We speak with Aaron Johnson about his lead roles in Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy. Kick Ass is released on DVD in the UK on September 13th 2010.
From John Lennon to Kick-Ass, that's quite a move...
Or even the other way around. That's the way I filmed it.
Do they have something in common? They're both young guys who have a dream and would do anything to fulfil it...?
I guess so, yeah. I can relate to the guy who wants to escape, become something different and put on a mask. I can understand that world.
Your character in Kick-Ass says, 'Why has no-one done this before?' Did you think that yourself?
I guess so, but there are some cases at the moment where superheroes are on YouTube and doing petty things like cleaning up litter around New York.
Did you read for Red Mist first?
A brief was sent out, it was pretty low key as there wasn't a script but just some sides sent out for a character called Red Mist. I put it on tape but I don't think Matthew even saw any of the British tapes. I was fortunate, I was in the right place and the right time as I was in LA. I had been sent the Kick Ass script the night before and became familiarised with the Red Mist character. I went in for the casting and I usually just go in as an American kid. I stay in the accent because it would have just been confusing to explain the whole concept that I'm English but I'm doing an American accent. It seemed to go down pretty well and I must have given it a fresh thought. Dave's a sensitive guy who's kind of lost at the moment and trying to find who he wants to be. I guess there must have been a different angle to what Matthew must have been getting constantly. And that's all it takes, you know. The next day was a screentest and they offered me the job in the room.
If you had to be a superhero what kind of superhero would you be?
I'm pretty happy being Kick-Ass!
In real life, did you want to do something like Dave did?
I think people in everyday life have to put a mask on. When I was a kid I used to watch Batman and I had a Spider-Man outfit - but I was like six, not seventeen.
What was it like trying on the superhero outfit?
Great fun. I loved getting into the character that way and it was another form of having some sort of make-up on. The mask and the wet suit made me become Kick-Ass. It was great and it's such an iconic piece as it matches the comic book.
You didn't have any training at all for the role?
Matthew [Vaughn] said, 'Keep out of the gym', so our homework was to go and read a bunch of comic books really. We were comic book fans.
So how did you find the fighting?
All the fight sequences were 99 per cent me. You have some sort of insurance against actors so you have stunt guys come in. But Matthew was pretty easy with us wanting to do it and I wanted to do as much as I possibly could. Chloe [Moretz] did as well and she put a ton of hard work in; it comes across and just allows more footage while you're fighting and the audience can see that it's actually the actor. Most of the fights including me were all pretty much choreographed there and then. I used to dance a lot, so picking up routines was pretty easy for me. I could learn it pretty quick. Also, my character's pretty messy, whereas Chloe had the knives with the battle songs so she had to go home and practice that with her mum.
It'll be fantastic if people go and see the first one and enjoy it, which I'm sure they will. And it'll give us a chance to do a second one. I'd happily do a second one. Mark Millar and Matthew Vaughn are brewing some fantastic ideas for a second one, so it'd be great to go out and do them.
You said that people in real life always use a mask. Tell me more about that?
I just think in general, whether it's physically or mentally everyone puts a front on. I'm sure people can relate to trying to recreate yourself or if you're not happy in this instance so you create a different person and be someone you want to be. It's a journey and a coming of age story about a boy trying to come into his own. He loses his mother and he's not really in a group at school. He's just got his comic books, a mad sort of vision, he hasn't got a girlfriend but he wants to be the heroic and the confident guy who can go out and do justice. He goes out on a limb because he and his friends are forever getting mugged and people seem to put a blind eye to it and walk past.
Have you ever felt like that?
I can understand it. I've seen things happen a couple of times. I mean I've never really been in an incident where someone's getting mugged but it does happen obviously.
Can you relate to the character like that? Did you feel like that growing up? I mean not being the cool kid?
I was pretty sociable at school; I used to get on with pretty much everyone. I can definitely relate to the guy who's trying to find something that he really loves and that he's passionate about - to be able to go out, not care about anyone's opinions and be fearless. I come from a little village outside of the city and you kind of didn't do those sorts of courageous things.
How did you disguise your accent?
I lived out in America for a little while three or four months before. When they were casting Kick-Ass I was out there and I picked it up by ear like any other sort of accent. I really enjoy imitating people and making them laugh and it is one thing I enjoy, it is like acting. I had a voice coach though; I guess that was so I didn't slip up.
Could you say a few words about Nowhere Boy and the research you did for it?
I spent about two or three months researching 1950s rock and roll and watched a ton of footage of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Obviously there were stacks and stacks of books on John Lennon - Philip Norman's book is like a bible. I read bits and pieces and there was obviously lots of footage from documentaries, the whole Beatlemania, the Anthology, Lennon vs. The US and I researched the whole lot. The most important piece to me was a Rolling Stone interview which gave me his whole background about how he grew up with his mum, his auntie, how he started the band with his mates at school and how he felt bitter and vulnerable. The Beatles was a front and he was very bitter when his mother died. So he put up barriers - quite similar to Dave Lizewski in Kick Ass really. As you said it is a similar journey of someone who is trying to grow and become someone else and that's what Kick-Ass does.
Did you relate to your character John Lennon?
Certainly. As an artist, he was really trying to follow an art form. He was pretty elaborate, a visionary and he felt slightly different in school. He searched for that person that he wanted to be, that free-spirited person.
Many older actors take young roles, like Tobey Maguire who is an adult playing Peter Parker. But you're a young actor playing a young character...
