Skip to main content

Home Film Film Features

Aaron Taylor-Johnson: Britain’s next leading man

From Kick-Ass to Kraven The Hunter via his next big role opposite Ryan Gosling in The Fall Guy, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Britain's next big film star.

By Christina Newland

Very much by accident, Aaron Taylor-Johnson — the swaggering 33-year-old star of action movies like Bullet Train and the bookies’ favourite to be the next 007 — currently has access to my unlocked iPhone. I doubt he’s thinking about it, but I certainly am: a movie star is sitting across from me at a restaurant, thumbing idly through my Notes app. I was showing him something relevant to our interview, but one backwards swipe could mean access to anything from my grocery lists to, well… God knows what. And here I was thinking it was the talent who was supposed to feel exposed at an interview.  

Turns out it’s a two-way street, as he hands my phone back to me. “What you gotta realise,” he’s saying to me, “is that what most people were doing in their twenties, I was doing when I was 13.” We’re discussing being judged about doing things at certain ages. You might be thinking of a certain tabloid furore over his meeting and falling in love with his wife of over 10 years, Sam Taylor-Johnson, when she directed him in her John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy. With more than two decades between them, the public derision over their marriage was widespread and cruel. “You’re doing something too quickly for someone else? I don’t understand that. What speed are you supposed to enjoy life at? It’s bizarre to me,” he says.  

We’re perched in a quiet booth at a hip London private members’ club. At first glance, with his prominent signet ring and black leather cowboy boots, Taylor-Johnson seems every ounce the slickly charismatic celebrity. He’s exactly the kind you’d imagine as the face of an Armani fragrance and the lead of a forthcoming Marvel flick. But we’re talking about marriage, separation, parenting and step-parenting with the solemn intensity of two lame lifestyle podcasters. (“Kids see what you’re doing before they hear what you’re saying. Actions speak louder than words,” he’s saying to me, while I nod sagely.) That kind of thing has a certain way of cutting through the pretence.  

Taylor-Johnson has moved along at an accelerated pace for much of his life — and his career. He married and had children young; but he has also been acting since he was six. His first film was when he was 10 (Shanghai Knights, with Jackie Chan). And he left school altogether at the tender age of 15. He learned not through drama school, but by being on film sets (“You work with good and bad actors, divas and non-divas. You learn how not to behave,” he says.) He also learned by auditioning endlessly, on after-school trips to London with his mum from his suburban hometown of High Wycombe.  

“It might never last. I felt so lucky to be able to do these things. But it wasn’t easy. Sometimes I’d audition twice a day five days a week, up and down London. I’d come out of school; my mum would take me to Amersham — the end of the Metropolitan line. We’d go into London, have a Maccy D, and go have an audition. And I didn’t have pushy parents. They weren’t showbiz parents. My dad was a civil engineer, and my mum did odd jobs. She got to chaperone me if I got a job. We were a unit.”  

He soon began to resent his teachers speaking to him like a child while the people in the film industry spoke to him like a professional. School grew less interesting. That’s no surprise, seeing as he seems to be a whirlwind of constant energy in person; you can’t really imagine him patiently sitting behind a desk. “Sometimes doing those jobs kept me out of trouble at the right time. In the suburbs of London, there’s not much to do but piss around and be naughty. And that was fun, but acting was a saving grace,” he says. 

Fast-forward to 2024, and Taylor-Johnson has never stopped moving at speed. He keeps busy at his farm in Somerset with Sam, with whom he shares “four gorgeous daughters”, as he dotingly refers to them. The eldest are Sam’s from a previous marriage, aged 27 and 17, and then two tweens. And that’s hardly the only thing.  

Taylor-Johnson has recently wrapped shooting in Prague for Robert Eggers’ latest — a reimagining of F.W Murnau’s silent horror classic Nosferatu, and in May will begin shooting Fuze, a new heist thriller from Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie. Sandwiched in between have been more bombastic, mainstream projects: next up, he’s playing the right side of hammy with a supporting role in David Leitch’s lovable new action flick The Fall Guy, wherein Taylor-Johnson plays an egotistical A-lister with Ryan Gosling as his stuntman. The film is a riot of huge action sequences, very much Barbie’s Ken amped to the nth degree. “David asked me about two weeks before production to do a cameo, and we expanded the role from there. It’s a real love letter to the stunt crew,” he muses. 

