Alex Pettyfer: The Teen Heart-Throb Who Accidentally Became A Director
Hollywood, and the media around it, would have us believe that celebrities are different from you and me.
They want you to think celebrities are cool in an almost unearthly way, immune to the everyday frustrations of a banal life, shielded from it by that immaterial thing that separates them from the rest of humanity: their fame.
The reality is celebs are just like us and their fame can’t protect them from the most pedestrian of problems, as Alex Pettyfer demonstrated when we sat down to speak last week and he began our conversation with what must have become a ritual in a post-pandemic world, explaining how much he dislikes Zoom.
‘I was having an important Zoom call with these executives from a very well regarded studio,’ he laughed, ‘and my wife came in and goes, ‘How long are you going to be? Dinner’s on the table,’ so I said, ‘Sorry I just need a minute,’ and she goes, ‘Yeah but I want to know, dinner’s getting cold,’ and every single one of those executives heard what she was saying.’
It’s disarming how relaxed Alex is as he tells me this story; he seems excited to be telling it to me, laughing as he does so and politely guffawing when I tell him my own embarrassing story of a Zoom call gone awry. Even though I know it’s not even that funny, I hadn’t been expecting Alex to be like this.
Then again I don’t know what I’d expected from Alex – perhaps I was guilty of falling into the false belief that all former child stars are hellions – but from the moment we started talking he seemed so normal and at ease with himself, devoid of the ego that so often makes conversations between journalists and their subjects awkward.
As I speak to him though, becomes clear why Alex is so easy to speak to: he’s couldn’t be less Hollywood if he tried. Born in Stevenage, UK, to actors Lee Robinson and Richard Pettyfer, Alex’s Wikipedia page would have you believe he was being groomed to be the next Robert DeNiro or Marlon Brando, with mentions of school plays, modelling work, and theatre school.
Alex was keen to set the record straight about his upbringing, however, explaining he actually didn’t go to theatre school (apologies to the diligent editors of Wikipedia), and despite his parent’s theatrical background they actually encouraged him to experience the arts, education, and sports.
Of these, it was sport that Alex enjoyed most, and he actually considered becoming a racing driver – he even started carting at Daytona to prepare for his future career behind the wheel – but another passion would spoil those dreams before they came to fruition.
‘I loved watching films and reading stories,’ he says, in particular the work of European visionaries like Alan De Lon, but like so many young cinephiles it was those magic nights, that you unfortunately only experience in your teens, spent watching films with friends until the early hours of the morning that introduced him to Americana and set him on a path that would eventually lead him to Hollywood.
He told UNILAD:
When Martin Scorsese started making incredible films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas that steered me towards this different style of film making – and the works of George Lucas and Ron Howard, De Palma and this new wave of film making – so I felt like a young boy who was being educated by these older friends.
I’d go stay with my friends at the weekend and we’d just watch movies back to back until the early hours of the morning, and my love for cinema started to grow, and so I wasn’t really interested in being an actor – I was interested in being a part of movies in any way I could.Entertainment Film Distributors
Of course, Alex did end up becoming an actor, with his big break coming when he beat 500 other boys to be cast as Alex Rider in the film adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Stormbreaker, the first novel in the Alex Rider series about a teenage spy in the vein of James Bond – if 007 swapped his licence to kill for a GameBoy.
He described the audition as a daunting experience (Alex was only 15 at the time) because he’d never starred in a movie before, but it transpired that he needn’t have been worried as, in Alex’s words, the open casting process for Stormbreaker was a bit of a ‘publicity stunt’.
It turned out that Anthony Horowitz had seen Alex in a television adaptation of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and he’d had him in mind for the part ever since – not that Alex is vain enough to think things wouldn’t have changed if one of the other 499 boys who auditioned for the part had impressed Horowitz.
When he found out he’d been cast, Alex says he was elated but in hindsight he didn’t really understand the responsibility he’d taken on. It’s only in afterwards he started to realise the pressure he was putting himself under.
When you read a book, we all have our individual perception of what we think the character is, because when we’re reading, I guess the illusion of us being in that character is what resonates with the reader, and it’s why we like the book we’re reading. And I realised that quite quickly what that meant and it was daunting.
