I’m searching for rawness as a filmmaker, and more the mistakes that we make, rather than the perfections of getting something.
Alex Pettyfer is entering a new phase in his career with his daring directorial debut Back Roads. The film also ticks his rawest work as an actor. After his leading role in Chris Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein’s The Strange Ones earlier this year—an equally dark outing that’s been called “a same-sex Lolita”—Pettyfer isn’t just mining provocative material. He’s torching his heartthrob image.
An adaptation of Tawni O’Dell’s New York Times bestselling novel of the same name, and working from a script co-written by O’Dell and Adrian Lyne, Pettyfer’s freshman feature follows Harley (Pettyfer), the eldest sibling barely out of his teens who is charged with looking after his three sisters (Nicola Peltz, Chiara Aurelia, and Hala Finley) after their mother (Juliette Lewis) lands in the clink for murdering their abusive father. Endlessly troubled, barely scraping by working two menial jobs, and shouldering way too much responsibility given the circumstances, every minute is a struggle for Harley and his clan. In fact, his sole refuge takes the form of Jennifer Morrison’s Callie, the married neighbor down the block—yet another female figure in Harley’s life who holds the power to either strengthen or annihilate him—with whom he has an animalistic affair. Back Roads is a profoundly sad film riddled with unsavory revelations and—careful not to step into spoiler territory—bound by the theme of sacrifice, or falling on the sword for a loved one.
On the acting front, Pettyfer has multiple projects in the pipeline for 2019, including Seth Savoy’s burglary drama Echo Boomers also starring Michael Shannon, Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers thriller The Laundromat with Meryl Streep, and Neil Lebute’s sci-fi series The I-Land for Netflix.
Anthem caught up with Pettyfer this week, after our first meeting at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
Back Roads is now in select theaters and available to view on digital/VOD.
What are you doing right now, Alex?
Hey, man! I’m so sorry for messing up on schedule. I literally got out of the car and my phone slipped out, straight into the L.A. drain.
Oh man… How are you doing otherwise?
Good, good, good! Very happy! I’m promoting Back Roads. It seems to be going well.
I watched it yesterday. I was thoroughly impressed. It’s a huge accomplishment for you.
Thank you so much, man. I really appreciate that. It feels a little surreal.
This is a project that’s near and dear to your heart and I know you have quite a history with this property. You first auditioned to play Harley a decade ago when Adrian Lyne was set to direct. Now you’re not only starring in it—you directed it and produced it as well.
When I initially read the script as an actor, it was obviously a great part. As an actor, it was a film I wanted to be a part of, especially if Adrian Lyne was going to direct it. Then for reasons I can’t explain, the film didn’t get made. I had a small bit of success producing a few things and this film had always resonated with me as a script and as a book. The book and the film are a little different, but I went back to the producer who owned the property and said I would love to be a part of the project, just as a producer, and see about getting the film made. With this new version, I never had the intention of directing or even starring in it. It was through an organic experience that I ended up being able to be in the film, which was a personal dream. We were talking to some pretty high-level directors who attached themselves and, under unfortunate circumstances, had to be released from the film, either because they had other projects that were moving forward or due to contractual obligations. Then I kind of passed myself forward to the producers and the financiers of this film as a joke—not a joke, that’s the wrong word, but as an unrealistic reality—because we only had around two months to move it into pre-production. Otherwise, the film would’ve gone into a stalemate with the avenues I had taken to raise the finance. Surprising to me, they came back and were excited about this possibly being made with me directing at a lower cost. Then I started casting and got Juliette Lewis and Jennifer Morrison, and this amazing female ensemble.
What was it about this novel and the film that has resonated with you so deeply?
I think what resonated with me was, as a filmmaker and not so much as an actor, the family dynamic and the characters. I loved that the characters are in terrible situations, but it was less about that. It was less about their overall situation and more about how these characters interact with each other in dealing with trauma. I think that’s quite fascinating.
When you first read to act in Back Roads at 18 or 19 or however old you were back then, do you think you were approaching your character differently?
I think the only difference is that you can’t put an old head on young shoulders, meaning, the experience you have as an older man gives you the ability to be more level in coming into a character. I think it was less about how I would play it at 27 because Harley’s mentality is quite young and the trauma he had was very upsetting. What I did have in playing him at 27 was the ability to step away from that character and ground him as a human being, and also to step away to have a different set eyes in which to direct the film. I think that’s the only difference.
So was there an ambition to direct before Back Roads came along? At the start of my journalism career, I somewhat naively assumed that all actors must want to get behind the camera at some point. What I learned is that a lot of actors actually don’t have that desire because it’s high-stakes.
[Laughs] Well, I’ve always loved films, but I didn’t necessarily want to be an actor. I wanted to be a part of the film industry, or shall I say film and television industry now because with streaming everything is kind of combined. Just being in a creative field, I kind of gravitated towards being a storyteller. I was very fortunate enough to be able to be given this opportunity to act. I think everything just happened that way and I had always wanted to be a filmmaker, but I never ever thought I would do it at 27 and I never thought I’d do it with a stunning novel or a script written by Adrian Lyne, who’s one of my icons with the films he made in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
You must learn so much as an actor about directing on set, even unknowingly, just by the virtue of being there collaborating with filmmakers.
I mean, I worked with Lee Daniels and Andrew Niccol. I had Michael Bay and Steven Soderbergh as producers on I Am Number Four. You get to sit with, and even talk with, some of these people for five minutes and you’re absorbing anything you can.
You’re working with Steven Soderbergh again on The Laundromat. Is that finished now?
Yeah, that’s wrapped.
