aaron taylor-johnson talks 'nocturnal animals' and getting his beard shaved by tom ford

As Tom Ford's second directorial effort hits our screens this week, we speak to Aaron Taylor-Johnson about starring in one of 2016's most hotly-anticipated releases and the virtues of working with a designer-turned-director.

by Colin Crummy
01 November 2016, 4:20pm

Tom Ford is legendary for his attention to detail, but perhaps not the kind that require the talent to let themselves go for three months. But that's exactly what he asked of actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, ahead of his role in Ford's film, Nocturnal Animals. "Prior to making the movie, Tom said grow your hair out, grow your beard out, grow your fingernails long. I had disgusting, dirty fingernails," says the 26-year-old from High Wycombe. "He had very specific ideas about seeing these fingernails on screen."

Ford was so specific about what he wanted with Nocturnal Animals — his sophomore effort as filmmaker after 2009's widely acclaimed A Single Man — that he adapted Austin Wright's novel, then produced and directed it. As a result, it has Ford's own, presumably immaculate, fingerprints all over it: from the stylized noir aesthetic to the (perhaps more surprising) critique of modern materialism and excess. But at its heart, Nocturnal Animals is a cautionary tale about relationships and how not to break them. It stars Amy Adams as Susan, a LA art dealer whose receives a manuscript of her husband's (Jake Gyllenhaal) debut novel called Nocturnal Animals.

In Ford's story-within-a-story, Susan begins to read the novel, a Texas-set, violent, devastating tale of kidnap, rape, and murder at the hands of local low life Ray, played with grimy gusto by Taylor-Johnson. It's also an allegory for the way in which Susan treated her aspiring author husband, scenes of which are also told in flashback.

Dressed in a Tom Ford suit in the designer's signature shirt-undone-to-the-navel style, Taylor Johnson is more catwalk than criminal when i-D meets him. He's also some distance — all lean bulk and beard — from his previous on screen incarnations as Lycra-wearing superheroes in Kick Ass and the Avengers. But then, he's all grown up: married to artist-turned-director Sam Taylor-Johnson, with whom he has two daughters and two step daughters. Here, the actor talks about working with the designer-turned-director, the importance of lasting relationships, and why he only takes on one project a year.

Tom has described your character as a low life who thinks he's a 70s rock star and created a look that reflected that. Was that helpful in getting into the role?
It's helpful to have someone like Tom who cares about every detail, who is an architect in a way and [he] puppeteers, knows exactly what he wants. He thinks about every little split second of the movie. He personally shaved my beard. He wanted mutton chops, sort of 70s rock n roller. He straightened my hair; he did that himself.

Is that hands-on approach the most specific thing about Tom as a director?
He's very confident. The best thing about him is that he's very decisive. He knows exactly what he wants. That's what you want from a director.

You've been directed twice now by filmmakers who come from other disciplines: Tom from fashion and your wife, Sam Taylor-Johnson, who was an artist first, in Nowhere Boy. Is there anything different about those experiences?
Absolutely. Someone like Tom Ford, who has run a successful empire and is a leader, he's just someone who collaborates well. He's someone who enjoys the art. He's the leader as the director on set. It all trickles down from him. He's got a great energy about him.

And Sam?
Sam is different because she was an artist and an artist is also at the top of the ideas and the machine. What's beautiful about seeing her work is that there's never an idea that's not possible. She's very idealistic and optimistic. The only difference in a world of studios is that you have a number of people above you who make decisions and compromises and choices and that's a new thing to inhabit and take on. Tom understands that too because he's not part of a bigger fashion design company; he's in a company of his own. It's him. In the same way wrote the screenplay, produced the film. He needs to be in control. The same with Sam; she's in control she's going to make something incredible and beautiful the way her art is.

The film  in paralleling a break up to violent murder  warns us to be careful of wrecking relationships. What did you learn?
I liked that Tom took it really personal, and I think Tom was driven to do it because him and Richard [Buckley] have been together for 30 years and he's a very loyal person. He understands that when you have that love and that friendship and that soul mate you nurture it, you take care of it and you don't ever let it go. You don't want to get to that place where you have made bad choices and live in regret. So he took it to a very personal standpoint. I feel very emotional about their love story. It's brutal because you see [that love story] cut back and forth with Susan's harsh, materialistic lifestyle that she thought she wanted but is not happy. In the culture of today which is driven by social media, you can lose touch of what you really want.

Did you recognize that materialistic world that Susan operates in?
Tom has built two different worlds, purposefully. It's a stylistic choice, to make you feel that harshness of the art world, of the money and the lifestyle. There are definitely times when you can feel what he's shot. Everyone's got their level of materialistic lifestyles, whether we're into cars or property or fashion.

What's yours?
I don't feel like I over indulge. I feel very grounded and happy with my wife and kids. I don't really care where we live, where we are as long as we are together. So I don't feel addicted or attached to any materialistic things.

What keeps you grounded?
There's no better grounding than being a parent and having kids. There's nothing more humbling and joyful. It's what I love doing the most. I only do one project a year and most of the time I spend taking my kids to school and activities and cooking, normal everyday kind of things.

Nocturnal Animals is in cinemas from November 4.


Text Colin Crummy
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Tom Ford
Nocturnal Animals
Aaron Taylor-Johnson