Between lingering kisses and adoring sidelong glances, artist turned filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson and her dashing actor husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, open up to friend James Frey (whose book A Million Little Pieces they have adapted for the big screen) about the coup de foudre they experienced when they first met—and how they keep that spark burning bright more than a decade later.
She was a world-renowned artist, her work hanging in museums around the world, selling for outrageous sums in galleries and at auction, the mother of two young daughters living in London and spending weekends in France or the English countryside. She had also survived cancer twice. She was healthy, brilliant, beautiful, and successful beyond her wildest dreams. She was about to direct her first feature film. Her life was full. Or so she thought.
“I wasn’t expecting anything that day. Just to see a bunch of actors pretending to be John Lennon.” He was an actor, working since he was six. He’d been onstage, in films, on television, successful enough to get by, but the breakthrough hadn’t come. He’d been preparing for this audition for six weeks. If he got the role, it would change his life.
“I remember it very, very clearly. I know exactly what she was wearing. This white shirt that she still has, that I love. It definitely changed my life, though not in the way I expected.”
“We were very professional through the entire film.”
“No funny business at all.”
“But everyone on set knew. And as soon as we finished, he told me he was going to marry me. We had never been on a date, or even kissed.”
“And a year to the minute after we met, exactly one year to the minute, I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me.”
“In the 10 years we’ve been together, we’ve only been apart for maybe two or three days.” “And those were the worst days of those 10 years.”
Sam Taylor-Johnson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson both laugh, share a lingering kiss. They’re in the courtyard of their lush, art-filled home, a sprawling Spanish-style villa at the foot of a canyon in the Hollywood Hills, hidden behind a 12-foot wall at the end of a dead-end street. They have one of Hollywood’s great love stories, one that rivals those of Bogie and Bacall, Taylor and Burton, Steve McQueen and Ali.
MacGraw, but one that is somehow more beautiful because it hasn’t been played out in the public eye. They met in 2008 during the casting for Nowhere Boy, the critically acclaimed John Lennon biopic that Sam directed and Aaron starred in as the teenage Lennon. They now share four daughters and live between L.A. and wherever one of them might be shooting a film. “We live behind walls,” Aaron says. “Literally, figuratively, and deliberately. You’ll never see our children or any of our most personal moments on social media or in the press. We have our professional lives and our life together, and we keep them apart.” Except when those things intersect, as they did when they met, and in 2018, when they made my book A Million Little Pieces into a film. “We always wanted to replicate that experience, to do something that had that type of intensity, to make another film together,” Sam says, taking Aaron’s hand.
Aaron smiles at her. It’s a true smile—a big smile. One filled with love and respect and admiration. “We had a few opportunities. But nothing felt right. Or something bigger would come along. For Sam, Fifty Shades [of Grey], or Nocturnal Animals for me. But it was always there. What are we going to do together?”
Sam had read A Million Little Pieces in 2003, when it was first released. And she had tracked the various attempts to film it over the years. “I had just moved to CAA. And my agent, good old John Garvey, called me and asked if I had ever read it. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what I want to do. Why, what do you know?’ And he said, ‘The rights have just been reverted back to the author, and I thought it might be up your alley.’ I laughed and said, ‘I have the author’s e-mail here. Just give me a second, I’m going to call you back.’ Twenty minutes later, we were on the phone, and you gave me the rights. And Aaron and I had our project.”
Though neither were writers, they decided to write the screenplay together. As they speak about their process, they don’t look at me but at each other, clearly enamored. “We had a studio opposite David Hockney’s place where I was making art, and it became our writing office,” says Sam, to which Aaron immediately responds, “We had cards everywhere, and we were structurally trying to lay out the story.” To which Sam, smiling widely, says, “Aaron would be sitting at his desk, and he could work for 10, 12, 14 hours straight.” Says Aaron, “Sam was like a caged tiger, pacing and throwing out idea after idea.”
Once they had a script, they found financiers, cast the film with Aaron playing the lead alongside Billy Bob Thornton, Charlie Hunnam, Juliette Lewis, Giovanni Ribisi, and Odessa Young, and started shooting at a college campus in Pomona, about an hour east of L.A. “Initially, the hardest thing was that it was the first time both Mommy and Daddy were working at the same time,” Sam says. And with a tight schedule of 20 days, they worked long hours with both cast and crew doing the film at cut rates. “The actors and crew were saying, ‘One for the soul, we’ll do the next one for the money, this one for the soul.’ That felt like the spirit of it.”
