Becoming Johnny Rotten, when John Lydon would rather you didn't

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Becoming Johnny Rotten, when John Lydon would rather you didn't
The actor Anson Boon in New York, May 17, 2022. Boon embodies the punk frontman Johnny Rotten in “Pistol,” a new limited series charting the meteoric rise and fall of Rotten’s band the Sex Pistols. Mark Sommerfeld/The New York Times.

by Douglas Greenwood

LONDON.- Anson Boon gave playing Johnny Rotten everything he had, including a front tooth.

Boon embodies the punk frontman in “Pistol,” a new limited series charting the meteoric rise and fall of Rotten’s band the Sex Pistols, and the tooth was lost re-creating one of Rotten’s “most animated performances,” the 22-year-old actor said. “I slammed my face into the microphone by accident.”

Sitting in a north London park, a mile from where Rotten grew up, Boon reeled off a list of other injuries sustained over six months of filming: He fractured his coccyx when he fell over a drum kit; zealous singing dislocated his jaw; he spent several hours a day hunched over to emulate the musician’s posture, and still has back pain from it today.

This roll call is, in some ways, appropriate. Rotten — who now goes by his real name, John Lydon — was one of the pioneers of London’s 1970s punk movement, known for his “divine insanity,” as John Rockwell wrote in The New York Times in 1977, and for overseeing concerts during which chairs were thrown and noses bloodied.

“Pistol” — which began streaming Tuesday on Hulu in the United States and on Disney+ in other territories — is Boon’s most significant screen role to date, following parts onstage in London and in films like Sam Mendes’ “1917.”

Despite the injuries, he “loved the intensity” of playing the Pistols frontman, Boon said. Besides, “It’s not Rotten to give up. I just had to power through,” he added.

This determination was already clear to Danny Boyle, who directs the series, when he saw Boon’s audition tape. One of the scenes Boon presented was Rotten auditioning for the Pistols by singing Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” into a broken shower head. Boon sang into a toilet brush.

His parents watched the tape and asked him: “‘Are you sure you can send that? You’ve really gone for it,’” he remembered. Boon thought he would either get the part or the casting team would never let Boyle see it.

As it turned out, the director loved it. The tape was “repulsive and magnetic at the same time,” Boyle said.

Boon realized he needed to “transform into Rotten.” But he only knew the Sex Pistols’ most famous songs — “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” — and meeting Lydon wasn’t an option.

The show is based on “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol,” the autobiography of guitarist Steve Jones, who hasn’t spoken to Lydon since 2008. While all the other living members of the band are consultants for “Pistol,” Lydon has disavowed the project from the start. In 2021, the frontman was sued by his former bandmates for refusing to agree to license the band’s music for the show; Lydon lost the case. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

So Boon’s research process was rigorous. He read “Lonely Boy,” as well as “Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story,” a memoir from Jordan Mooney, a friend of the band who is played in the show by Maisie Williams. Boon also created what he called a “Rotten museum” on his laptop, collecting photos, videos and charts of Rotten’s life to keep track of how he changed, Boon said, from a “shy kid” to a famous punk artist.

“You usually have to tell young actors to be diligent and do their research,” Boyle said. “We had to tell Anson when to stop. He became obsessed with him. He knows more about him than I do.”

For three months, Boon and his co-stars also went through a band camp, led by British electronic group Underworld, which scored “Pistol.” The hard work seemed to be paying off by February 2021, when Mooney came to see the actors during rehearsals. At her request they sang Pistols track “Holidays in the Sun.” After they’d finished, Mooney approached Boon: “‘Thank you,’” he remembered her saying. “‘I feel like I’ve just watched the Sex Pistols again.’”

It took a team to get the actors to that point. A dialect coach helped Boon pin down Rotten’s accent and his lisp. A movement instructor helped him emulate Rotten’s posture.

His vocal coach, Anne-Marie Speed, helped raise Boon’s singing voice two octaves to match Rotten’s register, “in the same way you might teach a dancer to do the splits,” Boon said. The process was arduous. Afterward, “I had to have acupuncture in my head because there would be so much pressure buildup,” he said.

Each day on set, Boon would go through an hour and a half of hair and makeup preparation, wearing wigs and brown false teeth, while listening to interviews of Rotten “to get into his voice and his contrarian mentality,” he said.

Boon said he wanted to make sure the world created by Boyle and the show’s screenwriter, Craig Pearce, didn’t feel “like a caricature,” he said. “I had to be surrounded by everything, completely enveloped in it, to make it feel real.”

Toby Wallace, who plays Jones in the series, saw Boon “shifting through these wild and risky choices, and committing to all of them,” he said.

When Kate Winslet played Boon’s mother in the 2019 film “Blackbird,” she recognized a similar dedication. “I have never met a young actor who is as unafraid of throwing themselves in at the deep end like Anson does,” Winslet said.

The sense of responsibility Boon felt playing Rotten was only “amplified” by the fact that Lydon didn’t want to be involved, the actor said. Recently, Lydon has criticized the show on Twitter and in British tabloids, which only “endears him to me even more,” Boon said.

Boyle believes Boon has done Rotten justice. “He’s done his due diligence,” Boyle said. “He believed in himself,” in the same way “John would have.”

For months after filming, Boon would automatically sit pigeon-toed with his friends at the pub, he said. And the show has rubbed off on him in other ways. Through Rotten, “I learned about that punk spirit,” said Boon, who still lives in Peterborough, a medieval city in the east of England.

Does that spirit live on in him still? “I’d certainly like to think so,” Boon said. And just in case, he has that false tooth to remind him.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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