Aaron Johnson talks about pumping up and digging deep for ‘Kick-Ass 2’

BUCKINGHAMSHIRE – My kids love that the movie “Kick-Ass” exists.

They’re not allowed to see the film, and that won’t change for many, many years, but they know it exists, and they positively adore saying the title of the film because it’s one of the few times they won’t get in trouble for using the word “ass.” They find ways to work it into every conversation they can, and they can barely restrain themselves from smiling every single time.

They were thrilled when I got the word I’d be going to visit the set. They got to ask me endless questions about it before I left and even more once I got back, and one of the main ones they loved to ask was, ‘When you went to watch them make ‘Kick-Ass,’ did you get to talk to ‘Kick-Ass’?” Twice in one sentence? Heaven.

The thing of it is, I almost didn’t get to speak to Kick-Ass while I was visiting the set at Pinewood Studios for a few days. There was a sort of ticking clock on everything because they were wrapping up production and trying to get everyone out before Thanksgiving in America. The scene they were shooting takes place right at the end of the film, and it’s one of the big emotional crescendos in the movie, so I was very respectful of the space that both Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Christopher Mintz-Plasse needed to get to that place. One of the tricks of a set visit is finding the right time to pull someone aside to sit down and talk. I chipped away at my list little by little, and of course, the three interviews I felt were most urgent were with Hit-Girl, The Motherfucker, and Kick-Ass himself.

Chloe basically walked right over as soon as she saw me and made sure we got our chat in immediately. Chris and I ended up speaking repeatedly before our formal chat. But with Aaron, that moment seemed to be fairly elusive. Even on the first film, I got the feeling that Aaron is not a huge fan of talking about the work. He’s never anything less than affable, but he does not seem eager to sit down and do something formal. He was also using every break in filming to do some sort of exercise, keeping himself ripped for every new set-up.

It was only on the last night, after filming was complete and most of the crew was already on their way off the lot, that the unit publicist finally managed to put me in a room with Aaron. It was his dressing room, and it looked like he had basically hit it like a tsunami over the course of the shoot. Comic books and clothes everywhere, it was a small, comfortable space, and once we were actually sitting down across from each other, Aaron seemed ready and relaxed.

The first thing I brought up was how impressive it was to see these two guys running this same fight choreography for something like 10 hours on the first day and another 10 on the second day, and at the same exact intensity each time. “It’s very physical,” he said, “and it’s definitely upped its kind of movement from the first one. Especially for me and Chris, I think.”

I told him how highly Jimmy O’Dee, the fight master on the film, had spoken of them the day before. “Jimmy, he’s fantastic. I mean, all the stunt men are. What’s great is that we’ve had our own input. They come up with some pretty choreography but it’s all collaborative because at the end of the day they come in with their movements and it’s all quite choreographed and then you’ve got to come at it from a character’s standpoint. My thing is always that I don’t want to look too good. Like Hit-Girl is fucking sharp and it’s fantastic. Great movements. I don’t want to look like that. I’m not so sharp at things. Most things come from an accident, like if I get punched, I’ll go, ‘Ow!’ like that, and I’m blocking and it ends up poking someone in the eye with a baton. Everything moves to the kind of the mistakes that make it look kind of interesting.”

There’s a great sequence that I’d seen in the preview reel that director Jeff Wadlow showed me the night before where Hit-Girl is trying to teach Dave to fight no matter what he’s wearing or how he’s armed. She makes him dress up in the silliest pimp outfit you’ve ever seen and march down a city street in the worst part of town, eventually walking into an alley and intentionally picking up a gang of thugs in his wake. When the fight starts, Dave looks like he’s handling himself pretty well, but pretty quickly, the reality of five guys versus one kicks in, and they start to kick the holy hell out of him. In the fight with Chris at the end of the film, there were lots of rough edges to things, moments where it felt like neither one of them was fully in control.

