He may be young, talented, and British, but unlike his young, talented, British peers, Aaron Johnson is categorically and absolutely not in any of the Harry Potter films. “Yeah, thank God!” laughs the tousle-haired 19-year-old. Whereas the majority of fledgling British performers (with the possible exception of Dame Judith Dench) have relied on that particularly profitable franchise to establish a foothold in the biz, Johnson has gotten just as far flying solo. “I must’ve seen the first film, or the first two, and that was it, I’ve not seen any more. I’m not really a fan. I’ve never even read the books. It’s not really for me.”
Calling LWLies from London Zoo, Johnson is rushed off his feet on the final day of shooting horror thriller Chatroom (“there are a lot of running shots, and lots of animals screaming”), but he’s happy to give us 20 minutes to discuss what is about to turn into a very interesting year for the fresh-faced artiste. If you’re a 13-year-old girl, you’ll most likely recognise Johnson as the teen heartthrob who triggered a thousand crushes as Robbie in Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging; except, you probably won’t. “I don’t look like that!” exclaims the actor. “With the straight hair, and all clean and proper. I don’t like the whole heartthrob thing…” You sense genuine embarrassment from the vaguely cockney-larynxed former child actor as he discusses the reaction – particularly female – to the role that made casting directors sit up and grab a phone. “It was kind of mad, because Sugar mag and Bliss wanted to do this sort of poster type thing. And I was fighting against it,” he continues. “I don’t wanna be like Zac Efron. It was that whole part that I didn’t want to be involved in. I mean, it’s fine, and some guys are really happy about the girls and they’ve got that little fan base. But it’s just embarrassing, really.”
So if he’s not from Harry Potter and he’s not a teen heartthrob, who is this opinionated young man? Well, he’s been acting since the age of six, he’s having the time of his life doing what he loves, and he’s been making the papers thanks to a controversial love affair (we’ll get to that later). He’s also, resolutely, his own man. “I don’t want to be the next anyone, just myself,” he insists on a number of occasions – and, so far, Johnson’s increasingly varied and intriguing career choices mark him out as a unique talent. Roles in theatre and TV dramas, including the BBC’s lauded Feather Boy, peppered an otherwise unremarkable upbringing, though school was never really a priority: the former High Wycombe inhabitant quit education at the tender age of 15 to fully pursue an acting career. “But I wasn’t really there much!” Johnson points out. “I was working through school, so I’d do a shoot and then I’d come back to school. And at school they didn’t really want me there anyway, so I’d get kicked out most of the time.”
Brash? Rebellious? Maybe, but Johnson’s anti-hunk, take-no-prisoners attitude stems from a passion for doing what he loves, and there’s no room for doubt. “I couldn’t have a back-up plan because I’d be fucked,” he explains. “People always say, ‘You should have a plan B, you should’ve done your studies at school’. But I knew what I wanted to do. If you have a back-up plan, you fall back on it and that’s just what you do. I’ll fight any way I can to keep doing what I want to do.” The gamble, though, seems to be paying off. Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging “really helped sort of push me out and through to other filmmakers”, and Johnson has two big flicks about ready to storm the film circuit.
The first is Nowhere Boy. Directed by artist Sam Taylor Wood, and scripted by Control’s Matt Greenhalgh, Nowhere Boy finds Johnson playing a young John Lennon in a quasi origins story. Smothered by his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) and aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), the film charts Lennon’s desperate escape into art and music, and eventual, fortuitous meeting with Paul McCartney (Love Actually’s Thomas Sangster). It’s Johnson’s “favourite job that I’ve ever done”, with Lennon proving to be “the most interesting character to portray”. But the film has already made Daily Mail headlines for its behind-the-scenes scandal. ‘Taylor-Wood drives her teenage lover home after romantic dinner date’ the tabloid screamed salaciously back in May, reporting that the 42-year-old director and her young leading man had gone public at the Cannes Film Festival about a post-shoot romance. Johnson, however, is disinterested in any of the gossip that might be polluting the papers or the internet. “I avoid Googling! I stay away from any reports and stuff,” he says. “I’d rather not be anxious and paranoid of what people comment on and what people say. I don’t follow any of that. Somebody might tell me a couple of little details, but apart from that…”
After Nowhere Boy, Johnson again takes the lead in the much-anticipated Kick-Ass. Having successfully convinced director Matthew Vaughan that he was American (“I fell off my chair when I was told [he’s a Brit]. His American accent is pitch perfect and he can bloody well act,” effuses Vaughan), Johnson stars as a lonely high school student who decides to become a superhero – despite a lack of any distinguishing powers. Promising hilarity, guts and all-out action, audiences were wowed by a natty preview trailer aired at this year’s Comic Con (seriously, Google it). This could – and should – be the film that gets Johnson well and truly noticed.
Just don’t expect him to relocate to Hollywood any time soon. “If I had a choice of a place to live, I’d probably go and live in Italy or abroad somewhere,” he muses, “Like the south of France or Spain. Not fucking LA! Hollywood is not a place to fucking live. It’s just too business orientated for me. It’s fine if you want to get a job, that’s fine. It’s just the environment; it’s not for me.” For now, Johnson is busy finishing up Chatroom, the latest offering from Ringu director Hideo Nakata. Filled with trippy visuals, the film follows an online community who bully each other into carrying out questionable behaviour. “It’s shot like a parallel universe,” Johnson clarifies. “You’ve got his online world that’s all exciting, and a vision of what the online world would look like. So we’re all in the same room together, yet we can’t actually see each other.”
So, young, talented and British… and on the path to something big. But does Johnson have a game plan? Or will he continue to bowl ever onward and upward in his own inimitable way? “I just really wanna make good films, find interesting roles and work with really fantastic directors,” the actor says, citing Quentin Tarantino as his all-time favourite, and expressing a desire to work opposite Gary Oldman. “There are a lot of actors I obviously look up to and watch,” he says. “But I don’t aspire to be anyone but myself.” Watch this face.