Alex Pettyfer has had a somewhat rocky career in Hollywood so far. He was touted as a heartthrob in “Beastly,” and “I Am Number Four,” but those 2011 films, which were released back to back, never quite connected with viewers. Pettyfer was cast as the young upstart in “Magic Mike,” but he received more bad publicity than good from that experience — his tiff with Channing Tatum and rumors of being difficult may have stalled his career and given him a bad reputation. He took supporting roles in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and “Elvis and Nixon,” and a lead in the unnecessary remake of “Endless Love,” which did not put him high on many people’s radar.
However, Pettyfer may now be coming back from obscurity. In January, he starred in the haunting indie, “The Strange Ones,” playing a man traveling with a young boy he claims is his brother. More significantly, at the TriBeCa film festival this week, Pettyfer produced, starred in, and makes his directorial debut with “Back Roads,” a searing drama, based on Tawni O’Dell’s popular novel.
In the film, Pettyfer plays Harley, a young man who must care for his three sisters, the sexpot (Nicola Peltz), the sullen Misty (Chiara Aurelia), and the six-year-old Jody (Hala Finley), because their mother (an outstanding Juliette Lewis) is in prison for murdering their father. Harley, who works two jobs, finds himself attracted to his married neighbor, Callie (Jennifer Morrison), and begins a hot-and-heavy affair with her.
“Back Roads,” however, is not a vanity project. It has a much deeper theme at its core: it's about physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and how Harley and his siblings process their traumas. Pettyfer does an exceptional job bringing O’Dell’s novel to the screen. He shoots “Back Roads” with a mixture of dreariness and dreaminess, capturing the bleak lives of its characters and their aspirations for a better, or at least different, life. Pettyfer moves his camera in ways that pull the audience into the drama. A powerful scene of Harley visiting his mother in prison ends with a shot that will rip through viewers. Other scenes, such as those Harley has with his therapist, Betty (June Carryl), reveal a sensitivity to the difficult material that demonstrates Pettyfer is as assured a director as he is an actor.
“Back Roads” may be proof that Pettyfer has matured and is now ready to embrace the career that he deserves. The actor/director met with Salon at the TriBeCa Film Festival to talk about his new film, his career, Juliette Lewis and redemption.
You’re a posh Brit playing American white trash. How did you relate to “Back Roads” that you made the decision to make this film?
I came onto project ten years ago as an actor. Any actor sees the materials and wants to immerse themselves because it is so rich in emotion. When I was 18 and read the script, I had a different mentality towards it. When I talk about relating to it, it’s more my journey of how I got to the position of making the film. I went through ten years of life before it came back around. Also making this film at 27, I am in a very different place in my life then I was when I was 18, so when I talk about relatability, I’m talking about my youth.
Can you describe your youth?
That’s personal to me. That’s my toolbox. But any youth, you go through phases in your life where you’re learning. You’re coming out of those experiences wanting to learn. That’s the key to life — whatever situation you end up in, positive or negative, it’s what you take out of that experience and grow from and progress. At 18, I hadn’t progressed. I was still living in a wide-eyed world. You can see my physical attributes are very different from when I was doing other films. The physicality of me as a man, playing a younger mentality, that contrast resonated.
For the material, I never intended to be a director. I am producing a film at HBO with Jennifer Lopez and it gave me the confidence to want to produce more stuff. I found out “Back Roads” was still not made, so I went back to one of the producers that had the rights. I came from a producer’s point of view. I really love this material. It’s important to be told. I went in as a producer, and the producer said, why don’t you be in it?
This film puts your career in a different direction. It’s not a film I’d expect you to make, but it shows a maturation and if you waited 10 years to make this it must have been meaningful to you. . .
I think we are all looking for things that are meaningful in our life. I think we all want control. That is the fault of humans. We subject ourselves to the masses, of wanting to fit in, but at the end of the day there is a primal, innate thing in us that wants to control our lives. 90% of people in the world, if you ask them their biggest fear, it’s death. Why is death our biggest fear? Because it’s unknown, and because it’s inevitable. You can’t stop it — at least for now.
For me, I have to go back to the fact that I never worked on the project ever thinking I was going to direct the movie. That was never the intention. I always wanted to be a filmmaker — always — but I never dreamed of being able to do this, especially since the previous director on the project, Adrian Lyne, was one of my idols. He’s made some of my favorite films.
The film has a strong visual style, with many shots filmed through windows, and conveys isolation and claustrophobia. They make viewers look closer. Can you talk your approach to the material?
It’s all about perception. I went to the Virtual Reality [exhibit] at Tribeca, and it’s incredible. One I have to mention is “Vestige.” When you go to VR, you’re not looking at a story from a 2-D perspective, you’re in a story, so you’re not relating a situation in your own personal life, you’re in it and experiencing it. When you layer a film, you’re reaching less into the emotion and psyche of yourself and being drawn into the character’s psyche. There’s still a connection between the two, but it can be a fault; people can be distanced from your own personal emotions and how they are reacting. When you watch the scene in the prison between myself and Juliette Lewis, the sound is not quite there in the beginning and then it comes into clarity. It’s an eight-minute scene, and it’s a huge risk because it might have backfired in the edit. It’s a very intense scene. My aim was not to cut away. I learned a great deal with Steven Soderbergh. If you watch my film, there are a lot of big influences that Soderbergh has given me.
