He was a teen actor touted as a future male lead until on-set conflicts derailed him. Now Pettyfer is back with his directorial debut – but has he grown up?
‘The times I had that were difficult as a young man, I grew from those experiences’ … Alex Pettyfer as Harley Altmyer in Back Roads, which he also directed.
A week ago, Alex Pettyfer had all four wisdom teeth out. It is only after a sometimes fractious interview (over the phone, after he cancelled a face-to-face meeting) that it strikes me as an appropriate note on which to open. Questions of the wisdom that comes with age crop up more than once for the actor, who was widely reported to be a “bad boy” at his breakout moment early in the 2010s and is now four months shy of 30.
Born in Stevenage into an acting family, Pettyfer rose to fame aged 15 in the title role of a TV film of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, then as the teen spy Alex Rider in the big-screen adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s Stormbreaker. Although the film bombed, Pettyfer’s good looks, athleticism and talent meant that he was tipped as an incoming leading man – promise on which he seemed to be making good when, in 2012, he was cast as Channing Tatum’s protege in Magic Mike.
But by then, at 22, Pettyfer had developed a reputation for arrogance, mostly from reports from the set of the teen sci-fi flick I Am Number Four. Relations between Pettyfer and the film’s director broke down: the CEO of DreamWorks had to intervene. Then Magic Mike was dogged by reports of a feud with Tatum – by Pettyfer’s admission, over rent he owed Tatum’s friend and refused to pay “because life is so much more” than money.
Pettyfer denies his bad reputation was deserved, saying that he was afraid to be himself on an unfriendly set. He did not return for Magic Mike: XXL; Hollywood Reporter took this to mean that the “bad boy got sidelined” by the film industry. In fact, the work has remained fairly steady, not least because Pettyfer has created it himself.
Today, promoting his directorial debut, Back Roads, Pettyfer seems to want to convey a new perspective and maturity. He struggled with anxiety as a young man, he says. When I ask how he managed that, growing up in the spotlight, he responds as though I have implied he didn’t manage it. “My mum said to me: ‘You can’t put an old head on young shoulders.’” He adds, as though an afterthought: “I think – meditation, you know.”
He continues: “As humans, we can only evolve. I think that the times that I had that were difficult as a young man, I grew from those experiences. The only thing you can ever do from any experience, positive or negative, is to grow from it.”
What difficult times are you talking about, I ask? Pettyfer shies away from specifics, later seeming to read bad faith into the attempt to clarify his meaning. “Well – any difficult time! I’m not just talking about difficult, I’m talking about the positive times as well.”
When he was younger, Pettyfer says, he sometimes misunderstood “what the business side of our industry is expecting”. Acting is inherently a “very selfish” discipline, he says; he has greater appreciation for the hard work and collaboration that goes into a film now that he has made his own.
“If I had the experience that I had today back then, I probably would have done things differently. But the reason that I’m the man I am today is because of the experiences I endured [when working as an actor] as a young boy.”
Back Roads, which Pettyfer stars in, directed and produced, is a harrowing drama about a family in rural Pennsylvania struggling with the aftermath of violence and abuse. Pettyfer’s character is left to care for his three younger sisters after their mother (played with gusto by Juliette Lewis) is imprisoned for their father’s murder. When he begins an affair with a married neighbour, family secrets start to emerge and the slow burn picks up pace – explosively. It is challenging material, more gritty and nuanced than anything Pettyfer has been thrown in the past, and as a director he is assured, even potentially stylish.
“I think you have to do a couple more movies before you have a style,” Pettyfer says good-humouredly, and I dare to hope that we are out of the woods.
He had been attached to the project for years before being given the opportunity to direct it. Going behind the camera gave him a new perspective on the industry. To make that point (and after earlier describing the two of us enjoying a hypothetical trip around an art gallery to illustrate his point that “art is for interpretation”), Pettyfer takes me on another thought exercise.
