This week in theaters Aaron Johnson plays the young John Lennon in director Sam Taylor-Wood’s film Nowhere Boy about the life of the legend before anyone knew who he was. The film was a huge hit at Sundance, I for one was blown away by the story and the sea of great performances which were lead by Johnson’s. The film has been in the UK for some time, but now it is finally landed in the US and is the first film of the year that really stands out as a contender for big awards to come — lucky us!
Last week we spoke to Johnson about transformed himself into Lennon for the film. Check out our interview below…
Is it daunting to play Lennon? Or does it make it easier since it’s a time before he was famous?
Aaron Johnson: I don’t think it made it any easier, but it you know definitely… Like you said, it was a part of his life that wasn’t really documented or filmed, so it kind of gave us a freedom to do it sort of instinctively and naturally as possible. And I think, you know… I still had to kind of treat it in the same way. I had to do as much research as possible and kind of know the ins and outs of this guy and know his insecurities and his vulnerable side as well as his quick wit and his anger, the sort of defensive side — that thing that he did where he put his barriers up and kind of hid it all away. And the music as well. His inspirations became my inspirations.
Did you find you could trust what he wrote, or did you have to go to other sources?
AJ: Obviously there was a bunch of stuff, even his poetry and what have you, and his music expressed a lot later in life rather than the Beatles. Yeah, I had biographies I could read from and the footage. The main thing that really expressed Lennon — and it was good for me because he said it himself — it was on an interview for Rolling Stone. It was about an hour and 40 minutes long and he talks about everything. He met Yoko, and he’s sitting with Yoko and he’s expressing how he felt with his Aunt Mimi, what it was like with his mother, what it was like with the boys. He said, the Beatles were a front, and he wanted to get out, and he didn’t feel comfortable there, and he just felt bitter inside that his mother died… all the different pieces to the puzzle kind of became a lot more clear and I knew how to sort of approach him when he was at his most youngest and naïve and innocent.
How important was Yoko’s approval?
AJ: The biggest blessing was her and Paul McCartney giving the rights to the songs for the film, which has never been done before, which makes it unique in that respect. But you know, her and Paul knew Lennon at different times of his life, but on such a personal, intimate level and so close that it means a lot to us that they appreciate the film and love the film and support it and were very complimentary on our performances, and you know, it’s the best compliment we can get, really. It’s the only one that really matters, I suppose, to us.
Did Paul say anything about how spot-on your performance was?
AJ: Yoko was very much like that, yeah. Paul was kind of… didn’t want to say too much, but he was very much… He loved the film, but he said that, he goes, ‘I don’t ever remember John punching me in the face.’ And that was it, really. And I went, Wow. If that was the only sort of thing that bothered you or was an issue, then I think we’ve got it pretty spot-on. But yeah. Yoko was very complimentary on my performance and my accent and capturing that side of Lennon that he spent a lot of time with her intimately talking about his childhood, so it was great to hear that from her.
So where did the punch come from?
AJ: I think he just always wanted to hit him, didn’t he? I don’t know. I’m sure there was some bit that it was played on. You know, it’s written in a biography or something. I don’t know. I think it was really trying to get that across in the film. You know, after his mother died, he was just fucking angry and bitter at everyone and everything and the world for taking this woman away from him when he’d only just met her. You know, there’s tons of fucking stories of him going to Hamburg and just going up to a group of German people and calling them fucking Nazi bastards just so they’d fucking smash his face in and beat him up just so he could feel pain. Like he’d start a fight like that. It was just that thing that he was dying to do, and I think we just needed to get that across in the film. Who better to hit than Paul?
On that pain issue, there’s one school of thought that people go into acting because they had miserable childhoods and want to reenact them — and I’m not saying that’s your case. But I’m wondering what getting into his skin, considering the trauma that he had as a child, how that informs the artist later on, having painful memories like that, whether you got some understanding of that by going through what he’s going through.
AJ: Yeah, hugely, I mean… these women really kind of molded him as Lennon, these two very strong women. And he learned a lot from both of them. I mean, he grew up with Aunt Mimi, who taught him of Oscar Wilde and was very cultured, and you learn quite early on that when Uncle George dies, she teaches him how to kind of conceal that and kind of put the barriers up. And then when he meets his other who’s this free-spirited woman who’s probably before her time, teaches him of, like, music. And it sort of becomes rock-and-roll, which becomes sort of like a voice to his art form. He was already a visionary and a poet. He just sort of came together because rock-and-roll meant anger and rebellion and everything that he was kind of going through at the time.
It was a way out for him to express that kind of… carry on, what was kind of going on at home in the relationships between his aunt and his mother. And then when she died, he probably had to go back to the roots again of what his Aunt Mimi taught him, which was put the barriers up and hide it all and put that pain away. And that was the Beatles, really. Till he met Yoko and felt like he could bring it back out again. But, yeah, I mean, this is what we do. We’re expressing. We’re certainly looking at the artist’s background, really. And it makes his work more — you can understand it more or it makes it more… I think that’s why when we hit ‘Mother,’ it’s such an influential song that maybe you might have loved before, but now you really get it, you know? And there are so many other songs that are like that. That answers your question?
