Only just out of his teens, Aaron Johnson has played a Beatle in Nowhere Boy and shacked up with yBa Sam Taylor-Wood. But will Kick-Ass give him the power to say no to Hollywood?
Even for an actor, Aaron Johnson hasn’t had a normal life. He made his stage debut at six years old, playing a ghost. As a child, he appeared in adverts for Persil and McDonald’s, made a movie with Jackie Chan (2003’s Shanghai Knights), and paid his actor’s dues with appearances in Casualty and The Bill. In his mid-teens, he moved out of the family home, became a modest pin-up, played John Lennon, fell in love with a woman twice his age, and is now expecting his first child. He turns 20 this summer.
The woman, is, of course, Sam Taylor-Wood – his director on the Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy – and, until now, this is how most people know Aaron Johnson: the red-carpet toy boy. But now, he’s about to make an impact on his own terms. This week sees the release of Kick-Ass, the hotly anticipated comic-book adaptation in which Johnson stars as Dave Lizewski, a mild-mannered New York schoolboy with no superpowers whatsoever, just the determination to don a mask and a uniform to fight inner-city crime. Co-written by director Matthew Vaughn with Jane Goldman, Jonathan Ross’s wife, it’s a fast-paced, funny, blood-and-guts action-adventure romp, in which our would-be vigilante hero crosses swords with a vicious gangster before being bailed out by the superhero team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl, a perky, murderous 11-year-old assassin.
It’s a wild ride, and much of it plays out in front of Johnson’s wide, doe-like eyes: he plays this male ingenue to perfection, just nerdy enough to be charming with it, but never straining our sympathy or, more importantly, our credulity.
It’s hard to believe that Johnson was 18 when he made Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy back to back, and the footage of him in his tux – suave and distinguished – at the Baftas suggested that this once goofy teen had become middle-aged overnight. In the flesh, though, Johnson is very much his age. He’s surprisingly shy, his articulacy comes and goes, and he swears like a trooper, to the extent that we’ve toned down his potty mouth in this piece to spare his blushes. He is, however, quite compellingly handsome. No one has noticed it yet, but there is something of the young De Niro, circa Mean Streets, in his face. Johnson would be thrilled by the comparison: he loves Scorsese’s films, and Tarantino’s too, having been introduced to Pulp Fiction by his big sister at the age of four. “I didn’t understand a fucking word,” he grins. “But I loved it.”
We meet in the film’s PR company’s offices. He’s wearing a light-blue trilby, which he keeps on throughout, even when his Nando’s burger arrives. The buzz surrounding Kick-Ass – financed privately by Vaughn then sold to the highest bidder – hasn’t quite registered yet. “I don’t think it’s going to really sink in until it comes out,” he muses. “It’s quite odd. I remember we were joking about it on the set. We’d say to Matthew, ‘So who’s distributing this, then?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, so far, no one. So this could be one of the most expensive home videos you’ll ever see.’ But it never really crossed my mind how it would go, because it never does. To be honest, Nowhere Boy and Kick-Ass are the only films that have ever really kinda surfaced properly, that I’ve ever done. Usually, the best hope for me is that it might end up on Sky Movies Plus 2 at four in the morning.”
He admits that he went into Kick-Ass blithely unaware of its commercial prospects. “I loved doing it, and the creative part is what I love doing most,” he says. “It will do what it will. But I never really understood what it was going to be setting itself up for. It wasn’t a commercial superhero movie – it’s Superbad meets Kill Bill. Most people in the States who wanna see it can’t, because it’s R-rated, so it’s hard to tell what’s coming. I just knew what it felt like; and it felt real.”
