Friday night saw the Los Angeles premiere of Tom Ford’s second film, Nocturnal Animals. Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams and the fashion designer-cum-director himself were present, but one notable absence was Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the young British actor whose turn as the chilling antagonist of the film has been attracting early Oscar buzz.
Last month, Gentleman’s Journal caught up with the 26-year old to discuss the nail-bitingly noirish psychological thriller, and the role that has attracted critical acclaim. Alongside Michael Shannon, who plays an embittered Texan sheriff in the ensemble piece, and Amy Adams, who embodies the antiheroine as the tortured protagonist, Taylor-Johnson is just one of the cast tipped for recognition by the Academy. But how did he approach the part of grimy, slippery redneck Ray Marcus?
“Ah yes,” smiles Taylor-Johnson when we meet in Soho. “Ray Marcus. What an incredible and diverse and brilliant character. You’re usually fighting to find a character, but having Ray written as he was on the page and having Tom Ford at the helm of it all just meant that my experience on Nocturnal Animals was on another level.
“Other directors don’t make bold decisions in the way that Tom Ford does – not many, anyway. I think my costume fitting on this film was the best one I’ve ever had.
“I say that,” Taylor-Johnson continues, “because when I went in, it wasn’t about choosing from umpteen different costumes. No-one was offering me options and saying ‘we have this, and we have this – do you like this?’
“Instead, I just went in, and Tom said that he wanted me in a grubby t-shirt, and occasionally maybe a shirt. He said I was a redneck, so I’d have work denims on – but I’d also be wearing my special Friday night going-out boots.”
The boots, I assure the actor, are hard to miss.
“Good! Yeah, electric green cowboy boots.” He looks off into the middle distance, and shuffles his significantly more restrained black Oxfords on the carpet. “Tom wanted them to show arrogance, a sense of entitlement.
“And he said he loved the way they made me stand, and that I stood differently in those boots. And he was right – they changed everything.”
“So yeah, there are all these little character traits that help build you up into this person,” says the actor. “I never once questioned Tom, and he just built a character out of nowhere in front of me – it was incredibly exciting.”
Less exciting, admits the brow-furrowed actor, was embodying Ray Marcus for two months.
As the antagonist of Ford’s latest work, Taylor-Johnson’s Texan maniac has an impressionable gang, an enviable poker face and some truly horrendous demons. He is beyond a ‘bad guy’. Ray Marcus tears the life of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character apart, destroys a perfectly good vintage Mercedes in the process and haunts Amy Adams’ character from the first act to the time the credits roll.
“It was hard,” concedes the actor. “You couldn’t just shrug him off at the end of the day, definitely not. And I didn’t even manage to fully shrug the character off until we finished shooting.
“Even then, it still took a reasonable period to shed all of that dark energy away. But that was the character, and I had been tasked with embodying an incredibly dark role. I knew that the psychology of such a role wouldn’t be easy, but I think it was even more disturbing and toxic than I’d realised.
“Even throughout the entire preparation, it gets under your skin,” says the actor. “I was studying characters such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson, people like that. And for three months straight I had sleepless nights.
“But you have to do that,” he adds. “As I mentioned before, using real people – even if you don’t take everything from them – can elevate your character and make it believable.
“Ted Bundy was another great influence. Here was a man who was very handsome, and charming, and really quite charismatic – and I found that all of these killers had variations on those traits in some way.
“Manson had all of his followers – and a real sex appeal, too. But then, look closer and you’ll see that he had this look behind his eyes – a real lack of empathy, a real darkness. And I just wanted to kind of embody everything that look was, everything it represented.”
Could Ray Marcus, then, be the character that grabs Taylor-Johnson his first Oscar nod? Quite possibly. For one thing’s sure, and that’s that over the last seven years, from when the Brit starred as John Lennon, he has gone from Nowhere Boy to a man very firmly in the spotlight.
Read the full Aaron Taylor-Johnson interview in the December issue of Gentleman’s Journal, out now.