Wednesday 24 January 2018

Kicking Back

Aaron Johnson in Kick-Ass
Aaron Johnson in Kick-Ass

Declan Cashin

It has been hard to miss British actor Aaron Johnson in the massive ad campaigns for Kick-Ass, a darkly funny, ultra-violent, deliriously entertaining anti-hero superhero flick.

There he is on the sides of buses and plastered on billboards, pictured in a deliberately underwhelming green and yellow costume, alongside sorta-Batman 'Big Daddy' (Nicholas Cage), Christopher 'McLovin' Mintz-Plasse's emo-haired Red Mist, and breakout teen star Chloe Moretz's pintsized, foul-mouthed, purple-coiffed assassin Hit Girl.

The only thing is, Johnson's face is hidden by a mask, with the effect of rendering him largely unrecognisable. "I'm actuallyvery happy about that," the 19-year-old tells Day & Night as he settles on a sofa in Dublin's Merrion Hotel. "I like doing those kinds of roles. That's the point of acting: it gives you the freedom to be everything but you."

He continues: "I was on a bike ride in London with my missus, and we passed a bus stop that had a great big poster for the movie. And we were stuck beside it for a minute at traffic lights, and it's only at that point, when people are walking past and in a position to connect you to it, that you think, 'I'm so fucking lucky that my face isn't on that'."

Ah yes, 'the missus'. There's no avoiding the topic. Ever since he caught the movie world's attention earlier this year with his performance as a pre-Beatles John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, Johnson's private life has been wallpapered all over the press, namely his relationship with that movie's 43-year-old director, Sam Taylor-Wood.

The Turner Prize-nominated artist and divorced mother-of-two is now pregnant with Johnson's child, and the couple are engaged to be married.

In Dublin for one day to promote Kick-Ass, Johnson seems absolutely knackered, which might be due to the fact that he was up until the wee hours the night before at the London premiere. Dressed in black jeans and a grey woollen top, Johnson speaks quietly, slowly and sometimes with considerable effort, and he often seems deeply uncomfortable doing the interview.

In fact, more than once during our chat, he -- unconsciously, I'm sure -- rubs his eyes with a rather prominent middle finger aimed right at me. That said, he slowly warms up as we talk, even when I ask him about the 'toyboy' and 'cougar'-headline-dominated media reaction to his relationship.

"People always want gossip and shit," he says. "But Sam and I were fearless. We weren't afraid to show how we felt. We didn't hide anything. When you hide things, people will only want to dig deeper. So with us it was like, 'Oh you're together? Yeah. Oh and you're engaged? Yeah. Oh and you're younger. Yeah. Oh ... okay. Alright, well good on you'. Then that's it; they fuck off.

"I suppose with us it was a bit tougher because we had a film coming out. It spooks a few people because we don't give a fuck what other people say. We have to live in a system that says this person should go out with this person, or go out with someone this age, but it really doesn't affect us."

So that's that. In Kick-Ass, which is based on Mark Millar's Wanted comic, Johnson is well cast (and sports a flawless American accent) as Dave Lizewski, an ordinary dorky New York teen who one day decides to start dressing like a superhero and fight crime.

Going by the moniker Kick-Ass, Dave's early heroic forays land him straight in intensive care, but pretty soon he has attracted the attention of a costumed father-daughter vigilante team (played by Cage and Moretz), as well as wealthy teen Chris D'Amico (Mintz-Passe), all of whom are connected to an all-powerful super-criminal played by Mark Strong.

"I was very late coming to it, so much so that [director] Matthew Vaughn was contemplating pushing back the shoot a few more weeks because he wasn't convinced he'd find his Kick-Ass," Johnson explains.

"For me, it was just about being in the right place at the right time.

"I guess something about me must have been slightly different than an LA kid. Within two days, I'd done the screen test and got the job."

This may have been a lucky break for Johnson, but the reality is that he's been plying his trade as an actor since he was a nipper. Born in Buckinghamshire in 1990 (feel old now?), he made his stage debut at age six as Rufus Sewell's son in Macbeth. From there, he starred in TV dramas, including Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, which was shot in Dublin in 2007. "We had a crummy budget -- we stayed in Liffey Valley and didn't get to see much," he recalls.

Then came Nowhere Boy, and now Kick-Ass. "I'm not really anything like Dave/Kick-Ass, but I understand him in the sense of being a kid who wants to get out of this ordinary life, and be something, be creative, and believe in something that nobody else does. I know that because that's what I do in my life, in my job. I knew how I could transform him."

Kick-Ass was a risky undertaking for Stardust and Layer Cake helmer Vaughn. No studio would touch it, so the movie was independently funded (partly by producer Brad Pitt, mainly by Vaughn himself), and made without any interference from Hollywood 'suits'.

The finished product is all the better -- and edgier -- for it. An early teaser clip released last year showed Cage's character shooting his bullet-proof-vested screen daughter in the chest at close range, sparking outrage among some US family groups.

Controversy aside, the unique nature of the movie's shoot took a lot of the pressure off its young leading man. "I never felt too overwhelmed because it was like a family environment from day one," Johnson says.

"Besides, I don't think I really hold the movie. We all play off each other."

With two very different movies at his back, and his stock on the rise, Johnson feels confident enough to take some time out this year when his fiancée gives birth. "What's great about this job is that I don't have to be forced into doing anything I don't want to do," he says.

"Hopefully, I'll have the time to be at home with my newborn and be a great dad and have the wonderful experience of just being a family before thinking about any other movie or role."

Getting up to leave, I ask Johnson if he's at all nervous about pending fatherhood. "I've got two step-daughters," he replies, referring to Taylor-Wood's girls Anjelica (12) and Jessie (3).

"I've been around for a year with [Jessie], and she's grown so much in that time. People ask me if I'm nervous, but I'm over that phase. I already am a father figure."

Kick-Ass is released nationwide on Wednesday

Irish Independent

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