by Dan Lybarger
Aaron Johnson approaches John Lennon with a new angle in “Nowhere Boy.” Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Company.
Because the music and legacy of John Lennon is so formidable, any actor wanting to portray him in a movie is almost inviting ridicule. This is especially true because tomorrow would have been the murdered singer’s 70th birthday.
In addition to having to meet the expectations of millions of Beatle fans, a performer risks comparison with the way Ian Hart played the role in Backbeat. Thankfully, 20-year-old Englishman Aaron Johnson easily fits into Lennon’s Teddy Boy clothes. For one thing, he’s no stranger to iconic roles. He played a young street urchin who would grow up to be Charlie Chaplin in Shanghai Knights.
He’s also playing a Lennon who’s not as well known as the later peace activist and superstar. In director Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, Johnson’s Lennon is rebellious teenager who seems headed to prison or an early grave instead of greatness.
His equally free-spirited mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) has left him in the care of her straight-laced sister Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas). Lennon loves both of them, but both siblings war over his affections. Thanks in part to Johnson’s committed performance and Taylor-Wood’s creative direction, the film has earned raves. As of opening day, the film has an 80 percent approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
Despite his youth, Johnson has assembled a formidable résumé as a leading man. In Kick-Ass, he played an American teen whose attempts to become a masked vigilante result primarily in getting himself clobbered. He’s also starring in Japanese horror maestro Hideo Nakata’s (Dark Water, Ringu) new offering Chatroom, which played this year at Cannes.
Johnson is slated to star in the sequel to Kick-Ass, and he and the 43-year-old Taylor Wood are now engaged and had their first child last May. Speaking by phone yesterday from London, Johnson has taken the challenges of his role in stride but has also taken the concerns of Lennon’s fans seriously.
Dan Lybarger: Did you know much about John Lennon before you took the role.
Aaron Johnson: No, not really. I knew about the Beatles and their songs and their albums. I didn’t know anything about his back story or how he grew up. The script was the first insight that I had.
Lybarger: I play piano and guitar, and I was impressed that the performance sequences looked authentic for a change. You had to learn to play guitar for the role, is that correct?
Johnson: Yeah, I spent two months learning how to play guitar and immersing myself in this sort of 50s rock-n-roll, recording Elvis track and Buddy Holly stuff. Yeah, it was good fun.
It was something that sort of gave me that kind of determination to conquer it because I tried to play guitar a bunch of times before but never really had the patience for it or even the sort of passion for it, as much as I did for this. It really drove me.
Lybarger: I loved the scene where you’re practicing in real time, but the world is going on behind you at warp speed. How were those scenes staged?
Johnson: You mean when he learns how to play the banjo? How is it done? It was pretty technical. It was done with a special camera called “motion control.” And what happened was we had to film at separate times. So I come in the room, I play the first bit of banjo, and then I come out and then Anne-Marie (Duff) and the kids would run around and do things. They’d film for 10 minutes and then speed it up to where it was like seconds-worth.
I think that thing is very typical of Sam’s work, always kind of (indicating) how time goes by, and that changeover. That’s very much Sam’s work.
Lybarger: Which was harder to do: the Liverpudlian accent you used in this movie or the American one you used in Kick-Ass?
Johnson: I don’t know. I’ve spent some time in American so I can pick it up by ear and practiced it out there and used it. With Lennon, all I had was tape. He has a very distinctive accent as well, so that was a bit more pressure on getting that sort of voice that people sort of knew. It’s so familiar, really.
Lybarger: In some of the depictions I’ve seen of the Beatles in movies, they’re often presented in an idealized manner, but your Lennon has a lot of rough edges.
Johnson: How was it for me? I didn’t go anywhere near that. My mom was just around the corner, and I didn’t have those sort of parental issues. There was a lot of Lennon in the script that I could relate to. That character was so familiar to me, and there were things I felt instinctively. I understood him creatively as well. I think that way as well. I had an instant feeling for the character, and then there was this character who was Lennon, so I worked off of that as well.
Lybarger: Did it mean something to have (Lennon’s widow) Yoko Ono’s endorsement on this production?
Johnson: What do you mean by endorsement?
Lybarger: Did she cooperate on the film?
Johnson: Yeah. She’s been supportive of the film. She gave the rights to the song “Mother,” which was a huge blessing for us. I think Sam was in touch with her as well as many others, like Paul, the Quarrymen and members of the family, right at the beginning saying, “I’m going to do a film about Lennon. I’ll do him with respect and what have you. If there was any information, let me know.”
And some people did and some people didn’t. Some people supported it, and some people stepped back, quite rightfully. And Yoko said a bit before we started filming and sort of stood back and let Sam do what she could do.
In the end, we showed the film to Yoko, and then she fell in love with it. And has been a huge believer in the film, and she gave the rights to “Mother” and her blessing. From then on, she’s been duly supportive. She’s talked about it, Twittered about it. And we couldn’t be any more grateful for that.
Lybarger: Did you feel intimidated by taking this role?
Johnson: I don’t know. I sort of naïvely jumped in. I looked at the challenge and was not really intimidated. I felt slightly nervous at times and a bit of pressure, I guess, to do it justice.
I don’t think I was scared that he was an icon. It was more that he was a real person that we were dealing with.
Lybarger: Even though you did more stunt work in Kick-Ass, I was impressed by the way you rode on the tops of buses in Nowhere Boy. How dangerous was that?
Johnson: Back then in Liverpool, they used to have trams, and they used to get up on top of the trams and ride the trams on the roof. But we didn’t have a tram, we kind of imitated it on a bus. It must have been in a couple of biographies. It was something he used to do.
Lybarger: The Quarrymen, Lennon’s band before the Beatles, were a skiffle band. Did you know much about skiffle music before taking this role?
Johnson: Not really, no. It’s kind of intriguing that they used to play with sort of kitchen objects, really. They’d just pick up pots and pans and bash it about and make some music, like the tea chest bass with a broom handle and a string, getting a washboard and you’ve go cymbals on your fingers and you go scraping about. It was incredible. It was a good laugh. And the guys who recorded the songs had a lot of fun smashing up the pots and the pans and the lot. It’s good fun.
Lybarger: You and Ms. Taylor-Wood became acquainted working on this film. How did you two discover you were right for each other?
Johnson: Because I love her, and we just think the same. And we have this understanding and connection that I’ve never had before with anybody, like anybody who’s in love. We’re very good friends.
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originally posted: 10/09/10 02:22:29
last updated: 10/09/10 02:28:12