While sharp and sometimes a little spikey in interviews, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, 31, is generally upfront and open. He's always liked to say it as it is, and he sees not having to pander to the opinions of others as a form of freedom.
Despite winning the Golden Globe for Supporting Actor for his unsettling performance in Nocturnal Animals – a world away from recent blockbuster action in Kick-Ass, Avengers, Godzilla, Tenet and The King’s Man, only working on one project a year – a refreshing approach in a game where the volume of output often outclasses quality.
His project this year, Bullet Train, adheres to that standard. A tight, taut assassin thriller set on a Japanese bullet train, he finds himself embroiled with a collection of other killers also pursuing a shared goal…
RSNG As well as putting a limit on your projects, you also make sure projects following on from each other aren’t too similar, right?
AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON, ACTOR “See, here's the thing. It's like, I'd done a bunch of work, varied characters, interesting, character-led independent films when I first started out. And then I did Angus Thong's film in about 2008. And no matter what the fuck I did, I just instantly got pigeonholed and imaged. So that lead me to Kick Ass and the ability to create a character was just completely the opposite to that, so that was probably the first time.
“And now I have that way about me, when I do one thing, I want to go the other way. From Savages to Anna Karenina, Kick Ass, Nowhere Boy, Nocturnal Animals, Godzilla, I just sort of need to do that to kind of, it's a cleansing thing to get far away from that. I guess in recent years I’ve done a bit more action than anything else, but the eras and the settings of the films are very different. There has to be some tangible difference.
“Ultimately, what other people's opinions are doesn't matter to me. What's important to me is working with these people and experiencing it. I never want to do the same thing, I'll get bored of that, it's for my own sanity that I do that.”
RSNG You have an interesting slant on work – it’s secondary for you compared to everything else in life. Would it be fair to say that?
AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON “I do one thing a year, and that thing can be anything from three to six months… and to be fair, even when you are working you have long weekends, you balance it like anything, like anything good. We get the luxury to have a lot more time with our kids than most people do. It's all about family and being together, it's a grounding. We're all together.
“It helps that we travel as a family, that's how it is. We made a decision a long time ago, that's how we're going to do it. I never want to be separated from my wife and kids… what kind of life is that? I don't want that life. Me and Sam, we're very connected – she takes on a movie, I step back from any offers. One of us has to be with the kids, that's how it is with us.
“But yes, it’s one movie a year.”
RSNG Is that not restrictive?
AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON “It works for me, it works for us. I can offer the level of focus and commitment to the character that I want to bring. I need that time before to prepare and fully soak myself in my preparation.
“And then I want that time afterwards to come back to me and find myself. It allows me the freedom to be very particular, to find the work I want to do, rather than what I have to do, or what's being foisted on me.
“I've been working like this now for probably the last decade, since the little ones came along. Before that, I did stuff back-to-back and I look at it and just go, ugh… you know? So doing that, works better for me. And works better for my life and my family.”
I was probably a little taken aback that Tom Ford wanted me to play this deranged, very unpleasant psychopath, I'll be honest!
RSNG I guess Nocturnal Animals would have been a huge shock for those people who thought you were just about the spandex. Were you ever hesitant about the part?
AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON “I mean, yeah, I was probably a little taken aback that Tom Ford wanted me to play this deranged, very unpleasant psychopath, I'll be honest, haha!
“But working at all with Tom was dream come true stuff, and working on a character like that as an actor, with the complexities involved, the layers, was a real honor to me. This was something way out of my comfort zone and you know, I'm asking for this, I'm asking for something a million miles away, this is it. I'm lucky. This is the depth of work I'm after.
“But yeah, I was reluctant to immerse myself in that world, to allow it to fester in my brain. I didn't want to know that dark knowledge of a psychopath… but I had to, that was part of the job. That's what was asked of me.”
RSNG Do you work out when you're not on a movie?
AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON “I do a lot of heavy lifting at the gym and eat a lot and I'd also have to drink a lot of shakes in between. Bulking up for some movies is crap on your body. But I prefer to keep in shape by doing jiu-jitsu and things like that because you're learning a skill as well as keeping in shape. When I'm not working I stay out of the gym, and I don't eat anywhere near as much as I was doing for Godzilla!”
RSNG How did you get into jiu-jitsu? Was that for Avengers?
AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON “It started around Kick Ass actually, because there were a lot of fight scenes and stuff, so you get a whole bunch of stunt guys that are like trained in it and some of them are gymnasts or other forms of martial arts; so it was natural for me to want to keep it up.”
“So I just started it because it was just for passion; it was something outside of the work, and it's really interesting. And it's great how ego doesn't come into it. You can get some scrawny little guy who can choke you out, it's amazing.
RSNG And you love the outdoors, and hiking in particular?
AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON “I love hiking. At the moment I am pretty much hiking every morning. When I have been in LA, there's some great hikes and stuff, and I am a pretty outdoors person.”
“Because of the kids I love being outside and we've been in LA quite a lot so a lot of time… in the park, swimming and everything; so it's really lovely and I enjoy that. When back in the UK, and in London, I know that I’m not going to be able to go hiking every season you're able to do that.”
I guess the reason why I like it acting is because I find it therapeutic, I find it expressive
RSNG Can you still recall why you wanted to become an actor and has it changed along the way?
AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON “Well, I know why I am an actor. I never had a moment of like, 'I want to be an actor,' or anything like that. I started when I was six, and it was through an activity at school kind of thing, like a drama and darts activity place.
“I stuck to it where other kids started drinking and smoking. It’s whatever makes you tick. Ultimately, for me, I loved it and I enjoyed it and that's why I do it. And never have I lost that kind of creativity or passion; I think because as a subject it keeps evolving and changing.
“I guess in retrospect, the reason why I like it is because I find it therapeutic, I find it expressive."
RSNG Therapeutic in what way?
AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON “Just a release. A release… once a year, haha!”
WHAT NEXT? Want to know which superpower Scarlett Johansson would like to have in real life? Then read the RSNG interview.
Photos: Shutterstock/ REX, MovieStillsDB