Interview: Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen Talk Godzilla

We sit down with the stars of Godzilla to talk about sharing screen with the big guy and re-teaming again in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

This Friday Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla reimagining threatens to overshadow the entire summer with its gargantuan size—and hype. Yet, under the watchful gaze of the big guy, it is the leads who are meant to give the film its heart and soul—the people who lift up Godzilla even before the kaiju makes landfall.

And both certainly leave an impression. Playing the husband and wife duo of Ford and Elle Brody, two young parents separated by a tidal wave of monster mayhem, are Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Taylor-Johnson already has his geek bonafides for playing the titular Kick-Ass in two movies, but the part that really should capture any filmgoer or music lover’s attention (including Godzilla director Gareth Edwards’) is Nowhere Boy. In that movie, Taylor-Johnson played a young John Lennon, the survivor of a different kind of monstrous wave. Meanwhile Elizabeth Olsen won over the entire independent world with her mesmerizing turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and she has gone on to impress again and again in films as varied as In Secret and Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake.

And oh yes, they play the brother-and-sister team of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in Joss Whedon’s upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. You can bet that that movie, along with everything else in relation to the King of the Monsters, came up in our lovely interviews with them last week.

Could you talk a little bit about how things changed from when you got this project and the script to the finished film?

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson: I first got involved because of Gareth. Before that, it was like “why would they make Godzilla again?” If it was another monster movie, I would probably try to stay away from it, until they said Gareth. Because I loved Monsters [Gareth Edwards’ first film] so much, I thought it was really beautifully shot, and it’s a story about these two characters that come together, and the monsters are like a natural disaster. I just [thought], “Wow, I’m intrigued how he might take this story, now.” What his vision might be. And truly enough, he told me everything about how he wanted to do it. Looking back now, he was right on the money. Nothing really changed; his whole heart and soul is in it. It’s got a real emotional journey throughout this big major catastrophe.

There really wasn’t a script at that time, so it was really Gareth—he’s someone who really collaborates. I think everyone on this film really collaborated. Bryan [Cranston] brought a lot to his role, and I think [we] tried to figure out a lot about the family. He wanted a whole sort of backstory that the marriage was on the rocks, and [the character] couldn’t quite come to terms with being a father who is around for his child, because he couldn’t figure out how to accept his father. So there was a lot of backstory for the characters. A lot of that got condensed down, but I think the undertones are kind of there, so that’s great.

Elizabeth Olsen: When I met Gareth for the first time, they were still playing around with the script really, so he showed me the Comic-Con teaser from two years ago with the Oppenheimer quote and the voiceover about “I created a monster.” That was the thing that first really drew me into making a Godzilla film. I didn’t quite understand what Godzilla actually represented in the original Japanese version. So, just that large concept, and him trying to explain to me that we wanted to have this uprooted family, and basically the whole point was to get them back together at the end [got my interest].

While Aaron and I were signed on to it, we would talk to Gareth about it, read different drafts, and it’s always been what they said it was going to be—which is quite phenomenal! [Laughs] It’s always what you hope happens, and it was actually far more collaborative than I assumed a big film like this would be. If there’s dialogue that maybe Aaron or I didn’t quite grab onto, we would workshop it. And all of that was good to go, and you didn’t have to wait for approval from far beyond from somewhere else. It was a really awesome process.

You and Aaron have to really establish the emotional core of the movie. But you don’t have all that many scenes together in the scope of the film. How did you guys work together to get that?

EO: I think that was the whole point of us workshopping, really. I think as an actor, you also know what it’s like to go away and come back. And [Aaron] has children, so we pulled from our own experiences in trying to root that in this specific relationship. And Aaron and I just really get on well, and trust each other. There’s a comfortablility, so there’s nothing awkward, really.

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Could you talk a bit more about working with Gareth? It’s a big step up from Monsters to Godzilla.

ATJ: Yeah, he took on a monstrous project, but you know instantly with Gareth that he will deliver. He’s the sweetest guy, and I’d work with him again in a heartbeat. He’s someone who understands actors and gives them the time, and gets great performances because he really collaborates, and gives great ideas, and doesn’t really stop experimenting until you have so many variations. It was a big step up from him, but he’s someone that’s got real strong visions and ideas, and can work well with a group of people. And I think Legendary had a huge part of that as well with a body of work in the last two, three, five years with great directors, big movies, but with such heart and soul. Gareth is someone you put that risk on. He gives it that naturalistic look and feel, and it always [works] from an emotional standpoint.

