Aaron Johnson garnered attention back in 2003 when he played the boy Charlie Chaplin in Shanghai Knights opposite Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. Since then, he's risen to the top of casting directors' Young Hollywood wish lists. Johnson stars as Dave Lizewski (a.k.a. Kick-Ass) in Kick-Ass and the teenage John Lennon in Nowhere Boy (he's also rumored to reunite with Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn on X-Men: First Class). Other films include The Greatest (opposite Carey Mulligan), The Illusionist (as the younger version of Edward Norton's Eisenheim) and Brit hit Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. Clark Duke plays Dave's buddy Marty in Kick-Ass, on the heels of playing opposite John Cusack, Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson in Hot Tub Time Machine. Johnson and Duke promoted Kick-Ass at San Francisco's WonderCon, where I spoke to them at the Moscone Convention Center (Johnson's cheeky mood notwithstanding). Johnson began by agreeing to run down two upcoming films: Hideo Nakata's Chatroom and Nowhere Boy, directed by his fiancée (and mother of their baby girl Wylda Rae) Sam Taylor-Wood.
Aaron Johnson: There's another film I got that's gonna kind of go through some film festivals. It's kind of an interesting piece. Enda Walsh wrote it. He did Hunger, if anyone's see that. And it's a Japanese director: Hideo Nakata, who did The Ring. It's this sort of small piece that we all worked on for nothing. (Laughs.) And hopefully—it was good fun just to work with so many great people. And, you know, t's an interesting concept about teenagers...it's kind of a thriller. It's teenagers online – there's an online world and an offline world that parallel...I play a sort of selfish, depressed, kind of rich kid, who is over-self-harming and kind of goes online to create a different personality and persona to get friends, and then ends up manipulating them into committing suicide, and it's pretty [dark]...
There's a film coming out later this year, in October, in America, called Nowhere Boy, which is about John Lennon, before he goes off to Hamburg and into the Beatles. And it's about his mother and his auntie and the relationships there. So that one's coming out in October, and I think Nashville Film Festival that's coming up soon...it was in Sundance. And, y'know, and that's another film that I'm really proud of and I shot just before Kick-Ass, so you'll see that coming up...I had to spend about three months learning to play guitar and then go rock and roll. And I sang in it. And playing John Lennon, I had to get a sort of distinctive voice for him and get an essence and soul of his character. But then also it's a lot more of a vulnerable part of his life because, just before the Beatles, his mother died, and then the whole of the Beatles became like a front, and he was really bitter inside, so then he sort of puts on this persona, which is a quite bitter and angry sort of person. And he's a quick-witted, arrogant sort in the Beatles, and then much later on, when he found Yoko, he found love, and then this free-spirited person came out. So we kind of used a lot of that and put it back in his early years when he was growing up with his aunt, who taught him to be very well-mannered and kind of keep things in. And then...his mother was a really affectionate person who kind of taught him about the music essence. And then...Elvis he looked up to as a god [who] had this power over women. And that's what he wanted: the power of his auntie and his mother, and just to grow up.
Clark Duke: It's a little like our relationship.
AJ: It's a little like our relationship. Mm-hm...
Groucho: Regarding Kick-Ass: you know, there are actually a handful of people who do this in real life...
Clark Duke: I've seen these guys online, yeah.
Groucho: They do foot patrols...
Aaron Johnson: Yeah. On YouTube, yeah. But it was a news break...after we were filming. There was some guys out of New York who would just go around sweeping the streets.
CD: Just doing, like, kinda good works. Yeah.
G: So I don't know if you were able to do any research on those guys. But what do you think—from the point-of-view of your character—what's the kind of personality it takes to do that.
AJ: I think it sums it up pretty much: optimism and naivety, really. You've got to be —I think, you know, these guys—
CD: The line in the comic book was better. Remember in the first issue of the comic? It was "All you really need is—" They changed it.
AJ: Yeah, what is it again?
