Alex Pettyfer has a conspiratorial glint in his eye. He wants to conduct our interview in the empty screening room of the Crosby Hotel instead of its basement bar.
“It’ll be cool,” he promises, without a trace of anxiety about the fact that the theater looks very much closed to the public.
Pettyfer, outfitted in a baseball cap and a tight-fitting t-shirt that reveals an elaborate series of arm tattoos, is in New York to show “Back Roads,” a moody drama that marks his directorial debut, at the Tribeca Film Festival. He produced the film, as well as stars in it as Harley, a young man struggling to hold his impoverished family together after his mother (Juliette Lewis) is jailed for killing his father.
“The most humble experience I’ve ever had was making ‘Back Roads,’ because I realized as an actor you’re on a solo journey,” said Pettyfer. “When you’re a filmmaker it’s a collaborative process. That’s what was missing in my life. I always felt single-minded and selfish in my craft.”
Directing the film was never part of the plan. “Back Roads,” an adaptation of Tawni O’Dell’s novel of the same name, was originally designed to be an Adrian Lyne film. Pettyfer read for the picture back in 2008 when Lyne envisioned it as a more robustly budgeted studio production. After funding collapsed, “Back Roads” was left for dead. However, Pettyfer couldn’t get the project out of his mind. After setting up “The Godmother,” a Terrence Winter script, at HBO that he intends to produce with Jennifer Lopez, Pettyfer felt emboldened.
“That gave me the confidence to carry on producing stuff that I felt passionate about,” said Pettyfer.
After approaching the film’s producer Michael Ohoven to find out the status of the project, he agreed to line up financing and produce the picture. After two well-known directors fell out over scheduling conflicts, Pettyfer decided that if the movie was ever going to get made, he needed to step behind the camera.
“I didn’t even plan on being in it,” said Pettyfer. “I planned only on producing it. I came from a non-egotistical position of just wanting to see good content get made.”
At several points during our hour chat, Pettyfer returns to the idea of ego and selfishness. Perhaps it’s an unwitting acknowledgment of a colorful past. The “I Am Number Four” and “Magic Mike” actor used to be one of Hollywood’s rising stars, but on the way to the A-list he developed a reputation for being difficult. Stories appeared in the press about clashes and spats with directors and co-stars. Pettyfer knows he has a lot to live down, but he believes that some of the rap is undeserved.
“I was never difficult,” he says. “I was always on time and knew my lines. But I think it’s the aura you put out in the world that people can sense. I probably did not have the appreciation I should have had for the position that I was in.”
He was 19 when he got his first taste of fame, Pettyfer notes, and didn’t have the support system in place to stay grounded.
“I made decisions that were not necessarily the most politically correct,” he said. “When you are a kid and you have an $100 million movie riding on your back to promote, that’s a lot of pressure. You’re sitting there thinking, ‘Wow this has to open.’”
Pettyfer says he admires a rising generation of talent such as Timothée Chalamet and Tom Holland, who he believes handle stardom with greater ease than he did when he was their age.
“Back Roads” marks a new phase of Pettyfer’s career, one in which he plans to focus on more personal projects. It required putting his own stamp on the material. In both the film and the book, Harley has an affair with an older, married neighbor (Jennifer Morrison). Lyne, best known for directing steamy dramas such as “Unfaithful” and “Fatal Attraction,” leaned into the eroticism in his original script. Pettyfer went in a different direction.
“I consciously took out the sexual elements from the film,” said Pettyfer. “I didn’t want that to be the driving force. I wanted to have the sexuality be there in glimpses and to give the audience more of an emotional roller coaster.”
“Back Roads” has echoes of “Monster’s Ball” in its hardscrabble setting and regional flavor, but it is also, by Pettyfer’s admission, stylistically a very European film. There aren’t a lot of quick cuts or fancy shots. The camera lingers on the actors’ faces, emphasizing the pain they’re dealing with on a daily basis.
The film also contains some of his rawest work as an actor. Harley is a broken man, a person whose life has been shattered by abuse and neglect. Despite speaking in a halting manner, he also has an artistic soul and a desire to do more with his life. Pettyfer admits that juggling the demanding role and the rigors of a 19-day shoot were difficult.
“I probably will choose not to be in any films I direct in the future,” said Pettyfer. “To direct and be in the film was one of the most grueling and tiring experiences of my life.”
He also sounds grounded, even happy. His headline-grabbing days may be behind him, but they seem to have given him a better perspective on the ephemeral nature of celebrity.
“I’m grateful for the journey I’ve had as a human being,” said Pettyer. “Having success and the success not riding through meant I made a conscious decision to step back the industry. But having been given a second opportunity to go and make good films has been amazing.”
“To be able to sit here and say, I directed, produced, and starred in a film based on a New York Times best-seller with great actors,” he adds. “Well, I’m the luckiest man in the world.”