Then, perhaps more pressingly, the actor is also the lead in the next major Marvel film from Sony. A dark origin story called Kraven the Hunter, it’s based on a Spider-Man villain but belongs to its own spin-off storyline. Taylor-Johnson plays a megalomaniacal trophy hunter who kills big game for pleasure.  

“I think there was something unique about this character, and something grounded. We’ve all had enough of seeing certain studio films, a certain kind of pop culture… where they’re churning out stuff that dilutes wanting to go to the cinema. I wouldn’t have signed onto it if I felt there wasn’t something to really bring to life with this character.”  

The film’s been slapped with an R rating in the States. An anecdote Taylor-Johnson tells me indicates that the source material is suitably gruesome. “I’m not a comic-book reader, but there’s one called Kraven’s Last Hunt…” he says, and then proceeds to enthusiastically recount the morbid plot, wherein his character conquers Spidey and then commits suicide simply out of spite. “You just think, ‘What the fuck have I just read?’ That’s the kind of character I’m playing. But then, a lot of the people who grew up with Marvel are old enough now to watch an R-rated movie,” he points out. 

“Taking on a Sony / Marvel movie is a different challenge altogether. There’s the story, the character, the role; that’s one thing. But then you also step into a world where you’re dealing with a studio and a franchise — or possible franchises, though let’s not get ahead of ourselves. So, they’re rolling the dice on me, in a sense, which is a lovely thing,” he says. “But you’ve got to appease the studio, please the audience and do what’s dignified for you as an actor. I find all of that super challenging.”   

One key factor, he tells me, is to lead with kindness on a production so big: entitlement drives him nuts. Working as the leading man on a juggernaut of this size, people look to you to set the tone. Some actors come in and behave nicely to the cast and crew for a week before the facade crumbles and they act “like dickheads” again, as he puts it. It sours the atmosphere on set pretty fast. 

But this one is directed by J.C. Chandor (late of All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year), so maybe there’s some chance that it might be a bit more of a bone-crunching statement on violent masculinity than your average MCU fare.  

Speaking of violent masculinity, those Bond rumours are impossible not to ask about, but I’m greeted with a predictable poker face. “I can only really talk about the things I’m going to show and tell,” he says. “So, The Fall Guy, Nosferatu, Kraven the Hunter. I’m here to promote those.” When I say it must be flattering to be associated with 007, he stares at me in silence. I add that I know he couldn’t possibly spill the beans to a journalist in this context; Barbara Broccoli is one formidable woman. More silence, although it is wry rather than severe. I laugh nervously. He asks me how my pasta is.  

“I don’t feel like I need to have a future drawn out for me. I feel like: whatever’s drawn out for me, I can fuckin’ do better,” Taylor-Johnson tells me as we round out the evening with a cup of tea. We’re discussing the idea of mapping out a career plan, but his attitude makes me feel like I’ve just been jolted into action by a motivational speaker. There’s a real searching ambition in his voice. “It’s the best when you sometimes lose all inhibitions completely, and you feel like you’re dangling there, and the director has sort of got one finger on the back of your shirt, so you don’t fall,” he says. “It’s all about chasing that feeling. There’s nothing so exhilarating as that.” 

Or maybe nothing nearly as exhilarating, after all the literal handstands and impressive flips Taylor-Johnson delivers during his Rolling Stone UK cover shoot. It should be noted, none of the ensuing acrobatics were expected; the actor simply arrived on set, enthused, and began to display his dance training with such jaw-dropping gusto that the crew were left gasping at his unprompted agility. It’s a perfect complement to his upcoming role in The Fall Guy, a film very much in praise of the unsung hero of the movie industry: the stunt double. (Although, it’s clear Taylor-Johnson might prefer to throw his own punches. Or backflips.) 

It seems to be almost perfectly in parallel to what marks his screen presence: a sense of vitality and physical grace. Whether he’s pelting through a speeding train fighting Brad Pitt or tearing through African savannah with a knife in the trailer for Kraven the Hunter, Taylor-Johnson has proved himself to be an intensely physical performer, one for whom the transformation into a character is innately linked to the physicality of the role. “I grew up dancing; I work with movement coaches,” he says.  

