“SHUT THE FUCK UP! I have flawless skin!”
It’s late February at a popular West Hollywood restaurant and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is shamelessly eavesdropping. To his credit, it’s kind of impossible not to, what with the very pretty television star seated at the next table, aggressively confronting a friend about exfoliation.
Taylor-Johnson leans in, whispering: “Some of these conversations you hear in L.A. are fucking hilarious.” Sipping a Bloody Mary – a habit he picked up back home in London – he recalls a recent hike in nearby Runyon Canyon where he witnessed two young women talking about the fate of deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Just kidding. They were talking about plastic surgery. In a perfect American accent, he replays a line: “I just want to get a face-lift and that’s my choice. And he was like, ‘Well, I just like your face the way it is’”
It’s a funny anecdote, if a cliched one: women in Hollywood talking about a little nip-tuck. But his bemused expression speaks volumes about where he’s at right now – as an actor with a capital A who finds himself starring in a risky multimillion dollar reboot of Godzilla. Perhaps even more surprising is that he’s putting down roots in town, closing on a $4 million house in the Hollywood Hills, though he’d be the first to admit: It’s hard out there for a bloke.
Like a young Jude Law before him, Taylor-Johnson – as a concept – has somehow felt thrust upon us. He was another British import labeled a “movie star” before we could pick him out of a Just Jared slideshow.
While Law at least appeared to enjoy the attention initially, Taylor-Johnson bristled under the glare of the flashbulbs, seemingly determined to prove his talent was more than chin-deep. To portray dashing Count Vronsky opposite Keira Knightly in Anna Karenina, he pushed director Joe Wright to let him play the character as balding. (Vronsky got a mustache instead, perhaps as a consolation prize.) For Oliver Stone’s marijuana fueled thrill ride Savages, Taylor-Johnson begged for dreadlocks. (He won this battle, sort of. He was allowed to wear dreads in a flashback scene.) Kick-Ass, the dark comedy about a suburban teen who puts on a wetsuit and call himself a superhero, was supposed to be a star-making franchise. And it was – for 12 year old Chloe Grace Moretz, who shouted “cunt” and walked away with the movie.
The young Brit was making bold choices in his personal life, too. With his star ascending and a queue of women (presumably) lining up to bed the next Orlando Bloom, Aaron Johnson married the celebrated British artist Sam Taylor-Wood – a woman more than two decades his senor – and started a family. (The couple’s surname, Taylor-Johnson, is a very modern mash-up.) At 23, he is now the rare father of four who isn’t old enough to rent a car.
Yet here he is today, dressed like James Dean in dark denim and a fitted white T-shirt so perfectly frayed it can only be expensive. His eyes are as blue as the Wyoming sky. And if he finally looks like a movie star, the makeover is right on time: He’ll follow up this month’s Godzilla with a coveted role in the sequel to The Avengers. After playing the anti-hero, the smug villain, and the drug dealer, is Taylor-Johnson finally ready to embrace the career his good looks foretold? Or is “leading man” just another role he’s trying on for size?
The son of a civil engineer and a homemaker, Taylor-Johnson discovered acting early on, making his West End debut at age siz in the very serious drama An Inspector Calls, directed by Oscar-nominee Stephen Daldry (THe Hours). Taylor-Johnson recently ran into the director for the first time as an adult. When Daldry said, “I’d love to work with you,” Taylor-Johnson wasn’t afraid to take the piss, reminding him: “We already did.” Daldry had no idea he’d given the boy one of his first jobs.
Taylor-Johnson was a self-serious kid and a perfectionist; all these years, he’s still able to recall a flubbed line during a production of Macbeth. With the money he made acting (including work on something called Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging), he left school at age 15 and flew to Los Angeles renting a room in the apartment of a vague acquaintance. The experience was as much about pursuing professional opportunities as it was about getting the hell out of Dodge (or whatever the British equivalent is). “I grew up in a town where nothing happens,” he says of his breeding ground, High Wycombe. From our perch atop the restaurant, where he’s staring out at the vast expanse of Los Angeles below, I ask where his first apartment was. He points out and replies cryptically: “Out there.”
