Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Godzilla) is a relatively soft-spoken British actor, so, of course, fashion-designer-turned-director Tom Ford (A Single Man) saw him as the perfect choice to play a Southern redneck psychopath kidnapper in his new movie, Nocturnal Animals, opening Friday.
"It was something out of my comfort zone," Taylor-Johnson said in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, "and that, ultimately, became the reason I wanted to do it."
Animals is a challenging film whose twisty narrative deals with a broken romance in the past and a revenge novel in the present, in which Taylor-Johnson's character resides in Amy Adams' character's head as she reads the novel.
Taylor-Johnson said he had no idea what Ford saw in him and kept asking himself, "Why me for this?
"The character demanded a very charismatic, confident, arrogant, charming, unpredictable guy who had some element of danger to him," Taylor-Johnson said. "You couldn't quite grasp him, because he wasn't quite sane. He's also a fictional character, so there was artistic license, and Tom wanted someone who was very animated. He wanted a young Travis Bickle. He wanted Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
"Those guys are up here," he said, raising his hand above his head. "And you can't impersonate that."
Taylor-Johnson said he needed to ground the character, so he started "watching documentaries on serial killers, historical ones who've been on the road and kidnapped people, like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, characters who can confuse people."
The goal, he said, was "to have some kind of edge and sex appeal, but with no empathy behind the eyes.
"And that was the fun.
"For my character, it was a game of sorts," Taylor-Johnson said. "It wasn't just to kidnap these people. It was to provoke this weak weasel of a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) and to discover that he's not going to do anything. I could take his world from him. I can take his car, his wife, and his daughter.
"It's everyone's worst nightmare as a parent.
The 26-year-old actor - who got his start at age 6 on stage at England's National Theatre and who has two children with his wife, director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) - stressed, "I am a parent. I have kids. And it's always in the back of your mind, 'Can I step up to that mark?' When crisis hits, can you perform the way you are supposed to, honorably? It's something that any parent, but especially men, I think, have a fear of."
As for working with Ford, Taylor-Johnson couldn't say enough positive things. He said he often forgot that Ford was American (he was born in Austin, Texas) because he views America in a very European way - gluttonous, overfed (check out Nocturnal Animals' opening credits).
"He's very Felliniesque in his filmmaking. A little Hitchcock. Very noir. I've seen the film four times," Taylor-Johnson said, "and I feel like a film student studying a Tom Ford movie. It already feels like an old classic.
"When I saw it in Venice, I realized what a love story it was. At [the Toronto festival], I realized how dark and humorous it was."
And then there are the clothes.
"Every premiere we've had, we've been lucky enough to have been wearing Tom Ford. I think it's really nice and lovely that we can all be almost in uniform."
Taylor-Johnson said dressing for the red carpet can be stressful for actors.
"I'm sure in Tom's head, he was like, 'Let me take care of that burden. Don't worry about it, because I got you. And I know you guys so well that I know what looks best. His eye for detail is just out of this world."