The drama Nowhere Boy details the crucial formative teenage years of John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), and depicts the events and personal circumstances that led to the later formation of the Beatles. Opening the weekend of Lennon’s birthday (he would have been 70 on October 9th), the film shows the clash between Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), the free-spirited mother who gave John away in his infancy for personal reasons, and her sister Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), the Aunt who stepped in and raised him. When John turns to music as his escape path, he finds a kindred spirit in the teenage Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and together they form a band that will eventually become the Beatles.
At a roundtable interview for the film’s press day, actor Aaron Johnson, best known for his work in Kick-Ass, talked about the overwhelming prospect of taking on a character as iconic as John Lennon, singing and playing guitar on film for the first time, doing justice to such a beloved individual, and receiving the praise of Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono for the final product. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
When you knew you were going to play John Lennon, was it overwhelming?
AARON JOHNSON: Yeah, I guess it was. I dived into it pretty naively. It made me feel like I had to do as much research as possible, just so I felt comforted enough that when I hit day one of shooting, I could throw it all away, know the boundaries that I could be in and be instinctive as possible.
What kind of research did you do?
JOHNSON: Everything. I watched all the documentaries, read bits and pieces from biographies, listened to interviews and tapings that he did, started learning guitar and playing rock ‘n’ roll and the songs of Elvis and Buddy Holly, and started watching tapes of them because those are people that were his inspirations and were people that he would have watched and seen move around on stage, and then would have tried to incorporate that into his band.
I tried to cover every angle. There was an interview with Rolling Stone where he said that when he met Yoko, he was quite a free spirit at that time, and that the Beatles were a front. When his mother died, he felt pretty bitter inside and angry. I used a lot of that. He spoke about his Aunt Mimi and his mother, and talked about insecurities. That helped us find this special person that we needed to humanize, bring him back to basics and make him innocent and naïve, on this journey where he’s constantly discovering and slowly becoming the Lennon that we know and recognize.
Who were you listening to when you were John’s age in the movie?
JOHNSON: I don’t know. I didn’t listen to anything of that era because I grew up in the ‘90s. I listened to a lot of The Clash, Velvet Underground and Roxy Music. I wasn’t into Boyzone, or anything.
What was more terrifying, playing such an iconic person, or playing guitar and singing on screen?
JOHNSON: Playing and singing. That’s not my strength, or background. I’m not a musician, but it was something that was a huge part of him, and at that part of his life, and was something quite special. I knew that I’d have to do it. When they were casting, they were actually casting for musicians. When I read the script, I knew that I’d be willing to do it and I was really determined to play this role, but I knew the only thing that would hold me back was that I couldn’t play. So, I started mentally preparing and started playing. I got a guitar and tried to play, even though I hadn’t gotten the role yet, because I knew I’d need to know how to do it.
Was getting into the emotional mind-set of Lennon a challenge, due to the complicated nature of his relationships with his aunt and his mother?
JOHNSON: It was pretty much there, in the script. I could relate to a lot of it and draw from my own experiences, and then a lot also came from slowly discovering more about Lennon and what he had to say about how he felt when he was with his mother, what he was like when he was with his aunt, and how you just naturally feel if the woman that you thought you knew was your mother was then living around the corner and she’d never come to see you, and then when you did meet her, you had two sisters.
She was this eccentric woman, quite a free spirit and 10 years before her time. She was someone that he hugely admired and loved, yet didn’t really know how to be around her, just in case he might lose her again. He was constantly battling with that. It was about what was he going to be like with his mother, what was he going to be like with Aunt Mimi and what was he going to be like with the boys in the band. There were so many different aspects of Lennon. What was great was that he’s always try to cover up for himself. He’d put on a front and was this sarcastic, cocky, quick-witted, arrogant guy that we always knew, but he was really wounded. There were a lot of pain and insecurities there.
JOHNSON: It’s a bit of a blur to me. I was still finishing up on Kick-Ass, which at the time, was pretty difficult as well because we were shooting in London, which is my hometown, and half the crew were British. That was a bit of a fucking headache. It was this comic-book, nerdy American, bushy-haired kid. And then, I read the script for Nowhere Boy, knowing that it could potentially be the next job after that, and I loved it. I had a day off where I could go for the casting, and I had no time to prepare because I was still doing Kick-Ass. I spent my lunch breaks on YouTube trying to find old footage of him. I couldn’t remember the voice.
It’s funny because if you ever ask anyone in England to try and do a Beatles accent, no one knows what they really sound like. If you ask anyone in America, they would try and give it a go. English people just know their songs. So, I knew he had a distinctive accent and I had to nail that, but I also knew that I was going to walk in with great big, bushy hair, and they wouldn’t see me as fitting the bill for the 1950’s. I had to change my body language and the way I dressed, and slick my hair back, and give a different approach, to distinguish the two. I was probably nowhere near the character when I went in, but I must have done something that showed that I was willing to do more, and give the right intensity that I needed for these scenes. (Director) Sam [Taylor-Wood] just saw something in me that made her willing to see me again for a recall.
Speaking on a professional level, did you and Sam Taylor-Wood’s partnership help the process of making this film?