CD: It was way darker. It's in the first issue. It's way darker. It's "All you really need is a—" It's something like "desperation." Like, there's something—it's way—
AJ: Yeah, but I guess the sense of it—I think the sense of it is these guys are just so involved in comic books, and all they've ever seen is Spider-Man's like this, Batman's like that, Superman can do these things, and this is what they say. This is what they say when they're in front of bad guys. They say, like, cheesy fucking lines and yet—this is what he's got in his mind. And they're kind of brainwashed by this world, and then they kind of—well, my character carries out—quite naively and not thinking about the consequences when you can get hurt because they haven't got super-powers—. I mean, that's the whole point of Hit Girl is that she's been trained so much that she can really kick the shit out of Kick-Ass, and then—so much so that you're rootin' for her to beat these people up until the point when she gets kicked in the face. And then you get like a flash—when she touches her own blood. And even though she's had other people's blood on her face, when she touches hers, she gets like a flash of innocence, and it's like "Oh, I can actually really die. I've got no super-powers."
CD: And the audience realizes she can die.
AJ: Yeah, I know. It's a realization. D'y'know what I mean? And that's—for the audience, as well. Matty's really good at this: restoring it in a background of reality every time. It's like you go into this world, and you get caught up in it, and it's "Boom." It's like, it's just—you get brought back to it.
G: Do you think, in the end, he has an inner reserve that it brings out of him, or is it that the circumstances force him to become somebody different?
AJ: I think it's a bit of both, really. I think he's looking for that journey and that sort of adventure, in which he puts himself in that circumstance. [To Clark:] What's he say? Go on, read it. Go on, go on.
CD: "It doesn't take any of this. Just the perfect combination of loneliness and despair."
AJ: There you go.
CD: I always thought that was a—'cause, literally, in the movie we say the opposite. We say, like "optimism and—"
AJ: "And naivety."
AJ: You've got to be naive.
CD: This is like the polar opposite, which I always thought was really interesting. (Pause.) I don't know where I'm going with any of this.
AJ: Well, I think it sums that all up. He is desperate, and he is, like—okay, he's desperate to [pick] up girls, and yet he's lonely 'cause his mother's just died and he's got two fucking lousy friends. And then, uh—
G: You're saying he's gotten himself in that situation, and then the situation changed him.
AJ: Yeah, I'd say, yeah. I mean, he was looking for that escapism. He was looking for that route out, and then the circumstances went really high, and he tried to pull it back, but then he was so caught up in it, and he felt the buzz. Once you get a little taste of something, then he can't...get back because—it was like "Do I just be this fucking ordinary, boring person all my life, or am I going to fucking do something in the world and have fun, and—?" I don't know; you've got to—you know, he goes from a boy to a young man...essentially, as the smallest outline for this film. And no one gives a shit about, really. ..."Who gives a shit? Where's Hit Girl?" And Clark Duke, as well—Clark Duke's in the movie.
CD: What? What happened...?
G: Can you talk about the "Crazy" scene? I just have to ask about that.
AJ: Crazy scene?
G: The singalong in the car.
AJ: Oh, the "Crazy"—with the music "Crazy."
G: Was that a choice to add it later, that song, or—?
AJ: It was something that Clark directed for me and Chris.
G: I just felt like—
AJ: He put on the music and said, "Right, guys. I'm feeling that—"
CD: "The movie's not urban enough."
AJ: "At this point, there's so much tension, and we need to break it up a bit. And, you know, just give the audience, like, a break."
CD: I don't think you can shoot anything [if] you have the song playing, right? For audio reasons.
AJ: No, but that one we did.
CD: You actually had it playing in the car?
CD: No shit?
AJ: No shit. That was when we came back and reshot an alternative ending.
CD: Ohh, okay.
AJ: And then me and Chris, they had a...car. And we...fucking improvised it, and then they put it in the movie.
CD: That's funny.
AJ: That's what really happened. Thank you...[as Chloë Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plass approach:] the real stars of the movie are coming now, so "Quick. Let's go, let's go. Fuck off now, please. You can just go."
[For my in-depth interview with Clark Duke, click here.]