“Yeah, last night I was trying to work out, ’cause that’s what we do,” Aaron explained. “We have time where we can train with the stunt guys and choreograph and say ‘This is what we’re thinking about for this fight and this fight,’ but then it’s a couple months later ’cause we’re shooting and we go to pick it up on the days and it’s, ‘Okay, this kind of changes a little bit ’cause the environment’s now this but most of it is still there, so it’s this, this, and this.’ And you’re like, ‘Okay, well, let’s see how that works.  Does that feel a bit too much like that other scene? Everything’s got to look like it’s naturalistic. So, yeah, it’s feeling pretty good and Chris upped his… not upped his game, ’cause he’s always been great, but like he’s playing a whole lot of character we’ve never seen before, which I think is fantastic. I think he’s really created that and grown into that person that’s just going to up it more. Like you were saying before, Jeff Wadlow’s written a fantastic screenplay because each character has their really dynamic journey through this movie, you know? All three of ’em have to go their separate ways, and then they all kind of come together as one at the end.”

As Hollywood becomes more and more driven by franchises, it feels like every chapter in these movie series is all about keeping things the same. It’s about checking in on characters and it feels like you have to be very careful to keep the cash rolling in. This film doesn’t do that. At the start of the film, there are moments that definitely feel familiar, but the longer you spend with the characters, you start to see some fairly major changes. Mindy is not a little girl now, and that means that her relationships with people are changing. I thought there was a hilarious dynamic between them in the first film, with Hit-Girl being much younger but infinitely more powerful and experienced than Dave. Now, as Mindy is forced to live her life as Mindy without the constant supervision of her father, it changes things for her and for Dave both. Towards the end of the film, Dave has also gone through several major changes, some that are his doing, some that are done to him, and some of the giddy excitement of the first film is gone for good.

“It definitely opens things up to a possibility of the third going into something a lot more heavy. Chris is a fucking nightmare in this.” I mentioned a bit of costuming I saw earlier in the day, something that someone has in what may be the final shot of the film, and he smiled. “Yeah, yeah, that’s interesting. I haven”t had time to digest that, yet. It’s going to…” He considered his answer carefully, shook his head before he went on. “It’s like in the first one, where we end up on Chris with that new mask. That’s not what we see in the film exactly, but it’s good. It’s a strong ending. We’re actually reshooting this one. So I’m not sure about what you saw today. Or… no. I’ll just say it’s great. I feel like we really did the things we’ve been sort of anticipating for the last four years.”

I mentioned some of the other things Aaron’s done in the time since “Kick-Ass,” like “Savages” or “Anna Karenina.” Both of those are adaptations, of course, but in a more traditional sense than with the “Kick-Ass” films. I remember being on set for the first film, and the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. comic wasn’t done yet. It wasn’t just that the last issues weren’t in the stores… they weren’t done. They weren’t finished writing and publishing the books. Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman loved that material so much that as soon as they could, they got started, and so they were sort of running alongside the comic. There are ideas that have flowed back and forth from the comic to the film to the comic again, and so the actors are tangled up in there, too. They are in the DNA of these characters. There’s a personal investment.

“Definitely. Honestly, I was pretty overwhelmed to step back into this realm. I didn’t really know how to take it as I’ve never done a sequel before. I wanted to make sure…” He stopped, thought about what he was saying. Finally continued. “The real challenge was to make that character actually show some development, you know? Really change. Overcome something, become a man… that is what we have in this one. He ends up taking the weight of the world on his shoulders and taking that responsibility to consequences. It does feel good to have our own sort of more interesting superhero movie on the sidelines with all the big ones around.”

As I’ve written in my earlier interviews with Chloe and Chris, the entire cast has grown between films, and I asked how important it was for them to be there, to make sure that all of you could agree, “Yes, this is what I think ‘Kick-Ass’ is.” Especially since Matthew and Jane aren’t hands-on this time.

“I think Chloe is obviously physically grown and changed quite a lot. I think she works just as hard as she did before. It’s that same professionalism that she has. She’s always been that dedicated and passionate about what she does. I think there’s a huge maturity in Chloe, but there always was. I think that’s what happens when you grow up on an environment around adults and you get to have your own opinions and things. She worked very hard and she understands that. She’s smart, and I think she is a lot more aware of interviews and stuff like that. She’s more comfortable within it. She knows what she should say and what she shouldn’t say.”