Of course, when you’re talking about Stormbreaker it’s impossible to ignore that the film was not a success, and I was surprised to learn that Alex felt no regrets or bitterness about the film’s failure to launch into a full-blown franchise.
Instead, he was very zen about the whole saga, remembering ‘the best summer he had in his life’ where he spent time with Ewan McGregor, Bill Nighy, and Alicia Silverstone, and got to live the ‘dream life’ of Alex Rider.
I’d been a fan of the books; I got to live the fantasy of being Alex Rider. Listen, you can only have gratitude for being given experiences like that, and they’re so heightened you’re kind of in a dream-like state while making the film anyway.
I actually watched the [Alex Rider TV series] that just came out and I think they executed it beautifully, so I’m a super happy for the success of that. I love Anthony, that character and that series, so I’m super, super, super so happy, delighted, and elated to see it get a TV show [on Amazon Prime], and I’m so happy for their success.
While Stormbreaker might not have been a hit, it still launched Alex’s career, and he’s since gone on to work with big Hollywood names like Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Lee Daniels, and most notably Steven Soderbergh in Magic Mike.
Alex did confess, however, that when he first got the call from Soderbergh, he didn’t quite believe that the avant-garde filmmaker was really calling him.
I finished I am Number 4 and came back to Europe, and I had a call from Stephen, so I picked up the phone and it’s someone going, ‘Oh hi, this is Stephen Soderberg,’ and I said: ‘Oh yeah, OK,’ and he goes ‘I want to send you some material’.
So I said ‘OK’ and I hung up. And I think I was in such disbelief that my agent hadn’t told me anything about him calling, and I got a text very quickly after the call, and thankfully Stephen called again and said, ‘Alex, this really is Stephen Soderberg,’ and I had to apologise.
Thankfully for Alex, Stephen didn’t hold a grudge, and after watching some footage of Channing Tatum in the bath – don’t ask – Alex signed on to play Adam, the naive young stripper who finds himself intoxicated on the seedy glamour of male stripping.
It was while making Magic Mike that Alex began to hone in on becoming a director; choosing to stay on set rather than return to his trailer when he wasn’t needed in order to watch ‘a visionary’ like Soderbergh at work. It was by watching Soderbergh that Alex began to feel confident enough in himself to start thinking about directing.
This leads us to Back Roads – Alex’s directorial debut – and the reason why I got the opportunity to speak to him. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, written by Tawni O’Dell, the film centres on Harley Altmyer, a young man stuck in the arse end of nowhere caring for his three younger sisters after his mother is arrested for murdering his father.
The film is a twisted, brooding, psychosexual noir that pulls no punches with its sometimes disturbing subject matter, and I was interested to hear that playing the film’s lead wasn’t ever Alex’s intention, despite it being a plumb role for an actor.
Reading the book when he was just 18, Alex remembers loving the material, and after setting up his own production company he decided to track down the rights to get the book made into a film. It was only when he’d secured the rights that another producer suggested he take on the role of Harley to get the project moving.
As an actor, it’s a dream role, but I hadn’t intended to play the lead – I just wanted to produce the film. Then while trying to find a director we had two or three incredible filmmakers come on board but they fell through.
Then, ultimately, and I don’t know why, or what confidence was given to me, but I put together a transcript of the film I’d like to make, eradicating any of the sexual nature form the film, and kind of telling a different narrative about the psyche of Harley, and the financiers and producers gave me the greenlight.
Even then I thought I’d step off as an actor but that wasn’t the arrangement they had in mind.
Thankfully the opportunity worked out for Alex who, despite the quick shooting schedule of just 21 days, managed to complete the ‘hardest creative venture’ he’d ever been a part of, but he found the experience incredibly rewarding.
So what’s next for Alex? Well he’s just celebrated his thirtieth birthday (in lockdown, unfortunately) and he’s partnered with his brother to create a company called Dark Dreams Entertainment with the goal of turning other books into films and TV series and with three projects on the slate it seems Alex is going to be a busy guy.
Back Roads will be available on digital download from 6th July and on DVD from 20th July.