There have been several movies made about John Lennon, the late co-founder of the Beatles, but “Nowhere Boy” is the first feature film to be about Lennon’s turbulent teenage years. The coveted and difficult role went to Aaron Johnson, who is best known so far as the title character in the 2010 movie “Kick-Ass.” “Nowhere Boy” (directed by Sam Taylor-Wood) was released in the United Kingdom and other countries in 2009, but in the United States, the film is set for release on October 8, 2010 — the day before what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday. The film (which was inspired in part by the memoir “Nowhere Boy,” written by Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird) chronicles how Lennon’s chaotic childhood impacted him and how he decided to become a professional musician.
John’s parents, Julia and Alfred Lennon, split up when he before he turned 5 years old, and his parents initially battled for custody of him. However, from the time John was about 5 years old, he was raised as an only child by his strict aunt Mimi Smith and Mimi’s husband, George Smith, in Liverpool, England. Years later as an adolescent, Lennon found out that even though his free-spirited but unpredictable mother had not been in contact with him for years, she was living in the same neighborhood with her other kids (John’s half-siblings). Hurt and confused, John nonetheless decided to establish a relationship with his mother, who treated John more like a friend than a son, much to Mimi’s disapproval.
Julia was the first person to encourage John to play the guitar and write songs, while Mimi was initially skeptical about John’s dreams of becoming a rock star. “Nowhere Boy” also depicts how John met his future Beatles band mate Paul McCartney, and how McCartney joined John’s band the Quarrymen, which would later include future Beatles member George Harrison. But during this period of discovering his musical talent, John found himself increasingly caught in an emotional tug-of-war between Julia (played by Anne-Marie Duff in “Nowhere Boy”) and Mimi (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), as the two women clashed over how John should be raised. For actor Johnson, making “Nowhere Boy” was a much happier experience than what he had to portray on screen, since he and director Taylor-Wood fell in love as a result of working on the movie together. The couple, now engaged, welcomed their daughter, Wylda Rae, into the world on July 7, 2010. Here is what Johnson (basking in the glow of new fatherhood) said when I caught up with him at the “Nowhere Boy” press junket in New York City.
What do you think John Lennon thought of himself at the period of time depicted in “Nowhere Boy”?
We tried to cover a vulnerable side of him that’s never really been seen before. It’s probably the only part of his life that wasn’t documented [in a film before]. So we had to dig into all the facts. The research is not impossible, but the Lennon that we all thought we knew in the Beatles was a guy who was very defensive and quite bitter, because his mother died and he had the barriers up.
There was an interview in Rolling Stone that I would listen to for his accent. He said, “The Beatles were a front, and I was very bitter when my mother died. I didn’t feel comfortable with that person [the famous John Lennon] until I find Yoko.” He found love, and he became a free-spirited person and someone quite open and this activist that we all sort of knew.
Did you read Julia Baird’s memoir “Nowhere Boy”?
I didn’t. I think there were bits in [the “Nowhere Boy”] script, but Matt Greenhalgh, the writer [of the “Nowhere Boy” screenplay], got that sort of insight to [Julia, Lennon’s mother].
Did you read any books on John Lennon or the Beatles?
Yeah, [books by] Philip Norman. There’s a bunch of biographies. I did a little bit on that, but I only wanted to focus on the early part of his [John Lennon’s] life. But I did most of my stuff through watching tapes and seeing what he looked like through his mannerisms and his voice, like all the interviews where he was a free spirit. In this Rolling Stone interview, he talked about his mother and his Aunt Mimi and stories of him writing “The Daily Howl” and his poetry — and his Aunt Mimi would go burn them, and he’d get really f*cking pissed off. He was pretty open. I used that as my research.
What’s the best feedback you’ve heard from John Lennon’s family or friends who have seen “Nowhere Boy”?
Yoko, who knew him most intimately and had a good understanding of who he was, has been a huge supporter of the film and very complimentary of my performances. And also we had a premiere screening in Liverpool. His family and his friends were there, and the real Pete Shotton and Quarrymen. It was quite interesting because we went to the premiere, when we introduced it, it was like, “Oh, we hear a few of you guys are in the audience.” And it was dead cold. No one raised a hand. And we were like, “Oh, sh*t! This is going to be painful.”
