'It was a pretty dark atmosphere,' the actor tells EW of working on the film. 'This isn't a nice guy that I'm portraying.'
Aaron Taylor-Johnson Nocturnal Animals screenshot

While preparing Nocturnal Animals, his second film as a director, Tom Ford was having dinner one night with the photographer and filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson and her husband, Aaron. “I’ve known Sam for years and she’s a dear friend of mine,” Ford tells EW. “And on this particular night when we were having dinner, Aaron was telling a story and I can’t even remember what it was about because I was looking at him and thinking.”

Ford rubs his chin to recreate his deep contemplation from that evening. “Some little thing,” he says. “It was a glimmer. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, he would be so perfect as the villain.”

Nocturnal Animals is about an art gallery owner (Amy Adams) who reads a novel that’s written by her ex-husband. In the book, which becomes it’s own interior narrative in the movie, an innocent man (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his family are terrorized by dangerous thugs on a Texas highway. Taylor-Johnson plays Ray, the leader of that gang. In the clip above, you can see Ray in action during the movie’s most intense scenes — indeed, one of the year’s most intense.

“Whatever I was talking about with Tom at dinner that night,” Taylor-Johnson says with a smile, “I don’t know how he connected that to ‘psychopath,’ but I’m pretty happy he did.”

Though sporting a long beard and the shoulders of a quarterback, Taylor-Johnson is warm, soft-spoken, even a bit shy, in person. His feathery British accent might come as a surprise to audiences that have believed — because of his facility with American accents — that he’s from the States.

His breakout performance was as the teenage John Lennon in Nowhere Boy (2009), but Taylor-Johnson is the veteran of more than 20 movies including hero and superhero characters in Kick-Ass, Godzilla, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. His role as the sleazy/seductive Ray Marcus in Nocturnal Animals, the actor admits, is the darkest part he’s ever taken on.

“This really was an opportunity to explore something very different,” says the actor, 26. “I was grateful for the challenge, even if it was a bit relentless and a pretty dark atmosphere. This isn’t a nice guy that I’m portraying.”

Ford, who gained worldwide fame as the creative director of Gucci and now his own billion-dollar self-named brand, worked with Taylor-Johnson on his characters personal style. “Ray is wearing green cowboy boots,” Taylor-Johnson says, “and that was an odd choice, but Tom liked the idea. It said a lot about Ray’s ego and his arrogance. Those were his Friday night going-out boots. And this night he’s looking for trouble.”

Three months prior to shooting, Ford asked Taylor-Johnson to lose weight (for a sleeker, less bulked look) and to refrain from cutting his hair or beard — or fingernails. You can see the creepy result of that last detail above, including maybe most disturbing detail in all of Nocturnal Animals. “We were studying the character and looking at people like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer and others, and one of the things they did was keep souvenirs, something minimal like a hair clip.”

So Taylor-Johnson wears one such souvenir on his finger. “I was wearing a little plastic pinky ring,” he says. “It was a plastic, girly heart ring, like something you’d find in a magazine. It was interesting and specific and begged the question of its origin. Where did this piece of jewelry came from? It wasn’t anything sentimental. In fact, it was the opposite.”

Check out Taylor-Johnson’s slippery performance in the clip above. There is much more of him — including a scene involving an outdoor toilet that we won’t even talk about here — in Nocturnal Animals, which is playing in theaters now.

Nocturnal Animals
  • Movie
  • 116 minutes