Aaron Taylor-Johnson has been acting since he was 6 years old, but he managed to create a bond on the set of Bullet Train that he’s never had before with another actor. In the David Leitch and Brad Pitt-led action-comedy, Taylor-Johnson plays Tangerine, who’s one half of an assassin duo known as The Twins. The other half, Lemon, is played by Brian Tyree Henry, and the two actors quickly developed a rapport that supports their fraternal relationship on screen.
“We just hit it off straight away. [Brian Tyree Henry] is just a beautiful person and a good, good friend. I really care for him,” Taylor-Johnson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So everything that you see in the movie is really just us going way off the page and improvising.”
Taylor-Johnson had previously turned down a role in Leitch’s Deadpool 2, so this time around, he had to fight for the part of Tangerine. “David Leitch actually asked me to be in Deadpool 2 ages ago. So I met him, but I didn’t do that,” Taylor-Johnson recalls. “So when this came around … he was like, ‘Get in line, buddy. There’s like ten other actors who want this job, and they’ve got a bigger name than you do.’”
The busy actor recently wrapped his role as the titular character in J.C. Chandor’s Kraven the Hunter, and he was originally offered the Marvel job after Sony bosses were impressed with his Bullet Train dailies. The film was also shot entirely on location, which Taylor-Johnson celebrates.
“Kraven being shot entirely on location is going to make all the difference. It’s going to add something really beautiful to our personal story,” Taylor-Johnson shares. “It also sets Kraven apart from that Marvel stage look. It’s important for this character to be in the real world. It’s important for the authenticity of the story.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Taylor-Johnson also talks Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and why he went to great lengths to get onto a Nolan set.
So Tangerine and Lemon patter and bicker like brothers often do, and it feels so natural between you and Brian [Tyree Henry]. Is that the product of rehearsal, or is it just good old-fashioned acting on the day?
Everything you see is practically our rehearsals. (Laughs.) It was just instantaneous. It was intuition and just good old improvisation and banter, which is very, very rare. I’ve never had that before with another actor. We really just bounced off one another, and we really truly got in sync. So I was able to be bold, and we just kept pushing each other. Brian Tyree Henry is such a versatile, talented actor, and I was already a huge admirer of his work. But I didn’t know who Tangerine was until he stepped on set as Lemon, and that’s when I knew I’d be in good hands. We just hit it off straight away. He is just a beautiful person and a good, good friend. I really care for him, and so it was all just built on trust. And once we had that trust built in, we were just able to go. And on top of that, David Leitch saw that and nurtured it and gave us our space, which, again, is a rare thing that I’ve never had before. So everything that you see in the movie is really just us going way off the page and improvising and bouncing off one another.
The dialogue is very fast–paced. Did your background in British film and television help you set that tempo?
I don’t really know. These characters really worked by being snappy and finishing each other’s sentences. When you’re on a high-speed moving train with this fast-paced comedy action, you want dialogue that is just quick and sharp and fast and full on. So it was just a conscious decision. I wanted a character who was unpredictable, scrappy, slightly on edge and adrenalized, because that’s what makes him a little bit scary and sinister. It’s how sharp and quick and hotheaded he is. There’s absolutely no filter to my character. So I would just say anything that popped into my head and, and it could be unapologetic and relentless.
You and Brad Pitt have a great fight scene that’s physical yet comedic at the same time. Apparently, you even have a battle scar to show for it.
Yeah, when you sign up for a David Leitch movie, you just want to jump in, and to his credit, he encouraged that. He supported us to be courageous and do it, for the most part. With 87North, we had one of the best, most experienced stunt teams there is, and they pushed boundaries. So you want to get in there and go for it, too. So you’re going to get a few war wounds along the way.
All these characters have their own fighting styles, and I think that’s important. In a lot of action movies, they all fight as if they’ve been trained as martial artists, and you just know that some stunt double is doing everything. And I think that’s really boring, whereas in this movie, all these characters fight very differently and distinctively. That’s when you can create the comedy element because you really know who your character is. Fighting in a confined space also adds to that. So Brad and I would just go, “What if we fight with a packet of crisps and a bottle of sparkling water?” You start to take from the Jackie Chans of the world and the Buster Keatons of the world, and that’s what makes a David Leitch movie.
So is it true that Sony loved your dailies so much on Bullet Train that they approached you about Kraven the Hunter?
That’s what I hear!
That’s pretty cool.