So we watched the movie. And at the after-party, they came up to us with tears in their eyes. They sort of came out of the crowd and said, “Well, I’m Pete Shotton.” It was very complimentary. We’re very blessed to see something like this, because it took them down memory lane.
John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s mothers died just two years apart, when Lennon and McCartney were teenagers. Can you talk about what that common experience meant to their friendship?
They definitely did have a connection in that sort of way … They’re so opposite, almost. Paul is very earnest and quite calm and kind of keeps to himself, whereas John is this rebel, sort of rock’n’roll “out there.” And when he finds out that Paul doesn’t have a mother, he feels a connection because Lennon didn’t really grow up with his mother. They always had that odd chemistry, Lennon and Paul, which works.
Were you told to play the John Lennon/Paul McCartney relationship as competitive?
No. It wasn’t really about the set-up for them. It was more about Lennon’s journey. And I think there are stories that Lennon, who was just starting out in music, and Paul was so advanced and younger, it kind of scared him [Lennon] a bit. There were accounts that [Lennon] didn’t want to really acknowledge [McCartney], because [Lennon] was a bit older and had other friends. I think we play on [the Lennon/McCartney rivalry] a little bit.
What are your thoughts about John Lennon feeling competitive for his mother’s affections?
I think John wants the attention of his mother. He sees what his mother is like around other men, how it catches their eye, and I think all he wants is her attention on him — which is why we play Elvis [Presley] out. He sees this man who has this effect on women who scream and fall in love with him and drop down to their knees. That’s what he wants with his Aunt Mimi and his mother. He wants the respect and the attention and the love, which is why when he doesn’t get his mother, and his mother says “bye” again, that’s when he says, “I want to be like Elvis. I’m going to make women crawl at my feet.”
What was the casting process like for you in “Nowhere Boy”?
I was filming “Kick-Ass” at the time. I was asked to come in for casting, and I hadn’t had much time to work this [John Lennon] character out or prepare. I spent my lunches looking at YouTube clippings and stuff of Lennon when he was younger, so I could get a small sense of what he was or a look or something I could do. Because at the time, I was playing this nerdy comic-book kid with big, bushy hair [in “Kick-Ass”], and I had to slick it back and be a bit more ‘50s and try and get [John Lennon’s] voice.
I went to the audition … and I was literally talking out loud, this one sentence I saw Lennon say — something about “They think we’re builders from Hamburg.” He had just come back from Hamburg, and there were people from Liverpool going [he says in a Liverpool accent], “Well, who are these guys? Builders from Hamburg?” And I just kept on saying that and “you know” quite a lot. There’s a documentary of Beatles fanatics and members of the band and their managers, and a lot of them seem to say “you know” quite a lot … So I just kept on doing that.
After you auditioned for “Nowhere Boy,” the filmmakers still auditioned lots of other actors. What was it like for you to wait and hear whether or not you got the job?
I had this one day off to do this casting. I was doing “Kick-Ass,” and I guess when you’re involved in something else, you just kind of forget about it. But at the same time, I didn’t feel that was the last [audition for “Nowhere Boy”]. I thought I could go back and do some more. Sam said, “In the meantime, check out [the documentary] ‘The United States vs. John Lennon.’” There was this other side to him that she wanted to try and capture. It was sort of the free-spirit guy. So I watched that.
And at the same time, I was saying to Jane Goldman, the writer of “Kick-Ass”: “On My next job, I want to be Lennon, but I can’t play a f*cking guitar, and I can’t sing.” And she said, “Well, I’ve got a guitar.” And she brang it to set. And then I sat in front of this YouTube thing that showed me how to play chords. So I started mentally preparing for the next thing. They were casting musicians and stuff, so I was up against that.
How good of a guitar player would you say you are now?
I rarely pick up a guitar now, which is a shame, really. I got taught all the songs in the film. I sing and play guitar [in “Nowhere Boy”]. We recorded probably about five other songs that didn’t make it in the film. And I loved it. It was a fantastic experience, but once I moved on to another film, I sort of cut completely from that person.
