Aaron Taylor-Johnson knew he wanted to play James Frey in the film version of his autobiographical, bestselling “A Million Little Pieces.” He didn’t know it would take 10 years.
“Nowhere Boy” in 2009 was Taylor-Johnson’s breakthrough, playing a teenaged John Lennon with the artist Sam Taylor-Johnson in her feature writing-directing debut.
The two fell in love making that film, married in 2012 and have two daughters.
When “Nowhere Boy” ended, Aaron, now 29, remembers Sam saying, “This book is what we should do next and you should play James.”
It took years before they got the rights, then the couple jointly scripted their searing look at an addict’s 12-step rehabilitation program. The cast includes Charlie Hunnam, Billy Bob Thornton and Juliette Lewis.
“There were budget and script issues but it never stopped us. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved,” he said.
Aaron is known for immersing himself in a role, which is tough when it’s a homicidal sociopath like his Golden Globe-winning Ray in “Nocturnal Creatures” two years ago.
He spent months with James Frey, even going on a road trip back to the Midwest treatment center celebrated in the book.
“That visit, 20 years later, was extremely emotional and an intense bonding experience. We shared a lot that day. It was hard for James, 26 years sober, to step through those doors and relive those moments.”
For Aaron as well, it’s a deeply personal story. “I know people around me who have experienced and are still struggling with addiction and celebrating sobriety,” he said. “And some who are not with me anymore, that we lost sadly through addiction. It was a personal connection to all of that.”
He knows film adaptations require a different vision. “There was a decision that I would bring a physicality that James doesn’t have. The book is in first person. He’s beautifully articulate. That’s why I think it was such a bestseller. His power, his strength, is writing.
“Mine was bringing that to life in a physicality and Sam in a creative artistic abstract way.”
That meant a truly dramatic opening in which a manically high as a kite Frey is jumping, stripping, dancing. As he sits, he falls backwards out a window and wakes in the emergency room.
We meet him, Aaron said, “when he was completely exposed, stripped naked. How best to play this young man for today’s audience? To capture the depths of despair and set off on the road to recovery?
“For Sam and me it was: The book is the book and this is the movie.”
(“A Million Little Pieces” opens Friday.)
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