What does a teen idol do when they can no longer plausibly play a teen? There’s the Robert Pattinson blueprint, picking esoteric roles with arthouse directors and delivering internet-meltingly bizarre photoshoots. Or there’s the full Zac Efron: playing a notorious serial killer in a final bid to shake off those last vestiges of Disney lustre. The second act of Alex Pettyfer’s career has brought the British actor and model behind the camera to direct moody, atmospheric drama Back Roads.
Now 30, Pettyfer grew up in Surrey and Berkshire; his actor parents met while appearing in West End musicals, and his own performance gene kicked in early — he starred in commercials and school plays before, at the age of 15, being picked out of 500 hopefuls to play mini super-spy Alex Rider in the film adaptation of Anthony Horowitz’s young-adult novel Stormbreaker. Then there was a turn as the floppy-haired love interest in charming Brit teen-com Wild Child; later, he appeared in the wildly successful Magic Mike as a college dropout-turned-stripper alongside Channing Tatum.
Back Roads is worlds away from any of these projects. Based on a New York Times bestseller, it’s a family drama simmering with unresolved conflicts and trauma. As well as directing, Pettyfer stars as the troubled Harley, who puts his life on hold to care for his siblings when their mother is charged with killing their abusive father. It’s precisely the sort of gritty project ripe for a first-time director looking to prove himself. Pettyfer’s journey to the director’s chair, however, wasn’t quite so simple.
“I actually never intended to direct this,” Pettyfer explains, speaking from a colourful Airbnb in Berlin. He recently flew back to Europe after spending three months locked down in Santa Monica (his fiancée, model Toni Garrn, is German, which may explain this transatlantic reshuffle) and things are beginning to loosen up in Germany, though his concerned mum has been sending him links to Standard articles about the country’s rising R-rate.
He first auditioned to play Harley at the age of 18 — when Fatal Attraction’s Adrian Lyne (“a legend”) was lined up to direct. His early experience of stardom had given him “a peculiar taste in film” for his age, he notes, with an eyebrow raise for his precocious younger self — his “sense of [his own] maturity was more extravagant than it actually was. I really fell in love with the story, but nothing transpired. I still couldn’t get this script out of my mind,” he says.
After realising that the project was still inactive almost a decade later, he decided to take it on himself as a producer. “I put together this pitch of what I thought the film could be and had to present it to the financiers,” he recalls. Two directors signed up then dropped out, and it wasn’t until “not even the 11th hour — the 12th hour” that Pettyfer decided to step up. He had the support of the “incredible” director of photography Jarin Blaschke, recently Oscar-nominated for his work on The Lighthouse (an arthouse horror starring — guess who? — Pattinson), and reckons that his experience on Back Roads has helped him to see filmmaking as a collective endeavour.
“As actors, we’re so focused on this singular journey of our own narrative,” he admits. “But as a director, there’s this collaboration, you’re having debates — you have realisations about the work you’re doing from a different angle. You’re not focused on one narrative, you’re focused on six or seven.”
He might have fallen into this first directing gig, but Pettyfer says his ambition to work behind the camera predates his desire to act. “I had always initially just wanted to be a filmmaker,” he says. Working with celebrated filmmakers like Lee Daniels (in The Butler) and Hollywood’s pre-eminent Stevens (Spielberg in teen action blockbuster I Am Number Four, and Soderbergh in Magic Mike), he says, “only enhanced this innate ambition to make my own”.
Being on set with big names was like attending an ad hoc film school. As a youngster, he recalls feeling impatient “twiddling his thumbs” in his trailer between scenes. “I was always the guy who was on set annoying people,” he laughs, before clarifying: “Positively or negatively, it’s always been in my character to want to be the person at the forefront — [on set] that meant I was sitting there so enthusiastic, wanting to learn about cameras and digital and 35 mil to 75 mil and how you use a long lens.”
Back Roads had a tight budget and even tighter shooting schedule — parameters which became all the more apparent during a chance encounter with another actor-turned-director. Deep in the edit, Pettyfer bumped into Bradley Cooper, who was about to head to Glastonbury to shoot festival scenes for A Star Is Born (which boasted a rumoured budget of $36 million). “I know Bradley in passing and I got into this elevator with him,” he explains. “He said, ‘What are you working on? Do you want to come to my edit room and show me?’ So I went up and grabbed my laptop.”
The scene in question was the film’s emotional apex — a seven-and-a-half minute two-hander with Pettyfer and his on-screen mum, Juliette Lewis, shot in one take. “Through the business elements of making the movie, I was really on a narrow schedule,” he says. “I showed him this scene, and he went really quiet. And he’s like, ‘That’s all one take?’ And I said, ‘I actually only did one take on the day, because I thought it was perfect. I only have that one chip…’ and he looked at me and went ‘Interesting,’” Pettyfer laughs. “He said, ‘It’s gonna be an interesting movie for you.’”
Cooper’s assessment rang true. Admitting he was “naive” when he first embarked on the project, Pettyfer says the experience was “a learning curve.” “I’d thought, ‘Why do you need 40 days to make a movie? Why do you need two cameras, close-ups?” he says. “But a movie is not told while you’re making it, a movie is told in the edit. That was the biggest learning curve for me — being in an editing suite and realising that I was glued to one narrative because of the way I’d shot.”
He adds: “I met Clint Eastwood once, and he told me, ‘Every time you do a movie, it’s like being a sponge in a bathtub; you just let it go and soak up all the knowledge of each person you work with.’ And I think that’s what I try and do.”
Back Roads will be available on digital download from July 6 and on DVD and DVD rental from July 20