JOHNSON: We worked really closely on this, obviously. We weren’t together before we started, but I don’t think it would have affected anything. We’re just used to being in each other’s heads and we think the same way. We connect on a whole other level and we’re just honest with each other, so in that respect, I feel like we’re better when we work together. She had one of the hardest jobs of all, which was that, if anything goes wrong, it lands on her hands. She made it, gave it justice and gave Lennon his voice. The relationship dynamic and everything that was already in the script, she brought to life, really explored the emotions between everyone and structured it. She really drove this film. She’s a hard-working, wonderful, warm, friendly person, and a delight to work with. She’s talented. She works really hands-on and she’s very visual. She’s clever, in as much as even Liverpool became a character in itself, and the ‘50’s became a character. She created this era and brought it alive again, showing how it affected the characters in that time. Aunt Mimi might seem really well-mannered and strict, but for that time, that wasn’t unheard of. These things all came together, and she really did that.
Were you a troublemaker in school, like John was?
JOHNSON: When I opened up the script, on page two it said that he was in the headmaster’s office, and I thought, “Oh, this is fucking familiar.” I was like, “I know this guy.”
How much did you know about John before doing this, and has it changed how you thought of him?
JOHNSON: If you explore his background, it gives you a huge understanding of their poetry and their art. That’s why we end with “Mother.” That’s a song we probably all know and have heard before, and it’s beautiful, but when you see it after you see the events of how he grew up, it really hits you hard and is poignant to this film. I knew the Beatles songs and how influential they are to other bands, but I never knew this part of his life. I’m not a fanatic, so I could look outside the box and observe.
Is there any iconic character in history or literature that you would love to play some day?
JOHNSON: Yeah, there’s plenty. What’s mad is that there seems to be a lot of musicians that keep popping up now. Later on, maybe I might like to do that again. They’ve just got such great backgrounds that inspired them to be what they are. And, anytime you deal with a musician, you’ve got great music, which is a plus as well. I’d happily do it again. It was great for me because I instantly knew the character. Sometimes, when you get the character, you’re like, “How can I bring this character alive and off the page and make it different?” I’m constantly trying to find something that’s different from me, whereas some actors do the same thing, again and again. That’s not for me. With this, I was lucky because I had the voice and the look that went with this character. I could delve into that.
What was the most difficult scene for you to do?
JOHNSON: I can’t say that the day that we filmed the big confrontational scene with Aunt Mimi and his mother wasn’t difficult, but I did enjoy that. I felt it was challenging, with that drama and emotion. I love dealing with those sorts of scenes. I also just found the music stuff hard because it was something I felt slightly conscious about. That was something I did want to get right, and I didn’t feel 100% all the time, but I did it anyway.
What was it like to shoot some of the songs without clearance for the use of them in the film?
JOHNSON: “Mother” was a song that came at the end. “Hello Little Girl” and “In Spite Of All the Danger” were songs that were huge and momentous, so we needed those for the film, to round it all off. They weren’t going to give the rights until they’d seen something, which meant we had to film it anyway, and then ask for the rights. Paul McCartney had the rights to “Hello Little Girl” and “In Spite Of All the Danger,” and Yoko Ono had the rights to “Mother.”
We filmed “Hello Little Girl” in this house we found that had been abandoned for 30 or 40 years. We used it because it maintained its ‘50’s look. I had to sing and I sat on the couch and we rehearsed it out. They said, “Oh, you’re going to have to lift the carpet up,” and right under the seat I was sitting on, this newspaper was there that was preserved from 1968, or something like that, with Lennon’s face on it, and it was fucking mad. There were so many moments like that throughout the whole film. So, we did the song, and then Paul McCartney gave the rights to it because he was happy with it. He gave the rights to “In Spite of All the Danger” too, which was such a big moment. That summed Lennon up.
Have you gotten to meet Paul or Yoko?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I’ve met both of them. Yoko saw the film and, the moment she saw it, she said, “I’ll give you the rights to ‘Mother.’” She was in tears. She and Paul were both complimentary of our performances and thought the film was great. Who could have asked for anything more?
Was there a back-up plan for those scenes, in case they didn’t give the rights for the songs?
JOHNSON: No. We thought about doing “That Will Be the Day,” but it was nowhere near as powerful as “In Spite of All the Danger.” That was the first song they ever wrote together and recorded. We really needed them.
JOHNSON: Not to be anything like they were. Mimi looked after him and cared for him like he was her son, and taught him of Oscar Wilde and the greats, like Van Gogh. She was very cultured and he had a good education. She put him in a good school and looked after him. His mother was constantly trying to bring him out of his shell and encourage him to be creative. She taught him music. Rock ‘n’ roll was fresh off the boat, at the time.
Do you want to teach your daughter about acting or music?
JOHNSON: I don’t think I want her to be in the acting business. Whatever she wants to do, I’ll just support her in anything. I was lucky enough, when I was younger, to have the chance to do as much as possible, and I found what I wanted to do. I did swimming, gymnastics, kickboxing and the one that took off more than the others was acting. I ended up falling into it and realized that it was what I wanted to do. I found a passion in it. A great way of doing that is finding things outside of school that you’re great at and just enjoying shit.
Is there a Kick-Ass sequel in the works?
JOHNSON: Mark Millar and John Romita are writing a comic book, but I don’t know. It’s really up to Matthew Vaughn, and he’s doing X-Men at the moment. If he comes back to it, I’d happily do it.
For more with Aaron Johnson and director Sam Taylor Wood, you can check out the video interview they did with Steve at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.