Aaron wears leather blazer by Tom Ford, shirt by Tom Ford, trousers by Lanvin (Picture: Kosmas Pavlos)

Athleticism is pivotal to the way Taylor-Johnson seems to work. Bulked up though he was for Kraven the Hunter, it’s the speed and dexterity of the dancer that seems to suit him best. He studied gymnastics and dance from a young age and was one of the very few boys in a dance school full of girls. He is a dedicated lover of tap. (“Where’s our musical?” I ask him. “Please someone write me a musical. I’d do it!” he replies without pause, before briefly praising Singin’ in the Rain star Donald O’Connor.) Even when we’re not talking about dance, as such, Taylor-Johnson organically connects actors he likes by the way they move. This feels telling about his own approach. “Alain Delon, I’ve been watching a lot of his films,” Taylor-Johnson tells me. “I like the way he moved. His elegance, and his stillness.”   

That sense of transformative athleticism was never more present than in his preparations for Kraven the Hunter. Training to become a supervillain is serious business, particularly when the comic-book depictions of the character — as Taylor-Johnson points out — are so outlandishly jacked. In other words, he needed to both bulk up and be agile enough to move like a stealthy predator. “I wanted to approach it like an actor, and I’m not someone who’s just juicing up and going to the gym. I don’t necessarily want this to be my brand, doing one action movie after another. But I trained to the point where I was 200 pounds of muscle. I ate so much fucking food. I was so big,” he says. 

I ask if he sees any kind of undue pressure on actors to achieve a certain bulked-up (read: unrealistic) body type, in the way that women might have historically been expected to trim down to extremes. “I don’t feel that pressure, no,” he says. “I like shapeshifting, but also, I wanted to try and do other roles. When I went to work with Robert Eggers, it was set in the Victorian era. I couldn’t look that wide. So, I had to really slim down. And he wanted us to look quite gaunt in the face.” Compared to the likes of Matthew Vaughn, Robert Eggers was a significant change of pace. “Robert Eggers is such a cinephile, and such an encyclopaedia of film. I didn’t care how big the role [in Nosferatu] was, or whatever — I just wanted to be a part of his vision, and the boundaries he’s pushing in cinema. And when you work with people who are on that level of genius in their craft, there’s an energy with that that you ride on,” he enthuses.  

Aaron wears coat by Maison Valentino, shirt by Tom Ford, trousers by Lanvin, boots by Christian Louboutin (Picture: Kosmas Pavlos)

Often, Eggers shot the film with only one set-up per day, and with a dolly moving 360 degrees around a room during a scene — a bit more like filmed theatre than contemporary cinema. It meant that Taylor-Johnson and the rest of the cast had to aim for perfection. “It’s an ensemble piece — Willem Dafoe, Nick Hoult, Emma Corrin — and we became super tight,’ Taylor-Johnson says. “If you mess up your line or your beat, you went back to the beginning again. So, you felt very responsible for not messing up someone else. You could be 10 minutes into a scene and thinking, ‘Oh my God, Willem is absolutely crushing it, if I mess my bit up, that’s so unfair for them.’ So, we became really tight and reliant on each other, in a healthy, creative way. And you don’t experience that often in movies. And that’s all because of Robert Eggers, and how meticulous his approach is.” 

Taylor-Johnson expresses admiration for actors like Christian Bale and Michael Fassbender, too, both of whom have used their body weight and physical transformation to hone their craft. He sometimes wishes he’d gone to RADA or similar; he’s appreciative of the dedication of performers that studied the Method, for instance. “I could always watch any Al Pacino 70s movie — Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon — these beautiful, well-constructed movies. How many films are like that now? Or something about real people, like Blue Valentine, that’ll rip your fucking heart out. But something with texture and vibe and earthiness, it’s tough to find,” he says.  

We talk filmmakers for a while and he shares his enthusiastic appreciation for Christopher Nolan, who he worked with in a supporting part in Tenet. While pondering directors I could see him well matched with, I think of French arthouse legend Claire Denis. There’s something about the actor’s combination of romance and grit — combined with his tabloid-publicised personal life — that makes me think of her characters. Turns out that Denis felt the same way; the two had a meeting for an undisclosed project back in 2020. “She had something she was going to do, but I don’t know if she’s moved on from it now. We had a great meeting though. She’s very cool,” Taylor-Johnson offers.  