“I actually try to be more conscious of what I do ’cause I think I”m a bit too open, sometimes, really,” he continued. “I think we all try and push harder and do our best. “It’s kind of funny really ’cause I haven’t filmed much with Chris, until now and a couple of earlier times. On the last one we were pretty much in every day. It’s funny ’cause I’ve got my own sort of clique, really. I’ve got Justice Forever, with Don Faison and Clark Duke and Jim Carrey.”

I told him how I reacted to the Jim Carrey footage the night before, as well as the glimpse we have of Chloe in high school, looking like she’s got to deal with the psuedo-Heathers running things. “These three that were so intimately close at one point have all sort of split off, but then they come together again,and we’re kind of each evolving into our own personalities, our own worlds really. It’s an interesting scope to be able to get all of that in, and to also introduce interesting characters like Mother Russia and Colonel Stars and Stripes. I remember reading some stuff on the Justice Forever scenes, thinking, “Fuck, how are we going to make that play? Because it felt like we were trying to get quite a lot of information out.” 

He said it became a real balancing act as they were shooting. “I guess it’s probably like what ‘The Avengers’ had to tackle at one point. How do we give each person their moment and their time?”

They’ve managed to time their films out as sort of perfectly placed landmines in the middle of the traffic jam of other superhero movies that are crowding the theaters. When they released “Kick-Ass,” everything was in origin story mode, and so was that. Now, we’re seeing big sequels to all sorts of these movies, and so here’s what a “Kick-Ass” sequel’s going to do to the formula.

“You can enjoy it and have a laugh with it, and I think we’re creating a really interesting color. ‘Kick-Ass’ had something that was new, original, quite shocking in certain regards, and we pushed the barrier. We made a fucking R-rated superhero movie.” He says that even as this new film pushes certain boundaries further, it also has been, well… fun. In particular, he said that working with Jim Carrey was unlike anything else he’s done. “The guy is a fantastic force of energy. I think he just gets your spirits lifted and you’re in a whole other zone. It’s such a different pace of working. He doesn’t miss a beat, man. He doesn’t miss a beat at all. He’s constantly cracking jokes throughout. The moment you’ve cut or just before we’re about to go, he’ll crack a fucking joke so all of us are pissing ourselves while he’s about to get serious. He was great. It was really nice just to have that for a short period of time. I think that’s when you get best of someone like that. You can have a moment that was quite special. I think he was fucking brilliant and wonderful and sweet. On his last day, he threw a massive boat party. I think he fucking really loves it and enjoys what he does.”

Johnson said Carrey wasn’t the only person who reached out after the first film, letting the producers know that they’d be up for something. I asked him how he and the rest of the returning cast have been adjusting to Jeff Wadlow as the director instead of Matthew Vaughn. “We just dug in. I think mine is the only character that hasn’t… I don’t think Jeff didn’t want my character to develop. You’ve got Chris who’s gone fucking psycho Nazi revenge mad, so he’s The Motherfucker. Hit-Girl’s grown up and trying to make a cheerleading squad at her high school, and she’s starting to think about boys and things like that. I’m just the same ‘ol fucking Dave. It starts with that feeling of, ‘This guy has not moved on.’ Like he says at the beginning, “I haven’t a fucking clue what I’m going to do in my life. My best mate’s doing this and this and everyone’s doing that, and I’m just still trying to work out.”

He continued, “I quite like the fact that half of my clothes and stuff, I’ve got the same shoes out, even some of the same boxers and pants and t-shirts from the first one, which was four years ago and they still had it all in storage. The watch. I’m wearing exactly the same clothes, the same glasses. When I put all that on, and the curly hair and spots and stuff like that… it makes you feel like you’re that character again.  I find that interesting. Like you said, ‘I’ve done a couple films, you know, between these, and everything I do, I always try and make sure it’s different and interesting for me to keep doing new things.

As we wrapped up, we talked about our families a bit, and honestly… out of the entire time I was around him during those two days, the most animated and excited I’ve seen him was when he was talking about his wife and his kids. It sounds like he has a busy, happy home these days, and seeing how important family is to him only underlines those great relationships he has with the cast of these films. I think that connection is one of the reasons they all worked so hard this time around to try to do something special for the sequel.

We’ll see how it all comes together when “Kick-Ass 2” arrives in theaters August 16th, 2013.