Ten minutes uphill from London’s Camden Town, the pubs serving flat beer to teenage goths dissolve into affluent Georgian terraces. On a quiet Friday afternoon in leafy Primrose Hill, there are only a couple of solitary drinkers around to notice 22-year-old Aaron Johnson as he strolls into the airy bar of the boutique hotel York & Albany, clad in faded jeans, a blue T-shirt, and week-old stubble, his cat-green eyes framed by a wild mess of corkscrew hair. Taking a seat beside floor-to- ceiling windows facing Regent’s Park, Johnson’s appearance provides two clues to the status of his fecund love life, onscreen and off: the traces of blond dye that color the tips of his brown curls are souvenirs, left over from reenacting a passionate, doomed affair as the Russian aristocrat Count Vronsky opposite Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina in Joe Wright’s adaptation of the 19th-century Tolstoy classic. Then there’s the conspicuous new ring, encircling the fourth finger of his left hand, announcing his recent marriage to celebrated British artist and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood. (From this point on, Johnson will be referred to in this story by his new name, Aaron Taylor-Johnson.)
Despite his real-life love story, playing a romantic lead onscreen makes the actor squirm. Throughout a varied career that has encompassed roles as a malevolent teenage bully (BBC’s Feather Boy), a troubled young musician (Nowhere Boy), a marijuana- dealing Buddhist (Savages), and a high school loser–turned–goofball vigilante (Kick-Ass), Taylor-Johnson has consciously sidestepped the typecasting that tends to come with his genetic lottery–won good looks. “Playing the love interest is not really my comfort zone,” he admits. “It shouldn’t just be about the way you look. I prefer not to be all groomed up and suave; I find that cheesy as fuck. I wanted to play Count Vronsky balding, with a few more of his own issues.” When it comes to experimenting with his roles, he’s fearless, “like nobody I’ve ever worked with,” says Knightley of their collaboration on Anna Karenina. “He just threw himself into it. He works in a really physical way. He’s got this incredible quality of being unbelievably wise for his years, and then the next second he’ll be like a complete puppy, jumping off the walls. It’s the best combination.”
The actor grew up near High Wycombe in the commuter belt circling London, where he felt suffocated by the kind of somnambulant small-town life a teenager with big-screen ambitions escapes early. There’s a joke that the best thing about High Wycombe is its exit routes. Asked to paint a picture of his childhood turf, he shakes his head. “Sorry, it wouuld be a horrible picture,” he says. “I haven’t been back there in years. I worked really hard to get away from that place.” But it wasn’t until he saw Pulp Fiction—at the age of 4—that acting caught his fledgling attention. Supportive of his aspirations, his civil engineer father and housewife mother encouraged the overactive young Aaron to try drama, swimming, and gymnastics (he put the acrobatics to comedic use last year in R.E.M.’s “Überlin” video, in which he danced, wiggled, kung-fu kicked, and hopped like a rabbit around London�s East End). At 6, he made his stage debut as a ghost before eventually winning roles in the West End, as well as commercial jobs for a laundry detergent and McDonald’s. But it was flubbing his lines in Macbeth at all of 8 that he credits with kindling his passion for acting. “I came offstage totally devastated,” he says. “I guess that was the first time I realized there was a bit of a perfectionist in me. I’d fucked up and I needed to do better. From then on, I cared.”
Like many former child actors, Taylor-Johnson was—and still is —eerily mature beyond his years. There’s footage of his younger self earnestly explaining how posture affects character at an age when most kids were skulking around malls. Unlike many former child actors, however, he’s made the transition into adulthood sans a monolithic ego or any drug or alcohol dependencies. A fierce independent streak led him to quit school early, at 15—although it hasn’t dimmed his natural intelligence or his eloquent speech, which he peppers liberally with profanities. “In school I was taught to never have my own opinions, to only speak when I was spoken to,” he remembers. “But in my acting life it was like, ‘What do you think about this scene?’ I was allowed to have a voice, and that taught me to have an instinct, a natural feeling about things. I learned more there than I ever fucking did in school.”
Soon after dropping out, he had his first taste of fame in the U.K. as a heartthrob in the tween comedy Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (he winces at the memory), and he momentarily seemed destined to become a pin-up on the walls of 12-year-old girls across the country. When the script for Kick-Ass fell into his hands, however, the idea of playing Dave Lizewski—a dorky kid with bad hair who can’t get laid—was exactly the re-route he needed to avoid following the path trod by many teen idols. Matthew Vaughn’s anarchic take on the superhero genre mashed up Superbad, Kill Bill, and Spider-Man, and had Taylor-Johnson’s character stalking the streets of New York in a mail-order green-and-yellow wetsuit, taking on villains he had no hope of beating, until a father-daughter team of superhero vigilantes (bombastically played by Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz) offers their assistance and launches cartoonish mayhem. While 11-year-old Moretz as “Hit Girl” got the most attention for casually dropping the c-word while effortlessly slashing limbs, Taylor-Johnson’s naïve, all-too-human Lizewski proved the complexity the actor was capable of, and impressed his costar Cage, who says, “Aaron has a sublime mix of vulnerability and strength as a presence on camera. The scene on the street, where he explains his superpower and doesn’t back down—he owned that scene and there wasn’t a false moment in it. That’s hard to pull off.”
Taylor-Johnson was midway through filming Kick-Ass when he was offered the role that would change his life. Sam Taylor-Wood’s (now Sam Taylor-Johnson’s) masterfully scripted Nowhere Boy traced the troubled beginnings of a young, pre-Beatles John Lennon. Abandoned by his mother as a child, Lennon was in the process of tentatively rekindling their relationship when she was run down and killed by a drunk driver. Taylor-Johnson showed up to the audition without ever having touched a guitar, or attempted a Liverpool accent. “My mate came with me to read some scenes,” he says laughing. “I was doing a really terrible Scouse accent. Afterward, he just said, ‘Well, good luck, because if you get this, I’ll be fucking gobsmacked.’” Two months later he was on location in Liverpool, turning in a nuanced performance that mined the raw vulnerability and anger beneath Lennon’s witty cockiness, winning him superlative reviews, best-newcomer awards, and the blessings of Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney. He also had a new girlfriend.