‘It felt like we had everything against us’ – Aaron Taylor Johnson on adapting James Frey’s controversial memoir with wife Sam

Since breaking through in 2011 with an astonishingly raw and emotional portrayal of a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, Aaron Taylor-Johnson has carved out an interesting niche for himself as a versatile character actor. He’s certainly handsome enough to go the movie idol route, but instead has picked roles that offer something different, and a chance to show his range.

He was a jokey superhero in the Kick-Ass films, a real one in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but is more likely to be found playing loners and outcasts, like the sadistic gang leader in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, or the arrogant Count Vronsky in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, or the Californian slacker who gets mixed up with a drug cartel in Oliver Stone’s Savages. He likes to push himself, and his latest role is possibly his most demanding yet.

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In A Million Little Pieces, which opens here next Friday, Taylor-Johnson plays James Frey, author of the book on which the film is based, and charts his treatment for a serious crack addiction. Frey arrives at the treatment centre kicking and screaming, and spends many weeks arrogantly denying that he has any kind of a problem. But as he watches those around him try and sometimes fail to cope with the tough journey towards sobriety, Frey begins to realise that he’ll have to destroy his old self if he’s to stand any chance of surviving.

The film has been met with a mixed and sometimes hostile critical reception in the US, thanks in part to an old controversy about its source, but I think A Million Little Pieces has real emotional power, and Taylor-Johnson is electrifying in the lead role. His constant, restless movement catches the addict’s inability to be still.

He’s not just starring in the film, which his wife Sam Taylor-Johnson directed, he’s also co-written it and co-produced. “It was great, but hard,” he tells me, “not just the different jobs but the fact that we had budget constraints, and had to shoot it in 20 days.”

A treatment of Frey’s confessional memoir had been knocking around in Hollywood for 15 years or so, and was almost made several times.

“Sam had loved the book when it came out,” he says, “and had always spoken about how she’d wanted to make a film of it. And as the idea went from one film-maker to another, she kept on saying ‘oh God – why don’t they give it to me, I want to make it!’ And then the rights reverted back to James.

“So I got him on the phone, and he said to Sam, ‘so you want to make the movie then’, and she said yeah. He said, ‘well, ok, you can have the rights, go and make art – just promise me you’ll make it’. So we kind of had this thing where like, we’re going to be the ones to get it off the ground. We didn’t have a studio behind us, it was all independently funded, and that was the only way it was going to be possible to make this movie, but you know it felt like we had everything against us, partly because of the controversy.”

That controversy erupted in 2006, when it emerged that Frey had fabricated certain parts of A Million Little Pieces, despite the fact that it was marketed as a memoir. No record could be found of Frey’s supposed arrest, or of a patient suicide movingly described in the book; he was taken to task on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the book was reclassified as semi-fictional. But it remained a huge seller, and many former addicts have found its story helpful.

“For me,” Taylor-Johnson says, “I just see it as a story, and a beautiful one. I was aware of all that of course, but it just didn’t really factor in, and our decision was to make the story of the book rather than the story about controversy.

“The fact is he was a crack addict, and now he’s 26 years sober. I went to the treatment centre he attended, and I spent time with his family and friends. To me it didn’t really matter about going around fact-checking and saying this is real, this isn’t; the story is about this guy who goes into rehab and finds redemption, finds hope, that’s really the story in a nutshell.”

As Taylor-Johnson prepared for the film, Frey was a big help. “James was very accessible always, and if I didn’t understand anything I’d just text him and he’d send me photos and information. I actually spent some time with him, we did a little road trip and went to the treatment centre: it was the first time he’d been back since he left. It was a really emotional journey, which was great for me to see as an actor.”

Taylor-Johnson and his wife originally intended to hire a screenwriter, but when none of the ones they wanted were available, they decided to write it themselves. “We couldn’t wait nine months or whatever, you know, because we had a two-year gap in which to make it. Sam’s a film-maker, so we said we’ll put it down on paper, and it kind of went from there.”

Aaron and Sam Taylor-Johnson have been married since 2012. They met on the set of Nowhere Boy, and hit the tabloid front pages when it emerged that the 42-year-old director and her then 18-year-old star had begun dating. For the media it was a baffling inversion of the usual Hollywood cliches, and nobody knew quite what to say, but their relationship has stood the test of time: they now have two children together, as well as two from Sam’s previous marriage, and Aaron only makes one film a year to ensure he’s at home a lot.

Though only 29, he’s been acting for more than two decades.

“Yeah, I started when I was six. I just remember there being this drama workshop, and I got sent up with a whole bunch of other kids in a coach to London to a theatre where a director gave us little things to do, and then everyone was being eliminated one by one, and by the end I was one of the last kids standing, and they went, ‘great you’ve got the job’. I didn’t even know what it meant, but it meant I got to go back every night to do the show, and that was Stephen Daltry for An Inspector Calls, so that was my first job.

“For me it was an instant joy, it was this thing that I just loved, I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t see anyone in the audience, it was just black out there, but I was able to be on the stage and do this thing that was riveting, and it was different. I would go back to school the next day and I’d have this other life. And then when I got older I was lucky enough to keep doing odd jobs in the theatre, and I did some commercials and stuff, and it just continued from there luckily…”

Nowhere Boy was a hugely important film for him in so many ways: does he ever re-watch it?

“I tend not to watch anything I’m in,” he says, “but I actually think Nowhere Boy is a very special film, for many reasons obviously. Of all the films I’ve done, it’s the one that I most fundamentally like. But other than that, I find it hard looking back at things. With certain things I watch and I think, ‘what the f**k was I doing? I should have done something different!’ There’s a few films like that.”

Having been so involved with the making of A Million Little Pieces makes its release feel different. “With this film, I feel a lot more vulnerable in a way because you feel a lot more time has gone into it: it took us 18 months to write it, then we shot it, then we edited it and now it’s out – it’s quite a bizarre feeling really. It takes that much time and then someone could chew it up in a matter of minutes in a review.”

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