“You’re a journalist, you sit here and you ask me the difficult questions in a very polite way, and I’m trying to be polite back. I know that you read the past newspapers, whatever you want, to do your research. But imagine then I make the roles reverse, and I’m asking you questions, and you’re put on the spot. It then gives you a different perspective of how you would do your job next.”
My perspective is that we have different ideas of difficult questions – we still have not discussed directly the controversies surrounding I Am Number Four, Tatum or his reputation.
“You know, Anthony Bourdain [the late chef and TV host] was an amazing journalist,” says Pettyfer. “He was humble and gracious and he was intrigued by people’s lives, but didn’t look for a negative spin.”
Seeing the trust that Lewis, Jennifer Morrison and other actors in Back Roads put in him as director led Pettyfer to realise that, as an actor, he had not always done the same. “It’s difficult, as a young boy, to put your full emotional trust into another person who is trying to guide you creatively.”
He felt vulnerable then, he says. More recently, he has experienced working on Back Roads and other films with a predominantly female cast and crew – where production goes “so smoothly … with trust and love” – as a revelation. I ask if I am right to infer from that that he has not felt supported by men in the past. He starts to rail against the Golden Globes overlooking Greta Gerwig and other female directors. I steer him back to the specifics of his experience, which seems to annoy him.
“With a male-dominant crew, you have the energy of alpha males, ‘we’re men, working hard’ – which is fine, and I don’t want you to put this in a different spin because I’ve had amazing experiences with men as well. It’s just a different energy on set, and you have to be really secure in who you are as a human being.”
Is he talking about Magic Mike? “Actually, that was one of my favourite experiences making a movie,” Pettyfer says. Steven Soderbergh was “like a father figure”. “I was more talking about I Am Number Four.” The difficulty there, he says, was that they were trying to build a young adult franchise in the vein of The Hunger Games and Divergent without an already popular book to build on (the book, a bestseller, was released shortly before the movie).
“When I talk about the male dominance on that film it’s that I feel like, with a little bit more of a feminine energy around, there would have been more nurturing and nursing towards me as a young man carrying the weight of pressures that I didn’t understand fully.”
Does he feel he has been treated fairly by the industry or the media? That’s not his concern, he says. “Whether you write something positive or negative, it lays with you. It doesn’t lay with me … If I was to try and control that, then I wouldn’t be doing any interviews. It’s a Catch-22. You know, Adam Sandler refuses to do written interviews.”
The tension we’ve been circling around is now very much at hand. I decide to make a final play for Pettyfer, the man. If you don’t feel what has been publicly written about you is a fair representation, I say, that must be frustrating for you as a human being, if not as an actor.
“Let me put it this way,” he says. “There’s reports that me and Channing don’t get along, or that I don’t like Channing. That is not true.” You said he didn’t like you, I say. On the Bret Easton Ellis podcast.
“My point is that I had the utmost respect for those two men that put together” [I assume he means Soderbergh] “a life-changing piece for me. What I said is that I presume that the man [Tatum] didn’t like me, but I don’t know. When you make a movie, you don’t come off the movie being best friends … you’re going into business with someone.”
Pettyfer re-emphasises that enjoyed his experience of Magic Mike, he says. “Whatever the negative connotation of what happened after that in the media, I can’t control.”
I point out that Pettyfer himself, rather than the media, said it was over unpaid rent for Tatum’s friends’ apartment. Pettyfer makes a noise as though in agreement – but then I realise it’s to the PR on the other line, who suggests we move on.
We talk for a further five minutes with determined cheer about his dream project (“Something that would raise the consciousness”), his experience of being an Englishman in New York, and whether his goal is still to “try to replicate Johnny Depp’s career and then move to Paris”, as he said in 2011. “Mmm, yeah. Quite obviously, at 21, I was saying some interesting things.”
An older, wiser Pettyfer thanks me for listening, and I again express sympathy for his wisdom teeth operation and wish him all the best with his recovery.
- Back Roads is released in the UK in January