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A Pumped Aaron Taylor-Johnson Kicks-Ass in ’Godzilla’

by Fred Topel
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Thursday May 15, 2014
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Aaron Taylor-Johnson in "Godzilla"
Aaron Taylor-Johnson in "Godzilla"  

The star of "Godzilla" is a big green monster that towers over the city, but he was not available for interviews. (Talk about a diva.) That’s no problem: the new film’s hunky co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson was available to the press. The film, based on the classic 1954 Japanese monster film Gojira, also features such stars Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn and Juliette Binoche among others.

It is Johnson who plays the human we follow most closely: Ford Brody, a naval lieutenant who travels to Japan to bail out his conspiracy theorist father (Cranston) and finds himself called upon to lead an air drop when monsters (not just Godzilla, but a pair of pair of insect-like creatures) head towards San Francisco.

"I was totally gung ho," the 23-year old British actor said. "I sat down with [director] Gareth Edwards (who directed the low-budget cult film "Monsters") for the first time and we just didn’t stop talking for about six hours about our love for film and how he wanted to shoot it and where he wanted to take the character. I came out of that meeting thinking 100% that I want to be on this journey with him and everyone involved, and had a whole other perspective on what Godzilla meant."


Aaron Taylor-Johnson in "Godzilla"  

Getting in gear

There have been so many Godzilla movies in Japan in the past five decades, not to mention the maligned 1998 Roland Emmerich remake (starring Matthew Broderick). In preparing for the role, Taylor-Johnson had a quick Gojira education.

"I never really saw any of the other movies. [Edwards] said to go see the original so I did, because he wanted to embrace the 1954 version and also create Godzilla from that look. We had the Toho (the Japanese studio that produced the original film) approval on that and had the Toho guys on set. It felt very sort of bringing it back to its roots but setting it in today and society now. Character-wise, I guess the only challenge for me was I play a lieutenant in the Navy and it was kind of just getting behind that mentality and that headspace of a guy that would do that sort of a job. And also the way they talk, the way they carry a weapon. All those kind of things were my challenges in order to be believable in that kind of setting."

If the military response to Godzilla looks convincing, that’s because they had the same technical advisors on set as a non-monster war movie might. "I spent 2-3 months with a great marine who’s been on a bunch of film sets as well, so he understood how to work with actors and also on set and stuff like that. He did ’Black Hawk Down’ and every major military movie you’ve seen, he’s been on it. I trained with him in the way that they would talk, the way that they’d use their equipment and the whole everything that you could ask. That was a huge help and insight into the character and then everything else."


Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen in "Godzilla"  

Jumping out of a plane?

The air drop, however, was not really performed by Taylor-Johnson, despite his willingness and Edwards’ enthusiasm for putting him in the air. "We jumped out of the plane when it was still on the landing strip. They had some crash mats. It was pretty intense. No, they shot real guys flying out. Gareth would’ve liked to have thrown us all out I think. He said that from the beginning -- that he really wants to have us doing that. We did actually do some stuff where I came in from a crane really high up in the city, 50 feet up and dropped in. But, it’s sort of impossible really because firstly, I don’t think they’ll insure your actor to be jumping out a plane. Secondly, you’d need someone else on your back."

Edwards and Taylor-Johnson do have a standing date for an air drop as soon as Edwards wraps "Godzilla" and Taylor-Johnson fulfills his commitment to "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" where he plays Quicksilver, twin brother of the Scarlet Witch (played by his "Godzilla" co-star Elizabeth Olsen.)

"Gareth, because he said from the beginning we should do it, and obviously you couldn’t. Then right at the end it was my birthday at the end of shoot. His birthday present was for me and him to go sky diving. But we haven’t yet. I’ve still got the two things. We haven’t yet. He wasn’t allowed to because he had to edit the movie, so they said no. Then I was also set to do this next movie and they were also very conscious of me not doing that. I’m intrigued in doing it but the more it’s been put off, the more I think I’m starting to question it a bit more. I was really in the moment, like yeah, ’Let’s do that. It sounds great.’ Now I’m like, ’I don’t know.’ I read something where someone had a bad accident in this, so we’ll see."


Aaron Taylor-Johnson in "Kick-Ass 2"  

Bulking up

Taylor-Johnson already bulked up to play a superhero in the "Kick-Ass" movies, particularly the sequel. You’ll notice an even more physically imposing Aaron Taylor-Johnson in "Godzilla."

"I put on some weight for it and put a bit of size on. It was a very physical role as well so I needed to be in shape. Yeah, I wanted to put on some size for the look and the way I’d stand would be kind of different. That was a part of the character."

He has already impressed some critics with his new physical prowess. Writing in the New York Times, critic A.O. Scott put it this way. Can Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s neck really be thicker than Channing Tatum’s? I know, I couldn’t believe it either. Mr. Taylor-Johnson, who was the pretty-boy Vronsky in ’Anna Karenina’ and the avenging nerd in the ’Kick-Ass’ movies, reports for duty as a muscly military guy whose family business is mixed up with Godzilla’s."

Back in the day Godzilla was an actor performing inside a rubber costume. The new Godzilla is a computer generated visual effect, but Taylor-Johnson was quick to point out that most of the film was completed on location, not in the computer.

"The genre thing is really interesting, a film that people go to because it’s a special effects movie," he said. "My idea of a special effects movie is you’re going to be in a studio filming against green screen all the time. There was maybe a couple days of that, but the majority of the time we’d go film on location. It just gave it such a whole other depth. We’d be in locations with destruction everywhere and people injured and what not. It came to life and felt natural and realistic. The way they’ve been shooting it is very with you on the journey, handheld and from our perspective and point of view. When you do get a glimpse of Godzilla, it’s looking out your car window or from a helicopter from the military, so you really feel as an audience totally involved in it and you’re on this mad roller coaster."


Godzilla in the new film  

Pretty believable

When the actors did have to look up at an empty sky and imagine a giant lizard stomping on buildings, Edwards gave them some other cues to help gauge their reactions.

"Sometimes what he did was really helpful. We’d have a scene where we’re about to see something happen from one of the creatures and Gareth could play something on a microphone -- the sound of Godzilla or something they’d been playing around with in the special effects. That was really great to hear something. You’re envisioning it through your own consciousness and then you’re hearing something through your giant speakers around you, and sometimes you’d do it without you knowing and it’d totally give a whole other layer. It was amazing. One time it was a walrus meets a tiger meets a hippo farting. Something bizarre."

Now that the film is complete, Taylor-Johnson was surprised how close it came to what he imagined before even filming. "I think actually what Gareth said in that first meeting almost two years ago, what he kind of envisioned and also showed me some footage that they filmed a year before that, I think the film’s fantastic and I’m proud of it. I think it’s a brilliant emotional journey in what feels like a natural disaster. It all feels pretty believable to me like it could happen and that’s always great. Everything Gareth said he seems to be able to convey in words what I’ve seen. I’ve had directors say one thing and by the end it’s f***ing nothing like what you were trying to tell me."

"Godzilla" opens May 16.


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