While American former child stars tend to implode publicly, Taylor-Johnson wisely did his worst a million miles from home. “It was a lot of crazy shit I got up to for a couple years,” he says his first days in L.A. “I was pretty self-destructive at one point. I used to smoke 30 fags a day, used to fucking drink nonstop. I’ve always been able to be on the fucking edge – be on the line, but then pull myself back.” He’d have a couple auditions a day. “Stupid shit,” he says. “Some interesting movies but a lot of TV. A lot of Nickelodeon bullshit.” He learned to make a game of the casting director meet-and-greets; he’d walk into the room pretending he was American fresh off the bus from some Midwestern town, only to out himself as a Londoner once the audition was over. He likens the experience to learning how to pick up women in a bar.
“It was kind of like learning how to pull,” he says. “It was like, how do you go into a bar and point out the fittest girl and then just go, ‘I’ll have her by the end of the night’? I was at that age where that was kind of-” He stops himself, but the point has been made. Oats were sown. The drinking, the smoking, that part of his life: “I stopped when I met Sam.”
While filming Kick-Ass, Taylor-Wood cast the upstart actor as John Lennon in the biopic Nowhere Boy – a sort of portrait of the artist as a really young man, back when Lennon was playing a garage band in Liverpool. When news of their romance broke, the British tabloids had a field day. She was 42, very famous, and recently divorced. He was 19, reduced to a “toy boy” in the words of the Daily Mail. The attention only heightened when they announced they were expecting a child. To their credit, they never hid their romance, and the couple eventually married in 2012 on an estate in Somerset; it was like something out of a neo-Downtown Abbey, with Elton John standing in as the Dowager Countess.
Taylor-Johnson says the press weren’t the only haters; he had to jettison a few “friends” who didn’t get on board with the romance. But it turns out the best middle finger is the truth. The couple now has two daughters (play two from Sam’s previous marriage) and a circle of absurdly fancy friends (they go dancing with Michael Stripe, Tom Ford made Taylor-Johnson’s wedding suit). Says his friend, the actress Elizabeth Olsen – who co-stars in Avengers and Godzilla: “He’s always in a different country. I don’t really know what phone numbers I have for him. There are so many different area codes when he calls, I don’t save any of them.”
The constant, in any city, is his family. At 23, life revolves around ferrying the kids to gymnastics lessons and swim class and martial arts. He likens the routine to an episode of Modern Family, smiling as he says: “Sometimes I feel like Phil Dunphy and then sometimes I feel like Cam.” It’s a funny thing for a would-be movie star to say, both because it’s obviously true and because it’s so far from cool. But Taylor-Johnson doesn’t seem much concerned with what’s hip.
Still it’s hard to imagine him making small talk at gymnastics class. He laughs. “You end up just finding where the great naturopath is – the great kid’s doctor. I love the fucking music class. I’m the only dad there. It’s, like, mums and nannies. And you’re clapping your hands. You’re singing more than the kids are.” And then he sings, because why not: “Hello, everybody, it’s nice to see you!”
After Savages and Anna Karenina, a remake of a dusty monster movie wasn’t high on his list. Actually, when his agents initially mentioned the idea, Taylor-Johnson’s exact words were “No fuckin’ way.” He only agreed to meet with the director, Gareth Edwards, after seeing his previous film, Monsters (a 2010 sci-flick that would have received more attention had the media not already shot its collective load over another low budget alien movie, District 9). A half-hour meeting turned into a six-hour bro-down. And once it was clear that Edwards wanted to return Godzilla to the dark origins of the 1954 original – and that he promised to shoot with a handheld camera, like this was some indie destined for Sundance – Taylor-Johnson started to take the idea seriously.
Yes, he’d have to cut his hair short and bulk up. He’d have to look like the very thing he appeared to be running from: a traditional action hero. But it helped that there was a human story to sink his teeth into. The 10-second pitch: A solider returns home to his wife and little boy only to find out that his estranged father has been arrested in Japan. A potential nuclear disaster is brewing overseas and the conditions feel eerily similar to the explosion that killed his mother two decades ago. Of Taylor-Johnson’s character, he says: “He’s in the military and he’s usually away on tour. He’s running away from problems at home. It mirrored what his father did.” Which is to say: Our hero leaves home to make things right with his dad. Fighting a mythical creature the size of the Empire State Building is just what happens along the way.
Co-star Bryan Cranston, who originally turned the film down fearing it would be “just a monster movie,” says that father-son story was essential. As was having a solid partner to spar with. “I saw Nowhere Boy and thought, ‘Who is this kid?’ His screen presence was so strong,” he remembers. “Then I saw Anna Karenina and he was so different in that. He has a strong sensibility that belies his age. He feels older to me than his 23 years. He’s certainly lived that way – being a married man, with children of his own at this young age.” Cranston recalls Father’s Day in Vancouver. “Sam brought all the kids to the set and I just saw Aaron go from one kid to another, bouncing, goofing around, and throwing things. And I just thought, ‘He truly was meant to have this life.’”
