Best known for his roles in comic-book hits “Kick-Ass” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Aaron Taylor-Johnson delivers a strikingly transformative performance in Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals.” His character, East Texas psychopath Ray, targets family man Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) one dark and tragic night and changes both of their lives forever. It’s a despicable role, and Taylor-Johnson makes an indelible impression in the part. As he tells Variety, it’s the end result of intensely focused preparation and a grueling, but fulfilling, shoot.
AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON: “I got a call saying Tom was interested in me and I was extremely flattered. And also slightly perplexed why he thought of me for this role, considering [Ray’s] a psychopath. I was very grateful for the opportunity — [the role is] very complex, very different and a real challenge.
“I was a little hesitant, to be honest; the aura of darkness surrounding this character was going to be intense. I was a little worried, with a family, how I would go about doing my job and put that much focus and time and preparation into it? But I guess the opportunity was too good to pass up, especially with someone like Tom, who I had many discussions with. He was very open about his vision for the film and the role and the character. Ultimately, I fell in love with his presence and what he had to say.
“We had the luxury of having three months prior to making this movie. These things take time — you’re Play-Doh to begin with and you’re molding yourself together. It’s always quite scary when you dive into a job and think, ‘I don’t know this person.’ You’ve got three months to discover him.
“Tom said, ‘Grow your hair out, grow your beard out, and I really want you to grow your fingernails out.’ I said, ‘Don’t cut them?’ He said, ‘Yeah, for three months, just to see what we get.’ I thought, ‘This is gonna be bloody disgusting.’
“I started to research and study serial killers and psychopaths. I dropped weight, about 20 pounds. I wanted to pick up dirty habits — smoking and drinking. I wanted to feel toxic on the inside out. I wanted to start seeing it on my skin. I had this pale, milky, sweaty sort of skin. I started to inhabit what that character would wear, how he’d walk, how he’d smell. The sort of things I was soaking in were not very pleasant. I wasn’t very approachable in that time.
“My character [needed to] pop on the screen. [Tom] wanted him to be quite overbearing. [Because he’s a character in a fictional book] we have creative license to be a bit more free. We can blur the lines a little and be a bit bigger and bolder than reality. But it still needs to be menacing and feel threatening and be unpredictable, all those things.
“As an actor you’re always a little bit worried, ‘Is it going to be too much? Am I playing it too big?’ But ultimately Tom is so particular and so precise and has such a great eye for detail. The way he expresses it is very eloquent and articulate. It doesn’t come across as condescending or patronizing; you feel very secure in his hands. I felt like I wanted to turn up and never let him down, and give him a variety to play with in the edit.
“Psychologically it got quite abusive; it took a toll on our minds and our bodies. [The roadside confrontation] scene was three nights in a row where we literally pushed each other to the brink of madness. That was my job, to manipulate and provoke Jake to get a reaction.
“Each take was completely different and each take we shot until the film ran out and we had big rolls. One take probably went on for about 13 minutes. The choreography and geography of that scene — trying to match so the editor could have fun cutting it together — wasn’t easy.
“Tom gave everyone patience and time and allowed everyone their process because everyone’s different. We got lost in ourselves — that was the beauty of making this movie. We were having an out-of-body experience.
“The day of wrap I smoked my last cigarette and put that out, whatever was left in the pack got thrown away. I quit drinking for three months straight before I could have a regular drink. I went on an extreme detox for my mind, body, and soul. It took a good three months to shed that aura. I’m a very blessed man with very supportive loving wife and kids. My wife was very pleased when the movie was over.
“When I saw the movie for the first time, that scene, some of the things that came out of my mouth and some of the things I was doing, I can’t even for the life of me remember. I was shocked to see what looked like me up on the screen doing things I never thought I would’ve done. That was quite disturbing but also quite remarkable.
“Tom really took us to a place where all we were doing was acting instinctively and he was there to capture and document it. It was the most challenging scene I’ve done in a long time but also the most rewarding in a way.”