I'm just really lucky to be; Kick-Ass could have been cast completely differently and the studios originally wanted to make Hit Girl older. You just completely lose the sense of the character. They could have made Kick-Ass a 28-year-old being a kid at school. So a huge part of a film is casting I suppose, especially with Chloe that was the biggest find. She's a fantastic actress and she put a lot of hard work into it. When it's kind of disturbing when you see a big man beating up a little girl and you see flashes of innocence over her face but she gets up and can kick his ass. It has that element to it, the shock factor. My character is a young lad who has had his first relationship and love experience and you've got to be able to feel that and understand that, rather than some 30-year-old guy that has done it over and over again.
Did you discuss while you were shooting the violence and the language, etc?
Not really. It kind of seemed pretty natural. I read the script and that's what it was. We were pretty lucky that we went out and did it. It's an independent film and I'm proud that Matthew's taken a massive gamble, a huge risk and he's pulled it off. He kept it that way...it's just making the adaptation of the comic book, it's trying to tell the true story of the comic book and that's what it entails.
You don't get the girl in the comic book?
No, I guess not.
And you don't really kill anyone in the comic book either?
If you talk to Mark Millar and John Romito it was a conscious decision that it had to go down one sort of movement. Like when Kick-Ass comes up in the elevator for the last bit and not in a jet pack, but it doesn't really work in the film, it doesn't really have that sort of suspense and tension that you need for a final ending. They collaborated with Jane Goldman and Matthew on the screenplay and even John Romito's got his own little comic strip throughout the film, the back story of Hit Girl and Big Daddy. When we started filming issues one to three was out. By the end of filming only issue five came out. So we were much further ahead than the comic book was. But we collaborated all together so we all knew what was going to happen.
The script and the comics worked together?
Yeah, they were feeding each other. With comic book fans, it's had a fantastic response and they've been very enthusiastic about it. I think you can still get lost in the story and it's as true to the comic book as possible. It's really good that we kept the same comic book writer to give it that fresh impact. We didn't push anyone out, we didn't back stab anyone. I think the most disappointing thing was when I saw Wanted and it was a fantastic film but it wasn't the comic book. So I think that didn't go down too well with some of the comic book fans. But this film didn't have that sort of issue.
Do you think this film will appeal to people who aren't into comics that much?
It's an entertaining movie, of course it is. It's great to have the hype from the comic book but at the end of the day it captures a wide sort of audience. We've had screenings with just women coming, so women enjoy it as well. I guess they also have that sort of motherly protection over Kick-Ass. They feel sorry for him as all the time he's going out he is getting his ass kicked; and also for the fact that Hit Girl's out there doing the duty. But it's a dark comedy, it has that mixture of high school, cynical banter and then it goes into this heightened super hero world which is kind of real because it's set in present day with a YouTube, Facebook and MySpace sort hype throughout that's funny. Most people have seen other superhero movies and they'll see the moments where we've taken clichÃ©d moments and given it a twist. It's like a joke on certain superhero movies, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, there are moments we've pulled from all of that and we've given it a twist. It's original and it fills all of those fantasies really. I'm not the typical superhero. I don't have any muscles; I've not got any powers, so he's pretty useless really. The Red Mist mobile is a take on that. You've got these kids running around with mad comic book ideas and giving it their own style. It's original.
Were the blood scenes an issue? Because Hollywood didn't want all the blood in the scenes so they chose to do it independently... Because it's not usual to see this much blood in movies about comic books...
I didn't think the blood was a huge issue. In this comic book [opens copy of Kick-Ass graphic novel] there's tons of blood. Look at the front cover. I'm covered in blood.
There's a lot of blood in comic books but not in movies when they adapt it...
That's the point, that's why everyone seems to be disappointed. You want to go see these guys actually really cut people's heads off. I get shook every time she takes that guy's leg off. Wooaagghh. So it's great, it keeps your adrenaline pumping. You're always out of your seat watching for the next bit but you don't want to blink because you're going to miss something incredible. That's what you get with this movie. Hats off to Matthew really.
At the end a grown up man beating up a little kid...
Well there's that moment when you're like okay Hit Girl's going to take on the big man. Hit Girl has killed absolutely everyone so you're expecting her to go and knock him out and at first he does some fly kick and smashes her to the floor and you're like 'this is going to be tough'. She dabs her finger on her bloody nose and you see this flash of innocence, like a young little girl and everyone goes 'this looks really bad and kind of really wrong'. But so far you've got through the whole movie with her killing everyone and you don't care. She's cut all of those gangsters and the moment he kicks her on the floor you're like 'Oh God, she's a little girl'. And that's what Matthew's good at, building up that sort of tension and bringing you back to what reality is, because at any point both of these characters can die. If she gets punched hard enough, she'll die. If you're shot, you'll die. But you kind of ride that because most kids are fearless. Have you ever been to a skate park and seen a 10-year-old kid drop in on a half and flip? Kids are fearless. She's brainwashed by her dad that it's all comic book, it's all cool, it's all dress up. Most girls go and dress up as princesses.
There's a lot of internet language in the movie. Why do you think they used that much?
It's supposed to be a case where it's real. You want to feel like it's reality, like this could possibly happen. And it is happening, there are kids and people out there making their own MySpace pages where they're like whatever they want to be, superheroes or whatever. They're making YouTube clips. It just brings it more to a present day and it's all in there.