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Aaron Taylor-Johnson Covers Nylon Guys and Men's Health May 2014

“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.

[the interview is here]

“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.”

[Men's Health Interview]

Aaron Taylor-Johnson lets out a roar. It sounds like a cross between the growl of a bear protecting her cubs and a whale’s mating call. It’s loud and menacing, and just about everybody in this Japanese toy store turns to stare at him. Taylor-Johnson is trying to demonstrate how he manufactured genuine-looking terror for his role in Godzilla, a new big-budget take on the sci-fi classic, opening May 16. He plays a Navy lieutenant who’s trying to return home to his wife when his journey is cut short by a certain large, mutant lizard. During filming, Taylor-Johnson had no actual monster to react to – Godzilla was added later via CGI – so director Gareth Edwards used his laptop to create sound effects that he piped through speakers when his actors least expected it.

“He’d pop the bass, and if you didn’t know it was coming, it was seriously frightening,” says Taylor-Johnson. He does the Godzilla growl again, and it’s even more snarly. A few people nearby eye him nervously and start heading toward the exit. We’re in L.A.’s Little Tokyo neighborhood at Anime Jungle, a hobby shop with thousands of Japanese-made toys and movie collectibles. Taylor-Johnson looked out of place the moment he walked in – he’s a bit more muscular and rugged-looking than the typical clientele – and the Godzilla caterwauling has only made him stick out even more like, well, a mutant lizard.

Here in geek ground zero, an entire wall carries fetish-level incarnations of the monster. There’s the regular green Godzilla, the Mechagodzilla – a robot version from 1974 – and an 8 1/2-inch ice blue Godzilla from a 2005 Japanese film. One Godzilla, which Taylor-Johnson finds particularly appealing, looks like it’s doing jazz hands.

As we study the array of Godzilla faces, he talks about the challenges of working with a costar who can’t be bothered to show up on set. “There’s this acting method, I think it’s Lee Strasberg’s or whatever, where you use a memory from your own life to create an emotion,” he says. “So if you’re looking up at Godzilla and you’re supposed to be scared, you just imagine something from your life that’s scared you.” He paused and smirks. “I didn’t fucking do that. It’s fucking bullshit.”

Just a few hours earlier, as we were having breakfast at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, Taylor-Johnson had give me a guided tour of his head scars.

“There’s one right there,” he said, pointing to a spot just above his hairline. “See it? That’s from when I was a kid. I was sliding down my mate’s banister and bashed my head open. And the other one…” His finger drifted to the back of his head. “I have no idea. So I must have been paralytic.” (That’s Britspeak for “drunk.”) “I didn’t even know I had it until we started Godzilla and they cut my hair.”

The topic had come up as we talked about Taylor-Johnson’s recent film roles, which are becoming increasingly action-oriented. In many of his early movies – like 2008′s Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and 2009′s The Greatest – he played dreamy boyfriends. But since his breakout role in the 2010 sleeper hit Kick-Ass, he’s made the transition from heartthrob to hero. He picked up a gun for the first time in the 2012 Oliver Stone pic Savages and packed on muscle for last year’s Kick-Ass 2. Godzilla, along with an upcoming turn as Quicksilver in next year’s Avengers sequel, should solidify Taylor-Johnson’s action-star status.

Despite being repeatedly punched, stabbed, and shot at on film, the actor has yet to receive permanent damage, though it’s not for lack of trying. Over huevos rancheros and a side of bacon he barely touches, he spins tales of split lips and bloody noses incurred during the filming of Kick-Ass 2. “There was one fight scene with Chris [Mintz-Plasse] where he was supposed to punch me in the face, and Jeff [Wadlow, the director] says, ‘Do it again. Get closer; get closer.’ We kept doing take after take, and finally we got so close that Chris actually punched me. And Jeff goes, “That one was good!”

Things may seem wilder in Godzilla, but this time Taylor-Johnson is letting stuntmen do the dangerous work. His reluctance to jump out of planes may have something to do with his home life. He’s married to filmmaker Samantha Taylor-Johnson, who’s exactly twice his age – he’s 23 and she’s 46 – and they have four daughters who range from 2 to 16 years old. (The oldest two are from his wife’s previous marriage.) That’s an awful lot of responsibility for a guy who only recently became old enough to drink legally. A movie star in his early 20s should be going to wild Hollywood parties, not facing the challenges of a growing family, right?

“That’s bullshit,” he insists. “They’re not challenges. People are like, ‘Don’t you have to work really hard?’ And I’m like, ‘If you think it’s hard, you must be in a shit marriage.’” But doesn’t having four daughters, one of whom is old enough to be his sister, ever feel overwhelming, like he’s a circus performer juggling monkeys? “Well, sure,” he says. “But how cool is being in a circus juggling monkeys? It’s the way I like my life. I like it nonstop.”