EO: He’s amazing. What’s phenomenal about Gareth is he comes from a special effects background, which is what I think is happens with these big films is studios are trying to get these really great storytellers, these great smaller film directors, into these bigger movies. But sometimes, maybe they don’t have the language to speak with special effects or understand the larger world of it. And he understood that off the bat. But what he’s focused on is story-driven films, so working with him is incredibly collaborative. He’s very specific at what he needs you to do. And I told him, like I try to tell most people, like tell me straight up. You don’t need to talk around anything. And that’s how he likes to work, so it was a really great match for me.

Was he in the workshop with you guys?

EO: Yeah, it was just the three of us. It was just Aaron, Gareth, and I kind of improvising what was on the script. It��s not like we wrote it, but it was just us playing around with what was already there in that construct.

In a movie with so much CG, which you probably won’t see until a year later, how do you prepare for that?

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EO: Before we shot anything, Gareth showed me Previz, which I learned about. It’s basically these funny cartoons, and these funny cartoons making terrible reactions at things. But you understand what they’re looking at, and what the angles are. That was what was so exciting to me about doing a project like this, that imagination aspect of just the make-believe [Laughs] like full make-believe. And it’s difficult, because you think it’s going to be full make-believe, and then it’s pouring rain, and you have to walk seven steps this way and three steps that way, and then you have to get a verbal cue when you know the camera guy is like panning down from whatever is going to be there and back to you, so you can turn. It’s very technical, so it was definitely something I’ve never done before. You still have to hit your marks and all that stuff, but it surprisingly looks easy to me. I think that is what I was surprised by when I saw it. And I think now that I’ve done it once, I have more confidence in knowing that “oh, I understand how it’s going to be edited.” Because it’s scary when you’re a fish in new water.

When you saw the finished film was there anything that struck you?

EO: I was actually shocked that I wanted to cry like twice in the film. [Laughs] And usually, I’m quite removed from the films I watch, and I’m very critical if I’m in them. But I was amazed by how moved I was and so quickly, especially with Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche. I think that shocked me. I never really worked with anyone except Carson [Bolde] who played my son and Aaron, very briefly—and this other actress Jill [Teed] who played one of the nurses—and so, it’s just nice to see what everyone else is doing. There’s a part of me that thought I should have seen what everyone else was doing…But it’s good that I didn’t, because I’m not seeing everything they’re seeing. I’m seeing it from a very different perspective, and it’s just eye-opening to see what everyone else did. And I just really loved it. I saw it with one of my best friends, and we were so excited afterward. We’re like “a good one!” [Laughs]

[related article: Godzilla Review]

Speaking of Bryan, I feel like your [Aaron’s] relationship with him in the film really slingshots you through the rest of the film. What you’ve learned and experienced with him. Actor-to-actor, how did you get that process where you went from estranged to believer of what he’s been espousing?

ATJ: I guess he ends up passing the baton on to me, and I have to finish off his dirty work. [Laughs] I think it’s a beautiful moment in which my character, who kind of by that point understands that family is the most important thing of all—and I think that becomes clear in a natural disaster when everything is in chaos. If he was going to die tomorrow, what was it all about? What does it all mean? I think he knows about having the ones that you love there and protected. For him it’s his family and knowing that he needs to be a better father and a husband…He didn’t have that kind of bond [with his father] and he doesn’t want to give that to his son. It’s a beautiful realization that he needs to keep that going.

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It’s interesting that Godzilla is a catalyst to all of this.

ATJ: I didn’t know much about Godzilla before, as well. But in this case, he’s our hero; he’s our mascot.

Was it strange going from playing husband and wife in this film to playing brother and sister in The Avengers?

EO: I feel like that’s the way it’s supposed to be. [Laughs] Because you’re supposed to know your twin super well, so I feel really lucky that we have one film on us in order to start with Avengers. So, it worked out pretty amazingly.

ATJ: I think we created the two characters next to be very different. But it was funny when I was talking to Thomas Tull the other day. He was saying he saw Captain America and he saw us two, and he was like “What are my actors doing in this?” And I said, “Oh, that’s funny, Marvel actually beat you to it. Now we’re brother and sister before we were husband and wife!” But it’s good, she’s a great actress, and I really like working with her. She’s super brilliant. And in the Marvel comics, it’s slightly a bit incestuous anyway—not that we’re going to do it that way. [Laughs]

Did Joss shoot the end bit of Captain America?

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EO: Yes.

How long ago did you shoot that?

EO: I don’t even remember. It was earlier this year.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.

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