I played the banjo, too. I had this fantastic teacher who taught me how to do the banjo, guitar, harmonica, and sing. We had fun with it. He also taught Anne-Marie [Duff] how to do the banjo for “Maggie May.”
This year has been an incredible one for you. What’s surprised you the most since becoming a father?
The most wonderful thing this year was becoming a father. Seeing my little girl, it’s wonderful … She gorgeous. I was probably up at 4 or 5 in the morning changing her nappy. Sam’s been up having to feed her through the night, s she’s a trooper. The press tour that we’re doing [for “Nowhere Boy”] is difficult usually, but it’s 10 times even more hardcore [with a newborn]. We’re coping with it.
How are you handling fame? Have your feelings about fame changed?
I don’t have a problem with fame, because I don’t get any. I don’t get recognized on the street or I don’t find it much of an issue. London is a different thing. If you’re out at event and you get “papped” [followed by paparazzi], it’ll make the news, but to me, if you’re going to go to an event, then you’re expecting it. It’s work-related.
With your breakthrough in “Kick-Ass” this year, how has that changed any opportunities that come your way now?
“Kick-Ass” has opened doors to other jobs and offers and new projects. And I think “Nowhere Boy” could too, hopefully, because they’re so different. I like to go for something really different and versatile.
“Kick-Ass” director Mathew Vaughn says there will be a sequel to “Kick-Ass.” What can you say about that?
I think it would be great if we did a sequel.
Have you met any of John Lennon’s biological relatives?
I was at [John Lennon’s first son] Julian [Lennon’s] gallery opening … So I met him. Not whilst I was doing the film, and I met him at Cannes as well. They’ve been very complimentary. Yoko as well. She’s been supporting it and pushing it out there as well. We’re really grateful and humble. She gave the rights to “Mother,” which is one of the songs at the end, which she’s never done before. Sir Paul McCartney gave “Hello Little Girl.” I think we’re the only [feature] film that got the rights to both of their songs in it.
What did Paul McCartney have to say to you about “Nowhere Boy”?
He said he loved the film. He said, “It’s not a documentary or anything. The only thing is John didn’t punch me in the face.” He thought it was quite good.
Do you think John Lennon’s defiance was both a positive and a negative trait?
Yeah, I think he’s constantly trying to unravel where his father is and where he mother’s been. And he’s trying to constantly get the love of this woman [his mother], so he’s not going to stop for anything.
At the same time, there are moments where it’s awkward where asking these things again could possibly make him lose what he’s got with his mother, this relationship. Will it jeopardize his relationship if he wanted to push more and more? There’s the Lennon that everyone knows. I think that’s something that’s a part of him … I don’t know if I have an answer for that. That’s just who he was, because he had nothing to lose, I suppose.
What’s your favorite John Lennon or Beatles song?
There’s quite a lot, but I’d say “In Spite of all the Danger” is one of my favorites, only because it’s a song that I recorded and the first sing I ever sang in the film. And I got a tattoo of it.
Can you talk about your movie “Chatroom” and what it was like working with director Hideo Nakata on that film?
That came out at [the] Cannes [Film Festival]. It’s an interesting concept. He’s an interesting guy to work with, very visual. It’s all about these kids online, and then it kind of goes into this virtual world, offline and online. It’s mainly a visual piece, I suppose.
There were rumors that you auditioned for the “Spider-Man” movie reboot that’s due out in 2012. Andrew Garfield got the role of Spider-Man, but can you set the record straight on the rumors? Did you audition for that role?
No, I wasn’t a part of the decision on that.
If you could ask John Lennon anything, what would it be?
I don’t know. I’d really have to think about it.
For more info: “Nowhere Boy” website
RELATED LINKS ON echoflam.com:
Interview with Aaron Johnson for “Kick-Ass” (WonderCon panel)
Interview with Aaron Johnson for “Kick Ass” (New York City press junket)
Interview with Kristin Scott Thomas for “Nowhere Boy”
“Nowhere Boy” news and reviews