Prior to the film, what was your connection to John Lennon and/or the Beatles?
AJ: Well, I’m British, so it’s kind of embedded in our history, the Beatles, their songs. You know, it’s played a lot, and I love the music. But I never knew anything about this side of Lennon’s life. You know, we don’t really… I guess the sort of Lennon that was the activist and the free spirit, we didn’t really get that side of Lennon because that’s when he kind of devoted himself to living in New York and you know, it was all about the Vietnam War. So we didn’t really — we kind of inhabited just the Beatles.
How did you discover the relationship between your character and when you meet Paul McCartney? Was that something — did you talk to Paul? Was that research? How did you guys figure out that push-pull relationship?
AJ: Yeah, it’s sort of like this moment written down in history, and what was it like? It was quite scary. I guess we just wanted to make it as believable and not too kind of slapstick, you know? It could’ve just been a bit awkward, I guess. I think we just wanted to inhabit the characters. It was kind of funny, we played on the joke of him, you know, ‘Do you want a beer?’ And he says, ‘No, I want tea.’ It’s so earnest… that shit doesn’t faze him at all.
Did you get to talk to Paul or anyone before the film?
AJ: I didn’t talk to anybody during the film. Sam sort of got in touch with everybody just before we started shooting and said, ‘You know, I’m going to make this movie about Lennon.’ Went out to Yoko, Paul, parts of the family, and they all said, ‘Say what you want.’ Some people stepped forward and most people stepped back. They kind of let her deal with it. It was good to get those sort of details, but they kind of went through Sam, and it got filtered through her to us, and I think that was a safer way of doing it, rather than getting us involved. Because they didn’t know us, they didn’t how I was going to play it. She kind of protected us in that sort of bubble.
There’s also kind of a love story with the two women in his life. Did you ever talk about that love triangle aspect of it?
AJ: Yeah, it really is a love triangle, and it comes across throughout the film. Yeah, I mean, these women, there’s a point in the movie when he sees Elvis for the first time, and he sees the effect that he has on women, and he wants that. He wants to be like Elvis, is what he says, and start a rock-and-roll band because he just wants to love of his aunt and his mother, you know? And that was the easiest way of getting it, I guess. I think also there’s that sort of tension, that sort of sexual tension between him and his mother that kind of freaks everybody out.
Which we played on a lot stronger when we were filming, and then had to dial it down for obvious reasons. But that came across as well. I think it was in a Phillip Norman biography of him, it was a quote from Lennon saying something about… He described what she was wearing and what have you, which we copied obviously exactly, and he said something like, he might brush past her or breast or something, and in that moment he knew he could’ve had her. And we were like, ‘OK…’ So we kind of played on it.
Why’d you dial it back?
AJ: Because it’s a fragile subject, and that was all it needed, really. You notice a lot of things in the editing room. I mean, there’s a whole other scene that we had with him and his mother, and it was quite early on and it was still quite seductive, and she was in her lingerie getting changed in the bedroom, and he confronts her about ‘Why did you leave me?’ and ‘Where’s my father?’ It was a beautiful scene, beautifully shot, and you can ask Sam about it because they kept it in until the last moment, and she knew she had to get rid of it because it gave away too much too soon — not only the seductive thing but the whole story of it about that father, and you needed to build it up, build it up to that very last moment where he’s at this birthday party and he says, you know, ‘Where’s my fucking dad?’
So going further wasn’t necessary?
AJ: I think he realized that he only needed that little bit, the seductive bit, for everyone to go, ‘Hang on.’ And then it would go into something else. You know, just to sort of explain what was kind of the dynamic that was sort of grown between him and his mum and what thoughts were going through his head, because he’s at that age, and what she was like as a woman and sort of sleeping around, maybe. All these things couldn’t be diagnosed. Was she bipolar? They couldn’t really diagnose these things in those days. There’s just moments that were written in biographies that we can play on, trying to get this well-rounded perspective on this woman that nobody really knew.
What do you think the difference is in the way this movie is presented in the U.K. Versus the U.S. for audiences?
AJ: Well, hopefully…. the thing that happened was critically it was fantastic in England, and you know, we got nominated for BIFAs and BAFTAs, so that was brilliant. But stupidly they brought it out on Boxing Day, which was up against Avatar and Sherklock Holmes, so surprisingly no one went to go see it. Which was a shame,you know? Because it’s something that I’m really proud of. They should’ve just brought it out when everyone was hyped about it when we did the London Film Festival, which was October of last year.
So hopefully this time round, you know, we can get people to go see it. And I think the difference also here is that it’s quite a spectacle for audiences to see how Lennon grew up and what it was like in Liverpool and the 50s there, especially because Americans take Lennon in — he’s more known for being almost John Lennon and this free speaker and this activist who kind of stood up for the rights and, you know, the Vietnam War and what have you, and peace and all that. And that’s quite embedded in America, I think that rather than the way we see Lennon from just the Beatles, I guess. So hopefully you’ll just get a lot more interest over here.
Johnson can be seen as Lennon in Nowhere Boy in the US starting October 8th!