top of page

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, rumoured new 007, already played a pop icon

Aaron Taylor-Johnson played a villain in 2023 thriller “Bullet Train” but he has that steely 007 look in his eye.

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

As rumours swirl in the U.K. that Aaron-Taylor Johnson has been selected as the new James Bond, here’s my interview with the British actor from the Sundance Film Festival of 2010, where he was playing a young John Lennon in the biopic “Nowhere Boy.” He was speaking alongside the film’s director, Sam Taylor-Wood, who is now his wife — and they both now go by the surname Taylor-Johnson. Sam has her own Bond connection: She worked with outgoing 007 actor Daniel Craig a year after this interview, making a promotional short titled, “James Bond Supports International Women's Day.”

PARK CITY, UTAH — Liverpool and the 1950s are far away in space and time, especially for anyone attending the Sundance Film Festival high in the Wasatch Range Mountains.

But for Aaron Johnson and Sam Taylor-Wood, it all seems right next door. They were at at Sundance to talk up “Nowhere Boy,” a biopic of the restless teen years of John Lennon, just before he found immortality with the Beatles.

Actor Johnson, 20, plays Lennon as a rebellious and lonely youth, emotionally scarred by family tragedy — parental divorce and the death of his mother Julia — and by the strict house rules of his Aunt Mimi, the woman who raised him.

Director Taylor-Wood, 43, makes her feature debut with a movie that has every Beatle fan watching, including two very interested parties: Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono.

“Nowhere Boy” has been a labour of love for Johnson and Taylor-Wood in more ways than one. The two became a couple during filming, and at the time of this interview, Taylor-Wood was expecting their first child. (Their daughter, Wylda Rae, was born July 7, 2010.)

Q (to Johnson): You aren’t a spitting image of Lennon, but you pull it off. Did you grow up thinking you looked like him at all?

Johnson: No! (laughs) My mum always thought I looked more like McCartney when I was growing up, but it wasn’t essential that I looked the spitting image of Lennon. It wasn’t really impersonation.

Q: What do the Beatles mean to you both? Aaron, you were born 20 years after they split up.

Johnson: The Beatles are embedded in our history. I’m British, and so those are the boys from Liverpool. And Beatles Rock Band is bringing it back around, so it’s a new generation of fans. Everybody loves the Beatles.

Taylor-Wood: It’s in our DNA. Just like the Queen. I don’t know if it’s our perspective because we’ve been so embedded with them for a while, but there’s always the thing: Rolling Stones or the Beatles? Like you have to make a choice. You’re one or the other; you can’t be both. (laughs) A friend of ours asked Mick Jagger recently, when she met him, “Are you a Beatles or a Rolling Stones fan?” I thought that was really funny.

Q: What answer did Jagger give?

Johnson: Mick started singing some of the Beatles’ lyrics, or something like that.

Q (to Johnson): So you don’t feel like the Baby Boomers forced the Beatles onto you?

Johnson: No, not at all, no, no. Lennon was great, as well, you know. We had to really dive deep and explore — we explore all of them, really — but Lennon was very interesting.

Q (to Taylor-Wood): How many potential John Lennons did you see before you chose Aaron?

Taylor-Wood: I saw Aaron pretty much in the first 10. And I knew. I knew he was going to be Lennon. I really did. I had this instinct that he was right for the role because he had just the right intensity for it. But I saw another 300 after that. Just to make sure.

Q: What’s the essence of John Lennon? How do you nail the essence of John Lennon?

Taylor-Wood: That’s a difficult question because there were so many facets to him and I think that on many levels we had to get that sort of pained vulnerability, that defensiveness, the cruelty, the charisma ... also, the spiritual aspect of him that I believe he had, and the creative side. Embodying all of that was Aaron’s challenge, really.

Q: He had a cruel side to him, didn’t he?

Johnson: Yes. Much later on. I think people kind of relate to him as this kind of quite arrogant, kind of quick-witted, bitter person when he was throughout the Beatles. He could definitely give you an icy stare and cut you down quickly with a sarcastic comment.

A lot of the stuff that we discovered in our research was how he was with his auntie and how he was with his mother. These were two very strong women and they influenced him to be who he became. His Aunt Mimi brought him up to be very well-mannered and was quite protective and responsible for him and taught him all the greats like Oscar Wilde and that’s where he got that poetry side. He was always a visionary.

But, then, when meeting his mother, who was more affectionate and a bit more wild and free-spirited, she kind of influenced the musical element. She taught him how to play banjo and almost became his voice through his art form, really.

Q: You got the wide-legged Lennon performance stance down perfect.

Johnson: That was something we were playing around with. But when you listen to 1950s rock ’n’ roll, you see who inspired him. He was watching Elvis, and Elvis moves his hips and the way he holds the guitar is like a gun. You’d think he’d have tried to move like that, but it didn’t quite fit with the look he had with the Beatles. He stood quite still and firm.

Q: Everybody knows about Julia through the Lennon songs “Julia” and “Mother” but Aunt Mimi remains in the background. You’ve brought Mimi to life.

Johnson: She was always quite demonized, wasn’t she?

Taylor-Wood: A lot of that information came from Yoko and from Paul to me because they were adamant very early on about getting it right. I wrote to them both and said, “I’m making this film. Tell me anything now. Not at the end.” And the biggest thing that both of them came back with was that Mimi’s been so demonized, in a sense, but she brought up John lovingly and he loved her and called her every week for the rest of his life. He was very close to her. Yes, she was sharp-witted, and could be sometimes cruel. But she also had incredible wit and humour and was pretty cultured.

Q: Was Paul happy to see the film being made?

Taylor-Wood: Paul was really co-operative, yes. There was one time when he called and I was in the supermarket and he just called and said, “Oh, by the way, I just wanted to let you know that when we recorded “Hello Little Girl” there was just John and I sitting there …” I wanted to tell everyone in the supermarket, “Shh! It’s Paul McCartney!

(This interview originally ran in the Toronto Star.)


bottom of page