Appearance-wise, Taylor-Johnson is very much the 23-year-old. He wears jeans, an old sweater, sneakers, and a USS Ronald Reagan baseball cap from the Godzilla shoot. He has the slouch and the “When is this over?” expression of a kid waiting to be sprung from algebra class. But in conversation, he sounds more like a man in his late 40s, weary from years of responsibility. He grimaces at compliments and would rather talk about his family than his movie career. He dodges the question about the upcoming Avengers film by pulling out his cellphone and showing off photos of his daughters. Still, the 23-year-old is always there. He prepares his conversation with f-bombs, whether he’s debating good nutrition (“I actually fucking like brown rice and fucking broccoli”) or proper father hood (parents who let their kids curse, he says, are “fucking disgraceful”).

“Everything in my life before them was an escape,” he says of his wife and kids. “I went from one job to the next, film after film, just trying to escape.” Escape from what. He doesn’t answer right away, but his face – jaw clenched, forehead tight, eyebrows doing a sort of breakidancing routine – speaks volumes. He looks at his feet and then at the sky searching for words. “You know,” he finally says, “the usual.”

But back at Anime Jungle, Taylor-Johnson’s cynicism disappears. His eyes grow wide as he walks past shelves filled with toys that span almost half a century of popular Japanese entertainment we’ve never even heard of. He admits that he never had much of a fantasy life as a kid. He didn’t read comic books or collect superhero figures or monster toys.

“I grew up working in this industry,” he says. “I did my first commercial at six. And from about the age of 10, I was doing films. I was a kid, but I was working around adults.”

He’s vague about his childhood in Holmer Green, a working-class suburb about 30 minutes outside London. He’ll say only that he had little in common with his peers and that he definitely didn’t talk about acting projects that occasionally took him out of town. At 15 he dropped out of school to focus on his acting, and by 16 he was essentially living on his own, traveling from set to set. He had a wild period, he says, of excess and bad decisions (“I’m just lucky it went under the radar”), but that ended in 2009 when he met Sam Taylor-Wood (who would soon become Taylor-Johnson) on the set of Nowhere Boy. She was the director, and he was the 19-year-old star playing a young John Lennon. “My life just totally flipped over,” he says of the effect of meeting his then bride-to-be. “It went from a really bad place to, you know…”

When the couple first started dating, the tabloids focused on their considerable age difference. But Taylor-Johnson says he never notices that she has two decades (and then some) on him. “It doesn’t seem like it,” Taylor-Johnson says of his wife, who at the time of this interview is in Vancouver directing the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. “She’s such a young, beautiful soul that you wouldn’t even know.”

I mention that I’d read that his wife has called him an old soul, so maybe they met somewhere in the middle? He smiles. “That’s probably it,” he says.

The owner of the shop stops by, and Taylor-Johnson asks about a huge Godzilla mask perched on a shelf close to the ceiling and priced at around $1,000. “Does it come with a full costume?”

The guy laughs. “No, no, just the head,” he says.

“Not even a pair of Godzilla trousers?” Taylor-Johnson asks. “I want to stop on some little houses, and do some role-playing.”

Taylor-Johnson has come a long way in one morning. Over breakfast, he hadn’t seemed all that crazy about the idea of Godzilla-shopping. “It’s not really my thing,” he’d said cautiously. But now he strolls up to the cash register carrying four Godzilla figures of various sizes and colors – including that fantastic jazz hands Godzilla, which we just must’ve been from the little-seen Bob Fosse Godzilla remake.

I mention to the clerks that Taylor-Johnson has a big role in the upcoming Godzilla reboot. They smile politely and return to their tasks. Taylor-Johnson seems oddly relieved by this.

“I never liked calling myself an actor,” he says. “From when I was a kid, acting was just something fun to do. I only recently came to terms with the fact that this is what I do for a living. I guess it’s because I grew up being told, ‘You’re never going to make it as an actor. You should always have a plan B.’” His face contorts again. All this self-reflection is not his comfort zone. He furrows his eyebrow and looks around for a distraction – anything to get the focus off himself. “It didn’t feel like a real job. Why was I the lucky one? But I worked my ass off for it, you know? It’s just… it’s weird. It still feels like a fantasy.”

And for a guy who rejected fantasy long before he hit puberty, who was acting like an adult when most people are still blissfully irresponsible, it’s particularly hard thing for him to accept.

The final bill for his Godzillas comes to around &500. As we leave, I ask who’ll be on the receiving end of these vintage movie monsters. A costar? The director or his manager? His kids?

“Maybe,” he says. And then he adds with a wry smile, “Or maybe I’ll just keep them for myself.”

Tags: actor / actress, interview, magazine covers and articles
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