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Aaron Taylor-Johnson Got His Latest Role by Playing Ping Pong

The 'Nocturnal Animals' actor talks about dyslexia, coming to America, and his incredible turn in 'The Wall.'

by Aaron Taylor-Johnson; as told to Larry Fitzmaurice
May 17 2017, 6:32pm

David James courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson who turns in an incredible performance in Doug Liman's Iraq-set thriller The Wall, in theaters now. (He also won a Golden Globe earlier this year for his murderous turn in Tom Ford's quixotic Nocturnal Animals.)

I grew up in High Wycombe, a village near a small town—basically in the suburbs of London. I was a ball of energy—a naughty little kid, really. Luckily, my parents were really supportive and encouraging. I needed to release energy, so I did swimming, martial arts, gymnastics, and dance. I went to a small children's agency on Thursday nights after school. I went on hundreds of auditions. You learn the art of rejection very quickly—you've got to get used to not getting everything you want if you want to be in this world. The first role I got was for the play An Inspector Calls that Stephen Daldry was directing on the West End. I fell in love with acting from there—I got bit by the bug.

Gymnastics was my first passion, though. I was on a team and we trained for competitions. As a kid, I thought I was going to be an Olympic gymnast. But when I was ten, I got my first offer for a lead role in a film in Tom and Thomas. I was given an ultimatum: "You either go, or you stay with the squad—but if you go, we're not going to have you back on the team." It fucking sucked, and it was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. But I knew that the opportunity of a lead role in a movie may have never happened to me again—once in a lifetime.

I hated fucking school, man. That's why I started acting—it gave me an escape. I've got three kids, and the school they go to is very progressive and creative. They have their own personalities and way of processing things, but they're all bright and super smart. I got told was that I wasn't, though. I'm dyslexic, but it was something that I discovered through talking to people. Confidence is a big thing, and if you tell a kid they're fucking stupid, they'll believe they're stupid. I learned how to read from script after script after script.

The first time I came to the States was for Shanghai Knights, when I was twelve. American agents and managers wanted to meet and sign with me, but the American market scared the shit out of me, so I didn't sign with anybody. I came back three or four years later with some money that I earned over the years. I spent the whole fucking lot in three months, but I knew that it was an investment in myself. I'd built up a relationship with casting directors in London that I didn't have in the States, so I was starting at square one. I went to auditions with an English accent and they thought, "You're never going to be able to play American," so I learned to go in sounding American. Then I realized that I needed to start looking like the characters I was auditioning for, so I learned to go into the room in character.

The best parts are the ones that aren't being offered to you. It's rare that you read something that you just fall in love with, and The Wall was one of those scripts. I called and said, "I want to sit down with Doug Liman." They said, "He's busy in New York, and he only does interviews over Skype." I live in LA, and I've never gotten a fucking job from a Skype interview—it's bad juju. I want to be face-to-face with someone I'm about to work with, because I want to know if we can get along. A couple of days later, they were like, "He's available tomorrow," and I was like, "I'm on my way to LAX right now. Tell me where he wants to meet. I'll get there."

I fly in on a red eye, re-read the script, and drink a shitload of coffee near his office because I'm tired. In his office, we start going talking about the script and the character, and he was like, "Do you want to play some ping pong?" He's a fucking good ping pong player, and I don't play ping pong, so I had to play shit hard. I'm fucking tired and I haven't eaten anything, and he's hitting the ball and throwing questions at me. It was almost like a test. About three or four hours go by, and I was like, "Doug, I've got to get back to the airport because I've got to get home tonight." He was like, "Where's home?" And I said, "LA." He said, "What were you doing here?" And I said, "I came in to meet you for this."

I go back to the airport thinking, "I'll get the call soon." But it was so early on that Doug wasn't even thinking about casting this movie yet. Two weeks go by, and they go, "He's actually out in LA right now casting for the lead role. He feels bad. They don't want you to go in and read because they can't guarantee it's yours." I was like, "I don't give a fuck if they can't guarantee. Give me the fucking opportunity to go in and read for a part that I want to do." I go in the room dressed up in fucking combat gear and a high and tight haircut.

The audition went really well, but a week later I was in New York because my wife was judging the Tribeca Film Festival, and I'm like, "Where's Doug?" They go, "He's in London doing reshoots with Tom Cruise, but he flies back tomorrow." I said, "What time's his flight? I'll be there." I sent a picture of me in a suit holding a sign saying, "Pickup for Doug Liman." A few hours before I sent it, I was like, "This could really backfire." They could be like, "We need to get rid of this crazy fucking nut." A couple of days later Doug gets in and says, "Alright, let's have lunch and sit down." He offered me the job, although he never actually verbally said it. It was a really weird meeting. When I turned up on set on day one, I still felt like I had to convince him that I was the right man for the job, so that kept motivating me to be well-read.

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