in the director. It’s a Joe Wright film. That’s what you sign up for, and I was happy to do that. That was his vision; that was his idea.
What did you think about this “Anna Karenina” movie being set in a theater?
Originally, it wasn’t going to be in the theater. We were all set to go to Russia and film in Moscow. But the more research he did in Russian society and culture at that time, they were in St. Petersburg having an identity crisis. They saw themselves as being French. So they were conscious of themselves because they were acting all of the time. So therefore, he set everyone on stage. It gives you more room as an actor.
When you see Matthew McFadyen, he embraces all of that with such humor, which is quite impressive because didn’t think it’d have so much. When you look at it, you’d think, “This is going to be melodramatic all the way though,” but it’s got so much joy, fun and humor in it, which is great.
It’s quite hard to digest straight away … but then you go with it, and it’s quite joyous and childlike and it go you somewhere and then you enter somewhere else. It’s quite magical. And then it hits you hard with the emotion.
You wife, Sam Taylor-Johnson, is known for her experimental art pieces. Do you plan to do something like that with her?
I’d love to. We’re looking into things together, actually. We did a little music video together, actually. It was R.E.M.’s “ÜBerlin,” where I’m dancing down the street like a lunatic, which was quite a laugh. She’s got a lot of great ideas, so it would be great to do things like that.
I’m a huge Beatles fan, and I love the work that you and Sam did on “Nowhere Boy.”
I think it’s one of the films I’m most proudest of that I’ve ever done, because I think she’s got an ability to tell a story. I think that’s quite important as a director. She works incredibly hard with the actors and on their journeys. The cast has to complement each other, so you’ve got to feel the emotion and you invest your time in those characters. She’s got an ability to do all that. She’s incredibly amazing.
Speaking of one of your other movies, let’s talk about “Kick-Ass 2.” What do you think will be the biggest growth that your character has in that movie, compared to the first “Kick-Ass” movie?
I like to do different characters and change different genres of films. I’ve never done a sequel before and have to play the same character again. So I think the challenge is to have a development in that character. He’s got to grow as a person throughout the duration of the film. He comes to terms with the responsibility that he’s having. There is a growth there.
[“Kick-Ass 2” director] Jeff Wadlow wrote the script, and he’s in a really good place. Chris [Mintz-Plasse as Chris D’Amico/The Mother F*cker] has got a fantastic journey, one that’s going to be incredible for him as an actor. Chloe Moretz [as Mindy Macready/Hit Girl] has got another journey to take. So it has got a great development. It’s good in a sense because where do you take “Kick-Ass 2”? But it’s got a really good journey. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t get people on board like John Leguizamo and Jim Carrey.
And what can you say about “Savages”?
It was great. We just got to hang out in Laguna Beach and parts of L.A. And Oliver [Stone, the director of “Savages”] wouldn’t allow me to speak in anything different [accent]. It was great though. I had to be in an American accent all the time.
Working with Oliver is f*cking intense, but the outcome is brilliant. I don’t think as an actor I’ve been pushed so hard or challenged so much. I really enjoyed it, actually. You have to go on the ride. It’s f*cking hardcore. You’ve got to keep up. He’s got 10 conversations going at once.
And he constantly questions you about everything and your ability to do things. You’ve got to keep up and prove yourself constantly. But I think that’s good. He’s the only director who wanted me to keep an accent. I loved that. I loved being challenged and pushed into something like that.
If you have to think and answer in an American accent, then within a scene, you’re just more comfortable with it. What was funny is that the crew didn’t know I was English. In the last couple of weeks [of filming “Savages”], when I couldn’t bother to stay in an American accent, and when I spoke [in my native English accent] to a couple of crew members, they were so f*cking confused, which was funny. I like doing American and trying to be British as well.
Is there any character you’ve played that’s very close to your real personality?
Not really. I want to get as far away from me as possible. I feel like sometimes don’t want you to do that though. They see you and they go, “Yes, that’s what I want.” And they try and change you a little bit, like your look and everything, but then they want you to be that. With “Savages,” luckily I had an American accent. But also, [Oliver Stone] wanted to put dreads [in my hair] and changed the look and the way I walked.
Embracing all of that is good, the dressing up, changing you hair, changing your face, the way you speak — that’s all part of it, really. That’s what makes it fun. But a certain amount of it, I allow, but the rest, you don’t want to go too out of your body. The more I try to do that, the more I might get some trust in trying to do something different.
Gary Oldman is a huge inspiration in that sense. When I was younger, he’s the only actor I thought was a chameleon. I’d watch films and not know he was in them until I got to the credits. “Gary Oldman was in this?” And I had to watch them again to find him. And I thought, “That’s what an actor is: someone I don’t even know what the f*ck he looks like.”
What’s the most important thing you learned from making this “Anna Karenina” movie?
I learned a lot from people like Keira and Jude and Matthew McFadyen. They’re so comfortable with themselves and confident on set. They’re very professional. They work really hard; they have a lot of preparation. Keira, I learned a lot from actually. Basically, she took the book, dissected it all, and had little sticky notes in there and highlighted everything. She could write a thesis on it. It was insane. I was impressed with that. I thought that was really something unique and wonderful. She’s very analytical. I can’t analyze it. I have to have a sense of what you want to get out of the scene. I’ve got to go into the scene and react to what she’s going to give.
Joe and Keira are a combination in itself. I think Keira is at her best when she’s in a Joe Wright film. She shines. They had a way about them that they were … very in tune with each other.
And then you’ve got cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who’s worked with [Joe Wright] on a bunch of things. He shoots beautifully, and you have to have that relationship on set. It comes under that trust and that comfort.
It means you can work on other things. I think Joe and Keira work incredibly well together. I used to sit back and observe … them hammer it out with each other of what they’re going to do in a scene. And I was like, “Yeah, all right, I’ll just jump in the scene.”
For more info: “Anna Karenina” website