If you’re going to steal, steal from the best . . .
Yeah, and the things that I stole — that came down to budget. I did a lot of single takes. I had to craft that very meticulously with my DP [Jarin Blaschke], because they were so technical. We had few takes, so we had to get them perfect. We didn’t have the time to adjust.
Those scenes pull you in, though. That one in the prison with Juliette Lewis ripped right through me!
You watch that scene with Juliette Lewis, and as it draws in, you are drawing in yourself. As the sound changes, you are immersing yourself in the characters and the scene. The emotionality is attached to those people, which heightens their performances.
Lewis has only two scenes and they are heartbreaking. How did work with her on this role?
She’s a tour de force . . . she’s amazing. She’s such a humble, beautiful woman and to give me the opportunity to direct her . . . [Pettyfer swoons]. We had two days to film her scenes, and we ended up shooting both of them in half a day. The take in the prison, we did in one take. We didn’t do another one. To not do a second take is very unheard of, but we didn’t need anything more than that.
Working with her . . . yes, to some extent, you let her go and do what she’s going to do, but it was so interesting to see, as an actor, how she prepared herself . . . that vulnerability . . . She asked me to come into her trailer and asked, “How do I play this?,” and we sat, and we talked, and I recall sitting there thinking, “This is Juliette Lewis, Oscar-nominated actress, asking me how to approach this?” and I was thinking: We’re all just human. We all have our insecurities and doubts. I said to her, “Juliette, I cast you because you have something that is so beautiful and a raw vulnerability that is like a lion that is wounded. You have the biggest roar, but at the same time, you have the most beautiful soul. That’s what I want to see, a mother who is a lioness towards her cubs, but is so vulnerable in the situation she’s in.” And she’s like, “We’re good.” She came on and those were one takes. There are no cuts. That’s a pure performance.
You mentioned insecurities. What are some of your insecurities?
Self-doubt. I think we all have self-doubt as creatives — who justifies our work? Because art is subjective to different opinions. You may love the film and someone else may not. I think self-doubt comes from wanting to find the truth. Finding the truth is the hardest thing for me as a filmmaker or an actor. That comes with my insecurity: Am I doing the right thing? My other fault is that I’m subject to control, which comes when you have a lack of it. The lack of control as an actor, you’re subject to other people’s visions. This was the first time where I was put into a position where I had the control, and what I learned was that even when you can make the decisions, the most beautiful thing that I found was collaboration was key behind any creativity. Because the vision on the screen isn’t just mine; it’s a collaboration of a multitude of different people who have come together to work together. All have a little bit of their heart in something. I walked away from the film with an insecurity, but it reversed into a security.
The film has some interesting ambiguities with possible dream/fantasy sequences involving the relationship between Harley and Callie. Can you talk about that?
I’m trying to put this in a very PG-way . . .
You can be unfiltered.
I get that. I still like to be filtered. I think it’s much more chic. When you have an attraction to someone, you can’t . . . there have been times in my life and in my friend’s lives where they have met people and there has been instant connections. Obviously, we live in today’s society where sex is so accessible that people have these instant connections physically. If you understand that two characters and where they come from — the lead up with Callie is she’s explaining that she’s unhappy with her life. She’s very sad and trying to hide it. Where they are both in their lives attracts them. The immediacy and dreamlike ambiguous sensibility towards those scenes are because that is real life. Here you have a man that wakes up in a panic and is running towards the only thing that can ground him. Sex is grounding. When we have sex, you feel so embodied, being connected to another person; that that is what Harley runs towards instinctively. The sex is about trying to ground him.
Let’s talk about therapy. Harley talks to a therapist in some of the film’s most powerful scenes. Have you ever been in therapy?
I’ve been to a lot of physical therapy, but I’ve never been in therapy. Life is therapy. You don’t need to sit in an office and talk. I have great friends I can go to them about situations I’ve been troubled by or have questions about.
I think some people — and I completely understand this — they need to be in a room to talk to a stranger to have a detachment to an understanding of a detachment of something that is attached. It has to be removed because it’s so close. If you lose a father, your mother also has pain. Your friend can sympathize with the situation — I’m so sorry, I’m here for you . . . For Harley it’s an ominous situation. There is a lot of talking about the present, past, and future in this man’s mentality. You start to understand the character.
“Back Roads” is a tale about sacrifice and redemption. You’ve had trouble in your life for bad behavior . . .
Fake news! [Laughs]
Do you think Harley is redeemed?
The redeeming quality is that he will do something to feel valuable. All you can do is live your life. The metaphor behind your double-edged sword — whatever has been written up about me in the past — no one knows the truth. Everything is speculation. With Harley, its heroism. It’s self-redemption. The importance in life — what you fear, your insecurities and redemption — everything comes from self. Yes, we love others coming to praise and critique and collaboration, but everything is a journey in itself.
My dream was always to direct a film. I never thought I would ever get there. All the things that have happened in my life — positive or negative — have lead me to the position I am in today, and I am so grateful and humbled by all my experiences in my life, whether they are true or not. The reality of the experiences in my life have made me the man I am today.