And with the film being released this past August in the U.K. and coming to theaters in the U.S. in December, I ask them if they want to do it again. Both of them laugh, glance at each other, still holding hands. Aaron smiles. “You want to do it again, right?” She says, “It was the best thing we’ve ever done.” Aaron nods. “Even better because we did it together.” She agrees. “The best.” I ask where they see themselves in 20 years. They each look to the other to respond, then Aaron turns back to me. “A remote island somewhere.” Sam nods. “Maybe the Hebrides?”
Aaron looks back at her. “Realistically, hopefully still doing this, but only like we did on this one, with each other.”
Sam looks at him for a long moment, taking him in. “I love you.”
He leans in, kisses her. “I love you too.”
They keep kissing. Doesn’t matter that I’m there, that anyone would be there. They keep kissing. Love.
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Aaron Taylor-Johnson, 29, and Sam Taylor-Johnson, 52, were never bothered by their 23-year age gap.
“I knew instantly with Sam that I’d found my soulmate,” Aaron recently told The Telegraph of meeting Sam on the set of the 2008 film “Nowhere Boy.” “I knew instantly that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this person. I remember it very well, and a year to the day [after] I met her I proposed. I knew I wanted a family with her, I knew I wanted kids, and a month later she was pregnant with our first child.”
Aaron suspects that their age difference never bothered him because his acting career thrust him into adulthood at an early age.
“I worked in an adult environment from an early age; I had open, direct conversations with directors, producers, actors, where my opinions would be valued and matter,” he said. “I grew up pretty quickly — I left school at 15. I had a totally different upbringing from my kids.”
He continued, “When I met Sam I’d already lived a life far beyond that of most of my contemporaries — I didn’t relate to anyone my age. I just feel that we’re on the same wavelength.”
And while some seem to disapprove of their unconventional relationship, Aaron and Sam choose to ignore their critics.
“All that is my personal life, it’s sacred to me and it’s beautiful. But there is a lot of negativity around from other people,” Aaron said. “That’s their problem and their issues and however they perceive life. I live my life to its fullest and I operate from my instincts and from my heart, and I try to be as open as possible.”
Sam agrees with her husband, who she refers to as an old soul.
“I can’t dwell on what other people think or say,” Sam told the newspaper. “With Aaron it just literally felt like we were so connected, straight away. I didn’t know what it was then — we were connected when we were working and it was professional, and that connection grew more powerful as time went on and never diminished.”
She added, “And it’s the same today as it was then.”
Aaron and Sam share two daughters, 9-year-old Wylda Rae and 7-year-old Romy Hero. Sam also has two daughters, Angelica, 22, and Jessie, 13, with her ex-husband Jay Jopling. Together, Aaron and Sam live with all four children in their Hollywood Hills home.
“I’m so lucky to have such a supportive husband,” Sam said. “When he works, I don’t, and vice versa.”
Aaron added, “I really enjoy it. There’s nothing more empowering than supporting my wife in her passions and ambitions; I’ve never felt more — what’s the opposite of emasculated? Empowered.”
Christopher Nolan remains one of the few film directors around today who can command a huge budget while also keeping his projects hidden away from the outside world. With his next movie Tenet, the filmmaker is being extra secretive. Case in point: a trailer for the action thriller has been revealed to the public – but has only been seen by those film fans who saw Hobbs & Shaw in cinemas. No online release.
Even the actors who are set to appear in Tenet are barely allowed to discuss the movie. While speaking to our sister publication Total Film, Aaron Taylor Johnson, who was promoting his new movie A Million Little Pieces, was only able to touch on the Nolan film, barely giving anything away.
“I can’t really talk about it – it’s definitely zipped shut,” he said. “But [Nolan]’s extraordinary. It’s great to see him in his process. He’s a genius. It’s a really great experience and I’m super-grateful to be a part of the cast. John David Washington is just going to be exceptional. He’s phenomenal. I’m excited for people to see it.
“I can’t really say anything else about the project, but I feel very lucky to be in a Nolan film because I love every film he’s made. And that’s all I want to do as an actor. I’m not really pushing for anything more than that. I want to observe. I want to experience. I want to be in the world of great filmmakers, and you don’t have any regrets that way. You can be in a small role. Or a big role. Whatever. It doesn’t really matter. As long as you’re grafting and learning, and I’ve got so much more to learn.”
While that may not have been the most revealing answer ever, Nolan fans will surely be even more desperate to find out more about the tantalising Tenet.
Also in this month’s Total Film magazine, Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips speak at length about Joker, with Phillips also touching on how the movie has been influences by The Hangover trilogy and whether there could be a sequel. The new issue reaches store shelves on August 23.
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