Yeah, I feel very fortunate. It’s one of those magical and rare moments where the stars align from just doing your job the best you can. I was turning up to work and just loving everything. And then someone else further up the totem pole was looking down and noticing the hard work and what I was trying to achieve. So it’s always really lovely when that happens, but it doesn’t happen very often, if at all. In this case, there was stuff coming out of the rushes, and then I got a call, saying, “We’re thinking of you for this thing.” That’s when they put me in touch with J.C. Chandor, the director, and Matt Tolmach, the producer, and we all hit it off. So I’m very blessed that Kraven was the next project, and to be with the same studio, Sony, was really wonderful.
You don’t strike me as an actor who likes to repeat himself, so is it fair to say that Kraven is a whole new ballgame compared to Dave Lizewski (Kick-Ass) and Pietro Maximoff (Quicksilver)?
Absolutely. Like you said, I’m not here to play the same character twice. I, as a person, am naturally changing and evolving. New things inspire me, and you grow as a person. So I can only move forward and play things I haven’t done before. I like a challenge, and I like to step outside of my comfort zone, often. It’s more interesting to go from an indie to a blockbuster or whatever it may be. Some people like to go on holiday to the same place every year, but I like to explore different places. So there’s a lot that really excited me about the character of Kraven. Sometimes, these roles come about, and you have to truly believe in the character. You’re going to be in that skin for a while, and you have to believe in what you’re saying. So there was a lot about Kraven that I really loved, and I’m excited to share it at some point.
I don’t think I’ve heard you talk about it yet, but I would love to hear about your experience as Ives on Tenet. How did the ball get rolling?
Chris Nolan is, of course, a legendary filmmaker. Inception is one of my top favorites that I go back to, along with Memento and his [Dark Knight] series. He’s just a filmmaker I wanted to be in awe of and involved with. I always admire filmmakers like him, or Wes Anderson, who work with the same actors a lot, so when there’s an opportunity to work with someone like Chris Nolan, you just hope to get your foot in the door. He’s always going to have his go-to actors, so you never know if something is going to come around or not.
John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki were already on board, weeks away from shooting, and I was just waiting in the wings and putting my hand up, going, “I would really love to get in a room with Chris Nolan.” And it was quite a process if I’m being honest. I went through a couple of different castings before I could even get in the room to do another audition for him. So it wasn’t a done deal, but the best things are worth fighting for and putting yourself out on a limb. So it didn’t come about that easy, but luckily, he gave me the part. And it didn’t matter to me how big or small the role was. I just wanted to be in his presence on his next movie.
You still got to be in my favorite scene at the end where Ives casually threatens Washington and Pattinson’s characters.
(Laughs.) We shot that in 110 degree heat, out in the middle of the desert, miles outside of Los Angeles. We’d been doing a week’s worth of fighting, and we were at the end of our movie, so it was all pretty exhausting. It was a really tough shoot, but just being able to play on a Nolan movie was quite extraordinary. Chris is brilliant at creating atmosphere around elements that are authentic and real, so you don’t need to do too much. And I remember him just wanting to have this beefy Navy SEAL kind of guy, so he told me to shave my head and grow out my beard and put on some size. So I did those things, and then I spent some time with military guys because I wanted to come to work prepared. You don’t get many takes, maybe one or two, and you move on quickly. I was just blessed to be a part of it, and hopefully, he’ll think of me again for something.
Bullet Train is largely about fate. Do you think we’re in the driver’s seat?
Well, I don’t think it’s autopilot by any means, so I do believe in a bit of fate and luck. I feel fortunate and lucky that we were able to make this movie during a pandemic. I’ve always wanted to work with Brad Pitt. I’ve always wanted to make a movie on a Los Angeles soundstage. This was yet another movie I fought for. This was one of those hot scripts around town, and David Leitch actually asked me to be in Deadpool 2 ages ago. So I met him, but I didn’t do that. So when this came around, I was like, “Hey, do you remember me?” And he was like, “Of course. I like you as an actor.” So I was like, “Cool, what about this character?” And he was like, “Get in line, buddy. There’s like ten other actors who want this job and they’ve got a bigger name than you do.” (Laughs.) So I don’t expect these roles to be handed out, and I’m willing to fight for them, which is what I had to do for this. So I think I’m in the driver’s seat because I’m working hard. But I also try to manifest what I feel, and sometimes, the universe brings it back my way. You still have to actively go out and get it.
It’s interesting how you shot Bullet Train almost entirely on a soundstage, only to then shoot Kraven the Hunter entirely on location.
Kraven being shot entirely on location is going to make all the difference. It’s going to add something really beautiful to our personal story. It also sets Kraven apart from that Marvel stage look. It’s important for this character to be in the real world. It’s important for the authenticity of the story. When you’re running on streets barefoot, you take in those elements and play within that.
Bullet Train is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.