You have other projects coming up on the acting front. I noticed that both Echo Boomers and Warning are from first-time directors. What lessons do you maybe want to pass on?
Collaboration. I had a really humbling experience directing Back Roads. I think as an actor we board these projects with a sole perspective on narrative and not understand the whole picture. Working with people in all fields of filmmaking, really hearing their perspectives on what they think is a great story, and collaborating with them was remarkable. I think you can get a little disenchanted going into something not necessarily being liberated as an actor because you’re put into someone else’s hands. It’s not necessarily a negative, but experiences change with who you’re working with. I think doing this made me fall in love with acting again.
So can we expect a second feature from you? Did Back Roads inspire you to do it again?
I’ve got a couple of projects that I’m gonna do as an actor, but I just finished the first pass on a film that I’d like to direct and premiere next year. It’s something completely different from Back Roads.
Coming from acting, what was it like being on the other side casting a movie?
You know—the first person I cast was Juliette Lewis.
I got to spend some time with her at Cannes for a magazine shoot. She’s something special.
Yeah! She read the script and we had an hour and a half-long conversation on the phone. We didn’t even Skype, which is crazy. For me, as an actor, I would feel a little uncomfortable if I didn’t get to meet the director. I feel like you have to meet the person to have that trust. Anyways, by the end of that call, she said, “I would love to be a part of the film.” I was a little shocked: “You’re saying you’ll do the film?” She’s like, “Yeah!” and I was like, “I can’t tell you how honored I am!” She was amazing, you know? It was a dream come true and I’m sure many people have said that about working with an Oscar-nominated actress. I’ve watched and loved her movies since I was a young boy. It was like a mirage or something. [Laughs] Then the rest of the cast came together. I nearly didn’t get Jennifer Morrison because she had dates that were conflicting, and really, it was down to her. She was the last person cast and she was a godsend. She had just directed her feature debut and it was so imperative to have her on set to be the support system.
I also saw you in The Strange Ones this year. Similar to Back Roads, that was quite a dark exploration. Are you seeing a shift in the kinds of projects you’re after nowadays?
I always say that being a part of film, unless you’re incredibly talented and get discovered and get to be a part of films like Call Me By Your Name and have an incredible career to launch off like that, it’s like learning how to ride a bike. First you start with stabilizers, you work at your craft, and then slowly you have the stabilizers off and you can peddle and peddle up a hill and then go off-road. I think it’s less about being thwarted by dark material—it’s just richer material. Also working with Lauren Wolkstein and Chris Radcliff, even though they’d only done a short before The Strange Ones, I knew they were great filmmakers already. To be a part of that process was really fundamental to me being a filmmaker because I learned so much. Lauren also teaches film at school so I grilled her, you know? [Laughs] I was on that set wanting to learn and learn and learn.
There’s a powerful moment in Back Roads where Harley is confronting his mother in prison. What do you remember about playing opposite Juliette in that scene?
It’s funny because Juliette was only scheduled to work for three days out of a 22-day shoot or something. We shot that in a real prison in Louisiana. We had an hour and a half or two hours before lunch to do that one-shot move where it starts on the two, goes into an over, and then pulls back into watching Harley being dragged out. I went to Juliette and said, “Would you want to take a crack at that take before lunch or would you like to call the day early? I can do other stuff and you can prepare it for tomorrow.” I just wanted to be respectful of her process. She said, “No, I’m in a mindset. I have my mind on doing that scene.” So we did the scene in one take and that was the only take we did. After I got dragged out of that scene, I looked over at video village and a lot of people were crying. I couldn’t quite understand what was going on with that reaction yet. [Laughs] I went over and watched the take while Juliette was still in the prison because it took 10 minutes to get her through security. I told the AD to bring her out and she comes over and says, “What’s up?” I said, “I don’t think there’s more I can say. I think it’s best you watch the scene.” I was quite emotional. She watched it and we looked at each other. I said, “I don’t need another one if that’s okay with you. I can make a copy so we have that as safety, but I think you’re wrapped. I think you’ve done beautiful work.” We shared that emotional moment.
That must be so gratifying: those moments of certainty.
I’m searching for rawness as a filmmaker, and more the mistakes that we make, rather than the perfections of getting something.
Everyone had such upsetting roles to play in this, including Nicola [Peltz]. It was interesting to find out that she actually read for Back Roads back when she was 12.
Yeah, she originally read for the role of the younger sister, Misty. So when she got the script, I think she was a little shocked that we were making the film. She ended up playing Amber.
It’s crazy that this movie got made under such different circumstances for both of you guys.
I would’ve love to have seen Adrian’s version. He’s a phenomenal filmmaker—one of my favorites if I’m totally honest. I think my version is a lot more grounded and less sexual. It’s more about the characters, I guess, and their insecurities and the way they interact with each other. Adrian makes these fantastic films that are based around sexual interactions, which is very animalistic. His films are also raw, but there’s a beautiful quality to the films he makes, you know?
What can you reveal about the show you’re on in 2019 called The I-Land? I believe that’s your first TV series.
Yeah, it’s my first TV show. [Laughs]
Did you have an aversion to doing TV until now? What changed?
Well, Neil Labute is an amazing writer. He did The Wicker Man, In the Company of Men… To be a part of his world is incredible. I just want to work with great filmmakers and great writers. He’s both of those things and I was very happy to go explore. Again, I think there’s no media now. I think TV and film have blended, unless you’re making the big Marvel movies, but even those guys tend to do seasonal TV. I think Chris Pine just did something with Patti Jenkins for TBS [I Am the Night]. So yeah, it’s just about doing good work.