Aaron wears leather jacket, vintage Helmut Lang from Nordic Poetry, top by Nanushka, motorcycle trousers by Belstaff, necklace by Pawnshop, bracelet by Goossens Paris. (Picture: Kosmas Pavlos)

If there’s one filmmaker you simply can’t keep Taylor-Johnson from getting excited about, it is, understandably, his wife. ‘Sam is actually a great filmmaker and a wonderful storyteller. People will think there’s sort of a bias to me saying it, but I think when they see Back to Black [her upcoming Amy Winehouse biopic], everyone’s going to realise how fantastic a filmmaker she is,” he says emphatically. Of course, he himself has experience being directed by Sam. But he points out that it’s difficult to balance their collaborations with the sense that any perceived or actual criticism of them — as with their film together from 2019, A Million Little Pieces — hurts more keenly. ‘There’s a protectiveness that I feel; I think it’s really difficult. There’s also part of me that feels like if something didn’t work, I’m the one that’s responsible,” he says.  

Similarly, he’s cautious about bringing any of his toxic male characters back into the family home. “I tend to soak up and absorb the atmosphere. And it’s important for me to get rid of that and shed that skin when I come home to cuddle my kids at night. When I did Nocturnal Animals, I lived out in fucking Mojave Desert and was in a motel for the entire time to do that job. There was no way on earth I was bringing that back into my house.” 

We return to lifestyle podcaster mode. “People see and perceive this thing around my career, and that’s OK,” he says. “But I’m just trying to juggle my family and my work. I’m doing normal life; dentist appointments,” he tells me. “Career doesn’t necessarily take a back seat, but it takes a different thought behind the choices that you make. But you also discover characters you’re drawn to because of that, you’re not just some 20-year-old anymore. You unlock some secret thing,” he explains. Equally, the reason he hasn’t taken on a television limited series — in spite of good opportunities to do so, he hints — has been the extended amount of time that they would take him away from the family. “I don’t want a jobbing career,” he says. He’s conscious that he has better things to do, it seems.  

Aaron wears coat by Maison Valentino, shirt by Tom Ford, trousers by Lanvin, boots by Christian Louboutin (Picture: Kosmas Pavlos)

On reflection, his generous manner now falls into place. On the first day I meet Taylor-Johnson, we wend our way through Portobello Market, chatting about the perils of social media and his family’s menagerie of farm animals in Somerset (“It’s like Noah’s Ark,” he says of their selection of pigs, chickens, dogs, and cows), before landing at a small establishment serving up fresh Italian stew with bread and Parmesan. Taylor-Johnson is greeted in familiar terms by the proprietor and gets us two warm bowls of old-fashioned comfort food for lunch, refusing to let me pay. The more you get to know Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the more it makes sense that this is a man with four daughters and a farm full of animals to look after.   

All of this to say, there is a surprisingly gentle energy that emanates from the actor. It’s there in his alarm about me possibly getting lost, or waiting too long for him, or being cold. It’s in his complete sincerity as he talks about his daughters being born, saying, “You realise it’s your job to protect the purest, most innocent thing that’s come into the world. And it’s your duty to be their role model. You are going to be reflected in their choices later on in life, from who their partners are to how they carry themselves in the world.”  

Aaron wears coat by Homme Plisse Issey Miyake, tank top by Tom Ford at Mr Porter, trosuers by Lanvin, earrings and rings Aaron’s own (Picture: Kosmas Pavlos)

Taylor-Johnson has had a certain knack for playing foul-mouthed assassins and charming douchebags of all kinds, from Fall Guy’s outrageous movie star egotism all the way back to the petulant quipping of Kick-Ass. He brings bouncy, roguish energy and a helping of Byronic sexiness to any anti-hero he turns his hand to. And yet back here on earth, there’s much less of all that big Hollywood talk, and much more chat about taking his girls on university visits.  

While we eagerly anticipate Taylor-Johnson’s year ahead, it’s easy to wonder what’s next for Hollywood’s most grounded new leading man. So, come on. Someone write the man a musical, or he’ll have to go and be James Bond. 


Taken from the April/May issue of Rolling Stone UK – you can buy it here now.