Playing Johnny Rotten Taught Anson Boon to Never Hold Back

The Pistol star will do whatever it takes to embody his characters—even if it means losing a tooth.

Photographs by Lea Winkler
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Anson Boon as James Crockett from ‘Miami Vice.’ Boon wears Ralph Lauren suit.
Anson Boon as James “Sonny” Crockett from ‘Miami Vice.’ Boon wears Ralph Lauren suit.

For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

Back in the Sex Pistols’ heyday, Johnny Rotten didn’t do anything halfway. So when it came time to portray the punk rocker in FX’s Pistol, Anson Boon made up his mind to do the same. On-set injuries were a constant from day one, and by the time the series wrapped, the 22-year-old was so successful in transforming himself into Rotten (né John Lydon) that fans of the show have had trouble recognizing him in real life, even when he’s out with his costars. For Boon, being mistaken for “just a friend” of, say, Louis Partridge, the actor who played Sid Vicious, has been wholly fulfilling: It’s confirmation that he really did give the role his all.

At home in Peterborough, England, Boon also flies under the radar. The city only just broke its three-year streak of being voted “the worst place to live in England,” and yet he has never considered leaving it behind. “I always say that sometimes I feel a little bit like Hannah Montana,” he says from his parents’ house, located two hours north of London. “I’ll go to work and do cool things in London or L.A. or something, and then I get home and it's just like I'm the same kid who went to school here.” Given the amount of praise he’s gotten for his performance in Pistol, though, that might not be the case for very long. Here, Boon reflects on his dedication to embodying Rotten, and makes the case for the Sex Pistols being the musical equivalent of Miami Vice.

You really went all out for Pistol—to the point where once, while swinging a microphone, you lost a front tooth.

There were a lot of injuries going on. For me, the most special part of the show is how every gig you see, we performed it live. There's no miming, no recording, no editing; what you hear when you watch is what you see us playing. We had this three-month band camp to prepare us. Danny [Boyle, the director of the series and of films such as Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting] said to us, “I want this to be real. Because to me, the Sex Pistols were the most real thing to happen in music in the ’70s.” He used to tell me about how you had these frontmen who were so incredible and awe-inspiring to watch, but they always stood at the microphone. They were away from the audience, like superstars. And when people who were there talk about John Lydon, they describe him as the anti-star. He was almost part of the audience. Doesn't matter whether they spat at him, doesn't matter whether they threw things at him, doesn't matter whether they tried to drag him in: He never retreated, almost like he was challenging them. And with that comes a lot of physicality and intense movement. I was strangled many times by people in the front row. I don't know if I would've liked it as Anson, but as Johnny Rotten, it felt incredible to be part of something so real and so visceral.

Had you ever sung or played music before this role?

No, never. I went into it so naive, thinking, Oh, it’s okay that I can’t sing because Johnny Rotten can’t sing either. And boy, was I wrong. He’s just unconventional, but he’s so good at what he does. And he never quite discovered the art of standing still. On our first day of shooting, we were re-creating one of the Sex Pistols’ real-life performances, and I had to do this huge kind of death drop that he does. I underestimated where I stood onstage, and I smashed my back into the drum kit and got a fracture to my coccyx that will be there for life. My jaw popped out of place multiple times because he speaks and sings two octaves higher than I do, and when you go up that high, this pressure builds up in your head. If you don't think about it, your jaw just pops out of place, so I had to have acupuncture on mine. I sprained everything under the sun.

Were you just covered in bruises for the whole shoot?

All the time, yeah. But I didn’t see them as a negative thing; in a weird way, I saw them as a sign that I was getting it right. I really wanted to experience what he experienced. Luckily, I wasn’t getting real spit on me. They actually invented spitting machines for the show, so I was getting covered in a form of water mixed with talcum powder or something like that.

Anson Boon as James “Sonny” Crockett from ‘Miami Vice.’ Boon wears Ralph Lauren suit.

You chose Sonny Crockett, who was played by Don Johnson, from Miami Vice for this portfolio. When did you first see the show?

My parents always spoke about it because it was on TV in the ’80s, so they grew up with this show. At the time, in working-class Britain, it was a dose of the American dream. They’re so removed from Hollywood—as removed as you could imagine. Growing up, my dad was a carpet fitter and my mom worked in an office, so they were working-class. And actually, I recently met Michael Mann, who produced all of Miami Vice, and when I told Steve Jones, the real Sex Pistol, he was like, “Oh, did you know I wrote music for Miami Vice after the Sex Pistols?”

No way.

That’s what I said. Danny would talk about the Sex Pistols as this cultural phenomenon, and I thought, Wow—Miami Vice was kind of like the Sex Pistols. What the Sex Pistols did with music and fashion, Miami Vice did with TV. It’s almost a translation of what people say about the Sex Pistols in terms of music. They created something completely different.

Don Johnson (left) and Philip Michael Thomas, as detectives James “Sonny” Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, in Miami Vice circa 1985.

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

They definitely both had an impact on fashion. Has playing Johnny Rotten influenced your personal style?

I’ve been so affected by punk fashion and learning about the history of the Sex Pistols and Vivienne Westwood. I find myself putting safety pins on my clothes now. What was really cool was designing my suit with Vivienne for [Pistol’s] London premiere. I didn’t want to dress as my character—I wanted to make it my own, so I wore some Cartier pins and Chrome Hearts safety pins on the lapels. I walked past the Balenciaga store in London recently, and there was this huge coat with a massive safety pin going through it in the window. I don’t know if the designer was inspired by punk specifically, but I’m excited for a whole new generation to see why they're wearing safety pins on their clothes and where that originated.

Boon at the UK premiere of ‘Pistol.’ Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty Images

It sounds like you’re very close with your parents. What did they think about you playing Johnny?

They were so excited. They were too young to remember the Sex Pistols, but they do remember the Queen's Jubilee in 1977, and that's such a big part of the Sex Pistols’ story. We got to shoot the boat party they had that year, and we were the first production to be given permission to film with a drone [adjacent to the palace].

That’s wild that the palace said yes, given the Queen and the Sex Pistols’ past.

Yeah, I know. But actually, John Lydon has gone on record very recently saying something like he loves the Queen, so there you go.

Grooming by Anna Bernabe.

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