‘I can’t think of anything worse than trying to schmooze someone with the idea that you’re an actor’
Johnson shifts a lot while we’re talking. Was acting something he did to overcome nerves? Some actors take up “the craft” as a shortcut to meeting girls, but he’s not one of them. “I never used it for attention from girls,” he shrugs. “Quite the opposite. I can’t think of anything worse than trying to schmooze someone with the idea that you’re an actor.” He laughs: “It’s like writing ‘cunt’ on your fucking forehead! No, I just enjoyed it.” So he’s never been a show-off? “No. And if I was, I’d have got clipped around the ear ‘ole. I was never a kid that would brag about anything.”
Growing up in Holmer Green, between the wilds of Chesham and the urban ghetto that is High Wycombe, Johnson looked to American films for his inspiration. “And that was it,” he says. “I guess my love for film – or my idea of what film was – fed into the theatre work I was doing. I’d look at Michael Madsen and think that if you squinted your eyes and frowned a lot, somehow it would make sense. Same with De Niro, or Harvey Keitel. They all had fucking mean faces, they all had fucking scowls on their faces, and I’d always try to copy them!”
His inner bad guy, however, is yet to surface. Instead, Johnson’s opted for a series of roles that have taken him perilously close to teen heart-throb status, something he’s seen in Robert Pattinson’s career and would rather not emulate (“That seems like hell,” he shivers). The closest he came was with Gurinder Chadha’s Angus, Thongs And Perfect Snogging, which he took because “it was a good script, for that age group”. It was an experiment, he says now. “When it came out, I had, like, Sugar and Bliss magazines knocking on the door, saying, ‘We want to do a poster shoot.’ I was, like, ‘Ahhh, fuck …’ And that’s when I went to America. I was trying to find something bizarre and different. And then Kick-Ass came along. The idea that I would be playing some kind of nerdy, nobody kid, who couldn’t get girls and was the complete opposite of a heart-throb …” He pauses: “I thought, ‘YES!'”
Since making Kick-Ass, his showcase follow-up, Nowhere Boy, has come and gone in the UK, though its US release is scheduled for the autumn. Was he disappointed? Despite its flaws, the film was a handsome bet, yet pretty much tanked, taking less than £1m. “I don’t really think that much about it,” he shrugs. “I also don’t really care. As much as I’m really proud of Nowhere Boy, and proud of Sam, and want people to see it, I don’t know if it hurts me too much.” He cites the Christmas release date, which saw the film opening against Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and some hideous weather. “You ain’t gonna get bums on seats, man,” he says. “And the producers – well, that affects them more than it affects us, because they get the money.” He sighs: “It’s all lingo and figures.”
Though he laughs at comparisons with Brangelina, and admits that the pair got off lightly in press coverage of the Baftas, Johnson doesn’t believe that his romance with Taylor-Wood has been accepted by the media yet. “It’s funny, because they’re all these faceless … cowards, almost, that come out of nowhere,” he says. “Anyway, I don’t read any of it, and neither does Sam. It’s just bullshit. We never tried to hide anything, because we knew if we did there’d just be more interest. We’re together, and that’s it. Now shut up and fuck off!”
But soon, of course, Hollywood will be calling. As a young father-to-be, does Johnson have any regrets about missing out on a misspent youth? “The thing is, you know what, I’ve done all that,” he decides. “All the messing around I got out of my system earlier on, when I was 16 and working away from home. In the film industry you work hard and you play hard. I did all that, got it all out my system. And LA? There isn’t a fantasy Hollywood. There isn’t one. Whatever it is, it ain’t there. LA’s just where my work is. It’s so business-orientated and soulless, it’s all about figures. My office is LA, and I don’t wanna go!”
And Kick-Ass will give him the leverage he needs to refuse. “It’s quite nice,” he says, “because before, if anything came up, I’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, great, I’ll do it, no problem. I’d love to play a dog.’ Well, Matthew always used to say to me, ‘The power of no, homeboy, the power of no. Use it, because you’re going to need it.'” He smiles: “And, yeah, I understand that now.”
Kick-Ass is out on Wednesday; Kick-Ass The Graphic Novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr is out now (Titan)
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