Alex Pettyfer is many things, but a skilled visual artist is not one of them. Spotting a painting by my late grandmother, which hangs behind me as we talk over Zoom, the 30-year-old British actor decides to show me his sketch of a French bulldog and a painting of his fiancée, German model Toni Garrn, both to be auctioned for the latter’s charitable foundation. Seeing my pained expression, Pettyfer laughs. “I have a great appreciation for art,” he says, “but zero talent”.
Away from art, it’s a slightly different story. Best known for playing Anthony Horowitz’s teenage spy Alex Rider in Stormbreaker (2006) and a protégé stripper, alongside Channing Tatum, in Magic Mike (2012), Pettyfer has lately turned his hand to directing and producing. His directorial debut, Back Roads, is a notable calling card, shot with impressive confidence on a tight budget and schedule. Based on Tawni O’Dell’s bestselling novel, Back Roads is a claustrophobic and harrowing tale of poverty, obsession and abuse in rural Pennsylvania.
Pettyfer was first attached as an actor back in 2008, working off a script by O’Dell and Adrian Lyne, veteran director of archetypal erotic thrillers including Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful. The project fell through but, keen to get it back off the ground, Pettyfer put enough funding together to refit it as a low-budget indie.
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Stripping the script of its black comedy and much of the sex (“a lot of the comedy came from the sex, and I didn’t want to exploit that”) to focus on the bleak tragedy at the story’s heart, he found himself directing. “It was a story that resonated with me at 18,” he says. “It didn’t resonate as much as an older man, but something had stuck with me for eight years and I thought it was important for this material to be seen.”
Pettyfer also stars as Harley Altmyer, a young man trying to hold his traumatised family of three sisters together after their mother (Juliette Lewis) is imprisoned for shooting their father. The situation becomes more complicated when Harley tumbles into a doomed affair with an older, married neighbour (Jennifer Morrison).
“It was one of my greatest creative experiences,” says Pettyfer. “It really changed my psyche and the way I look upon making films. As an actor you come from a single narrative perspective, egotistically thinking about your journey only and not being mindful of other people’s needs. As a director it’s a more collaborative experience. Working with people changed things for me.”
It is grim material, though. What compelled him to dive in? “The experiences I’ve had in my life were different to those in Back Roads, but had a similar sort of energy, the negative headspace this young man [Harley] was living in. There was a therapeutic element to the screenplay.” At this point, things take a turn for the spiritual. “There’s a word in Buddhism, samsara, which means hell on earth, pretty much,” says Pettyfer. “We all, as human beings, go through experiences of repression and have a choice to learn from them. The experiences I’ve endured in my career – I’m talking about positive and negative ones – have been such a special gift for me, as Alex, to continuously grow through them.
“As a young boy at 18, I went to America, I didn’t have any guidance, I had a dream of something that I wanted or thought I wanted to become, the dream sold with the escapism of becoming an actor. It’s very easy to configure ourselves into this negativity but ultimately the goal is to better ourselves and be creative. I’m just happy making movies.”
It’s fair to say that Pettyfer is prone to metaphysical flim-flam and careful to avoid specifics, but the negativity to which he refers most likely includes his reputation for being “difficult”. It was a label that began to stick to him just as his trajectory seemed set for the stratosphere.
Having thrived in school productions and done a little modelling, he left school before his GCSEs and got his big break a year after his debut in ITV’s version of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Although Stormbreaker bombed (Horowitz’s series has recently been rebooted by Amazon as Alex Rider), Pettyfer continued to work steadily in minor romcoms (Wild Child), horrors (Tormented) and sci-fi follies (In Time) until two projects in 2011 and 2012.
First, relations with journeyman director DJ Caruso broke down on stillborn franchise starter I Am Number Four, then he was rumoured to have fallen out with Magic Mike’s star, Channing Tatum. It’s probably telling that, when I ask Pettyfer about his memories of working on the latter, he tells a good story about getting the part rather than playing it. Pettyfer hung up on Steven Soderbergh, thinking it was a prank. The director then sent him an out-of-context video of Tatum shaving his legs in the bath to entice him to get involved. “I was, like: ‘what the f**k is this?’” laughs Pettyfer. He enjoyed working with Soderbergh, but neither returned for the sequel and, in case you were wondering, Pettyfer hasn’t worn a thong since.
All of this feels like a long time ago now, and increasingly implausible given how obliging, friendly and self-deprecating Pettyfer is throughout our conversation. He certainly seems at peace with his past – he has spoken before about how meditation helped him come to terms with a youthful anxiety born of shouldering $100m blockbusters – but the work does appear to have become sparser since that double-whammy.
Leading roles in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy and two other failed franchise starters, Seventh Son and The Mortal Instruments, were either turned down or withdrawn, but repeating himself (he had previously worked with Daniels on The Butler) is something Pettyfer stresses he works hard to avoid. And a more successful career doesn’t necessarily equate to a more interesting one: it’s hard to imagine Pettyfer would have had the opportunity to make Back Roads had his acting career taken the seemingly preordained route of blockbuster stardom.
In fact, Pettyfer’s career itself was far from predestined, even though he was the son of actors and found fame so young. Growing up in Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, he initially pursued one of the few occupations likely to have had his parents desperate for him take up something more secure – like acting. “I wanted to be a racing driver,” he says. “I was tall enough to get into a go-kart when I was 12, and from that moment I’ve been obsessed with racing. I got the option to be a test driver for BMW Formula One, but my career went somewhere else completely. I was never going to be a straight arrow, I was always looking for some sort of rush.”
Nowadays, the rush seems as likely to come from being behind the camera as in front of it, and he speaks warmly of how working with Soderbergh, Daniels, Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg (producer and exec producer respectively on I Am Number Four) informed his own directorial style, unveiled to striking effect on Back Roads and – who knows? – on future projects as well.
The acting will continue, most notably with Michael Shannon in modern-day Robin Hood fable Echo Boomers, but he seems most passionate about his next directorial gig, a political thriller set in 1970s Belgrade that suggests a career of intriguing left turns lies ahead. And there’s always the art, of course, at which, he reminds me with a parting chuckle, he is “hugely gifted”.
For once, I don’t feel inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Back Roads is available for digital download and out on DVD and digital rental on 20 July