While Godzilla is heavily under wraps, the trailer is certainly promising – soldiers falling out of the sky and a green-eyed monster that’s anything but cartoonish. Still, the film’s success is hardly assured. The last Godzilla released in 1998, was a campy mess starring Matthew Broderick (!) that made $136 million in the States but cost as much to make, and who-knows-what to market. With the budget for the 2014 attempt at $160 million – and no A-list stars above the title – Forbes recently asked the question: Is Godzilla this year’s John Carter? It was an unlikely bitch slap from a blue-chip publication, but not an unfounded one. The film has one week to make its mark at the box office before X-men crashes the party.
For Taylor-Johnson’s part, the expectations are someone else’s problem. When Choosing projects, he says, “Most people would say ‘Script first.’ Always script, script, script. But, I beg to differ. I think it’s about the filmmaker. I don’t know if I really care so much about the end product anymore.”
There was certainly no script when he signed on for Avengers: Age of Ultron (perhaps the only title worse than Anus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging). There was only a conversation with director Joss Whedon and the reputation Marvel to go on. Which was plenty, even for a somewhat reluctant star like Taylor-Johnson. He can’t say much about the sequel except that he and Olsen will appear as brother-and-sister duo Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. “They’re from Eastern Europe,” he says. “They come from a hard life. They’re sort of gypsies and the look out for each other.” He’s been doing screen tests for costumes the past few weeks, but won’t even confirm he’ll be wearing spandex. “I don’t think I could even give you that much.” He does, however, raise a cryptic eyebrow when I ask if his character is one of the good guys. Let the guessing games begin, nerds.
Taylor-Johnson is aware that the public has a certain idea of him – that he’s British, married to a fine artist whose work is in the Tate Modern, and therefore he must be some kind of serious dick. (He’s not.) If you want a glimpse at what he’s really like, check out the video he and his wife shot for the R.E.M. song “Uberlin.” In it, Taylor-Johnson, dressed in track pants and a snug yellow T-shirt, sashays down an East London street, dancing like nobody’s watching. He falls down stairs. He swings on a lampost. It is possibly the most un-self-concious thing a movie star has ever done. That he choreographed the whole thing himself makes it even more amusing. “That’s what we do at home,” he says, smiling in his own defense. “Funny mad dancing. I don’t know why. I dance around the fucking kitchen all the time.”
After shooting Avengers 2, Taylor-Johnson says he hopes to work with his wife again, provided they can find the right project. I mention there was one high profile movie they could have made together, Sam’s big-screen adaption of Fifty Shades of Grey, due out next year. On the topic of your mom’s favorite erotica, Taylor-Johnson points out he’s at least five years too young for the role of Christian Grey, the wealthy entrepreneur with a BDSM fetish. Also, he jokes, “We don’t have a Red Room at home.”
But the decision was more personal than that – and a sign that Taylor-Johnson values his intimacy. “I think it would have been the wrong kind of hype to bring toward us,” he says. “It would have been kind of funny that this character that all these women fancy – he’s one in a million – and my wife picks her husband to play the part? I would love to have done something together again, but it wouldn’t have been Fifty. We were both on the same page.” Has he at least read the book? “No,” he says, “I did not. I’ll watch the movie, though!”
With that, Taylor-Johnson says his good-byes and readies himself to pick up the kids from gymnastics. Still, the question remains: Should we read into his new Los Angeles address as some deal with the devil? In a way, he says, it just made sense. He and his wife are bother working more here. But the investment is more about being a good dad than being seen at the right parties. He acknowledges that Brits are supposed to look down on L.A. as a greedy paradise of depravity. “But you realize,” he says, “‘Oh shit, the sun makes you feel a lot better.’”
Here, he makes a pointed declaration about the Venn diagram between his high-brow past and the popcorn flicks on his docket. “There are some actors that are so conscious, like, ‘I only pick the really quirky weird films ’cause I wanna be looked at as a serious actor.’” Of The Avengers, or even Godzilla, he says: “The work is just as interesting as, you know, playing a fucking crackhead in some rough indie Detroit movie.”