Aaron Taylor-Johnson on Getting His Fear On in The Wall

The British actor talks about the challenge of playing an American soldier -- and doing it mostly alone.

British actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson has moved easily from indie films like Nowhere Boy to big-budget epics like Godzilla and Avengers: Age of Ultron, but in the new movie The Wall he faced several fresh challenges: one was playing a young American Marine — a sharpshooter named Isaac — and another was being in most of the film alone.

The Wall finds Isaac and his gravely wounded commander (played by John Cena) pinned down at a remote location in Iraq by a deadly and unseen sniper. Isaac is forced to hide behind a flimsy, crumbling wall, where he struggles with his own grisly gunshot wounds and is psychologically attacked over the radio by the calm yet relentless assassin.

Directed by Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow), The Wall is perhaps the most minimalist war movie you’ll ever see: just two men, a disembodied voice, and one bleak, nearly silent location pregnant with dread and death. It’s a tribute to Taylor-Johnson’s detailed and emotional performance that The Wall often feels so immersive, and we were pleased to get the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about it.

Den of Geek: This was not quite what I expected from a movie about the Iraq invasion. What stood out to you the most when you read the script?

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson: It was just a very unique, interesting take on this sort of scenario and what this character has to face. Ultimately, it was really the challenge of being able to make this kind of film and knowing it was going to be Doug Liman directing made it that much more interesting, because it’s not an easy thing to pull off and it’s an experiment really.

How did you prepare?

Many ways. We had a couple months prior to making the film and I spent a lot of time with guys in the military, I was in touch with a guy called Jacob Schick, who’s a third generation Marine and who’s part of the 22 Kill foundation. I flew to Boston and hung out with him and his guys. I spent some time with Lyndsey Addario, she’s a war photographer for the New York Times, and I was watching Restrepo and Korengal Valley, the two documentaries. She was actually out there at the time and then we went to DC with her and spent some time with veterans out there also.

I also spent time on the shooting range, where I came across this amazing woman Jane Horton, who’s a Gold Star wife which means she lost her husband in battle. I started to question her a bit. She had this bracelet on, this sort of bangle that a lot of the guys wear when they’ve lost a friend or someone close to them. I instantly thought that she was in the military and she told me that she just lost her husband and he was a sniper. She was a really big influence on the character. I asked her if I could sit down with her and talk to her about her husband and she was very instantly very helpful and showed me a lot of pictures of him. His name is Christopher Horton.

She actually put me in touch — and this was the most beneficial part of the research — with John Plummer. He’s one of the head instructors at the biggest sniper school in the States, it’s in Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, so I spent four days on the base with all the guys out there who are actually doing their sniper course…it was amazing just to sort of be around those guys, their camaraderie, their banter, I mean they’re the most quick witted comedians you’ll meet. They have great humor and timing, and they deal with such dark intense situations that they have to spread light and optimism and the way they do it is in this fantastic kind of great humor. So we tend to incorporate a lot of that in the film’s beginning.

Did you go above and beyond research-wise than you’d normally go for a film?

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Yeah, 100%, yeah. The more fear I have in going into a character, the more I kind of over-prep, and being British, 1) playing an American, and then 2) playing an American from the military which this country and the military pride themselves on. There is a respect and honor and patriotism that is beautiful to be immersed in and around and yeah, it was hugely important to get that across and do that service justice. This character comes across some pretty hard obstacles that you want to be able to play and portray it in a way that doesn’t come across offensive or diminishing in any way.

Did you have a lot of time with John to get that kind of rapport that you were talking about?

I would’ve loved more time, but we got as much as we needed. This was a 14-day shoot. We had John for four days. He’s a professional and he came in and was great, the most hard working, humble guy I’ve met, and he’s remarkable. He’d be flying in from Tokyo, and be going on to Chicago, and going from New York and coming back to set and arriving in Burbank at 4am in the morning, then driving out to the desert, and he’s still in his three-piece suit. Then he’d climb in the costume and gear, get encrusted with dried blood and lay out in the fucking desert for 12 hours under the sun. He’s a trooper, really, in that sense. He’s a professional.

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Is there any intimidation in doing a film where you’re alone for most of it and where you don’t have a lot of other actors to bounce off?

Yeah, that was one of the main elements of why I wanted to do this film. You can never really know how a film’s going to play to audiences or what have you, and this is a very specific kind of thing. You don’t see many of them. Phone Booth maybe was one but it was a bigger concept, more commercial. Then there was Locke with Tom Hardy, but most people probably haven’t seen that that aren’t in the industry. People in the industry would see it and go “Yeah, fantastic performance, what an interesting concept, and they shot over four days, and did one take all the way through.” That’s the interest and the intrigue into the filmmaking aspect.

That was my love for this, and to work with someone like Doug who also took it as an interesting challenge because he’s used to a huge budget and big commercial type of things, Tom Cruise and what have you. This was $3 million, it was one location, one main character and 14 days. So yeah, it was daunting and challenging but I had the security of being in his hands and going on the journey with him and making the mistakes, if you’re going to learn in our craft you need to be challenged and those are why I do things, why I wanted to do this.

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Doug fed you some of the sniper’s lines, right?

Yeah, right, if not most of them. It was a small intimate crew, it was a real family affair, and we all did it with passion. It was like real guerilla style filmmaking. Doug is an incredible filmmaker who just adapts to whatever is in front of him with no hesitation. It’s the most amazing thing to see, he just improvises with the environment that’s around him. He gets on his hands and knees and rolls in the dirt and tries to do what this character does and if he can do it, he feels like it’s not hard. So then we need to make the conflict harder, and we need to make the challenge harder.

The physicality of the role is intense. Watching you, I just wanted to get in the shower, and I can imagine you couldn’t wait to wash all that dirt and blood off at the end of the day.

I had to go maybe a week to get all the shit and dirt out of my ears by the end of the shoot. We’d all be covered, to be honest, you’d think we were a part of some kind of Burning Man festival or something, you know, the crew, we all wore ski goggles and face scarves. There were sandstorms, and very high heat, we were in the dead of summer in the desert so we were getting burnt to buggery but it was a lot of fun.

What’s next for you?

My wife (director Sam Taylor-Johnson) and I are writing something right now that we hope to do together at maybe the end of this year, maybe the beginning of next year, but right now we’re working on it so we’re not taking anything on right now, just focusing on that. We’re constantly trying to push the boundaries and challenge ourselves in ways that, you know, we always fear that you’re out of your league and that’s the best way really. So there’s nothing else in the pipelines right now.

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So, no more Godzilla movies for you?

They’re set in a different time period I think!

The Wall is out in theaters now.