Last spring when I spoke to British actor Aaron Johnson about his lead role in Kick-Ass, the 19-year-old was looking forward to having American audiences see another side of his talents in Nowhere Boy, director Sam Taylor-Wood’s biopic in which Johnson plays teenage John Lennon as he grows up in Liverpool during the years before forming the Beatles.
Exploring the influences that came together to make Lennon “Lennon,” Nowhere Boy follows young John as he rebels against his strict but supportive aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who’d raised him since the age of five, and reconnects with his long-absent biological mother, Julia (The Last Station’s Ann-Marie Duff). Julia is a flighty, flirty, and troubled woman whose love of rock ‘n’ roll inspires the young man to learn guitar and form his first band, The Quarrymen… which brings about an introduction to the even younger Paul McCartney (Love Actually and Nanny McPhee’s Thomas Brodie Sangster).
Nowhere Boy is now out in theaters on limited release and will be expanding to more cities in coming weeks. I spoke again last week with Johnson, who was calling in from London.
Aaron Johnson: I did a bunch of research to really know the boundaries–how to play him, how to give him the swagger, how he played guitar. It took me a couple of months of practicing playing guitar and immersing myself in rock and roll—in Elvis, and Eddie Cochran, and Buddy Holly. I started watching what John would have watched, all this footage of those guys who were his inspiration. I wanted to see how they held the guitar and rolled their hips because that’s how he would have tried to do it at first.
I’m not a musician and I was definitely pretty nervous doing the performance scenes, but I was determined to do it. We tried to keep those first performances messy–they weren’t good. He and his band were all over the place and a bit crummy the first time they performed. But up on stage John has that way about him–he puts on the showman. And I wanted to show that Lennon sense of humor. It’s a huge part of him, that quick wit, the sarcasm and funny voices, the impersonations. He loved to make you feel uncomfortable; he was very good at that.
Johnson: The scenes with John and Mimi and then John with Julia are hugely different. You build characters from what they’re like around other people—you even give them different mannerisms. I wanted him to be different around Mimi–it’s a different household; well mannered, pretty strict, and there are rules. And when he’s at his mother’s house and you look around it’s like chaos. Julia was a free spirit, and I think that made him open up a bit. But at first he’s unsure and timid—John didn’t really know his mother, and he didn’t want to say anything wrong out of fear she might step out again and leave him. So he was kind of cautious at first.
Then of course around his band he was the cocky, quick-witted Lennon we know, the ringleader.
Johnson: It’s definitely one of those moments in pop-music history: How John Met Paul. But in the film we had to humanize it and make it feel real in the moment rather than making it feel like, “Oh this is the moment, this is the moment!” That would have been deadly to watch. Instead we want to show them actually building the bond at that age.
Johnson: With the 70th anniversary of Lennon’s birthday, the film’s really a celebration—I hope people see it and see how he grew up during this crucial part of his life, going from a boy to a man, discovering his art form. I hope it provides some real insights to the artist.
The film lets us discover the Lennon we really didn’t know – he was holding back a lot of things, like his insecurities. We tried to find a vulnerable side, to really kind of humanize him and bring him back to his roots as this innocent boy. The film goes on a journey with him, discovering all the obstacles and situations that slowly helped him become the man we all know.
Nowhere Boy is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles and will expand to more cities this weekend.
More Aaron Johnson from redbox:
- The Greatest (read my full review)
- Kick-Ass on DVD and Blu-ray (read my full review)
- Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snoggings (read James’ full review)
- Temple Grandin (read more in my Picks)
More Musical Rebellion from redbox:
- The Runaways (read my full review)
- Bandslam (read my full review)
- Stomp the Yard: Homecoming (read more in my Picks)
- How to Be