Newcomer Alex Pettyfer garned praise for his performance in the title role of ITV 2005 production of Tom Brown's Schooldays (alongside future Stormbreaker co-star Stephen Fry). He makes his big-screen debut as Alex Rider in Stormbreaker, based on the bestselling series of junior-spy adventures by Anthony Horowitz. Aside from his many novels, Horowitz is also known as the creator of the acclaimed TV series Foyle's War. Pettyfer and Horowitz sat down with me at Cody's Books in Berkeley, a stop on their American Stormbreaker tour.
Groucho: You've said that everyone can relate to Alex Rider. Why is that?
Alex Pettyfer: Because he's a normal guy, you know? An average Joe who has capabilities that are just far out like a little mini—not mini-Bond, but a mini-Jason Bourne, shall we say.
G: I've heard a few different versions of your preparations for the film. I know you hit the gym and had a couple weeks of martial arts training with Eunice Huthart, right?
G: Would you say you took to that training?
AP: What did I take from that?
G: Yeah. Or did you take to it?
AP: Yeah, you know, it's very hard work. It's just, like, three weeks of continuous training to build yourself not only for the physicality of Alex Rider, but also the emotional experience, shall we say.
G: Now I read that you took the piss out of the producers by having a go at an unapproved stunt. Is that true?
AP: What's this?
G: I read somewhere that when they weren't looking, so to speak, that you did one of the drops?
AP: Yeah, I did the drop. I did. Which was great, you know? I always want to do every stunt. Alex Rider is a physical character as well as emotional. You know, if you leave out one side of things, you don't feel that you are connected with him. So yeah, I did it!
G: Cool. You joked that in the first couple of weeks you were just trying to look good and then ended up as Alex Rider. What clicked over for you? Can you talk about how you grew into the role during the shooting?
AP: Yeah! I found a few connections with the guy, you know? I made up this character through experiences from training and from kind of going through this process of auditioning. And yeah, I came to connect with him after the first kind of week of filming. I don't know how. It must have just walked inside me.
G: And you worked with a real special forces guy, right? At some point during the shooting you met one, is that right?
AP: No. I hurt myself in the three weeks of training. And my physio is an ex-SAS guy [Ed. Britain's Special Air Service]. So I just took a piece of advice from him and, you know, connected him with Alex.
G: What sort of advice did he lend you?
AP: That's why it's SAS. Secret!
G: So you can't say, huh? Something to do with maybe the observation of the special agent?
AP: Of course. You know, Alex Rider walks into a room and notices everything straightaway. He has a sense of the room as well. You know, he is a very in-depth character and, to be quite frank, he can switch it on and off as he pleases. You go through this, like, roller coaster with him learning his experiences. And he's at an age where you don't really know your personality. You're kind of growing up. And you're finding yourself.
G: There's sort of two sides, it seems, to the character in terms of positive and negative emotions. One being that there is a sort of excitement to what he's doing that maybe he discovers, but also that it's a lonely job.
AP: It is, you know. He's lost his parents, and now he's lost his uncle—you're missing him. He's on his own for the first time in his life. Which—that's what's great, you know? Most thirteen, fourteen-year-olds are on their own trying to find their personality, but at the same time, he's on his own trying to find his personality, which leads him to great adventures.
G: So, Anthony, it's been seven years from the page to the screen for Alex Rider. Since you've done so much screenwriting, were you able to insist upon being the sole scribe? That's a luxury a lot of authors don't get.
AH: I didn't insist on it. In fact when the movie was optioned, I tried to talk myself out of writing it. I said to the producers that maybe it would be better to get a fresh pair of eyes and some new ideas. But they talked me into writing it. And once then I was on board as a writer, then it was harder to shift me off it again, because I got very involved. I actually found myself enjoying the writing and stuck with it.
G: I want to talk to both of you about the numerous models for Alex Rider. I know you were inspired by the son of a friend.
AH: That's correct.
G: And then probably later on by your own teenage sensibilities—
AH: To an extent, of course, yes.
G: Why don't you start by telling us how those children influenced how you wrote the character?
AH: Well, Alex Rider is a combination of many different things. I mean, you know, he started off as the son of a friend of mine who happened to speak two languages and was a black belt in tae kwon do. So there was some of the physical look of him and some of the skills. From my own sons I threw in a bit about his derring-do. Obviously a large dose of James Bond went in there. Quite a bit of Harry Palmer, if you remember the Len Deighton movies acted in by Michael Caine. A hint of John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth to bring him up to date, and that was where the character sort of came from—a mélange of different things.
G: And, for you Alex, we talked about your physio-therapist already. But you plugged Anthony for info. What was the best advice he was able to give you?
AP: You know, just giving me the background. I always saw the imagination, but the reality of Alex's life—everything what he lives and breathes, and emotions that I can't say that are in him.
AH: And he talked to me about things like did he have friends at school? Was he bullied? You know, these are some of the questions you asked me. You asked me about his relationship with Jack, you know, how close they were. Whether he missed his parents. You know, I was able to give very specific answers, which aren't in the books and which were able to be like cues to help him build the character.
G: A bit of a dossier. A verbal dossier.
AH: A verbal dossier, yeah, but nothing that I'd ever write down for anybody else.
G: In over a dozen rewrites, how much energy was put into tailoring roles to specific actors. I thinking primarily of Starbright and Jones—.
AH: Well, obviously Mickey Rourke's character had to be completely rewritten to suit his physique and looks. But that said, the motivation remains the same as in the book. I mean, it is still—he's been a result of racism in Britain and is striking back in a rather demented manner. Mrs. Jones is exactly as written in the book. I know Sophie Okonedo is black, not white, but who cares?
G: Seems a little warmer though, no?
AH: I think that was the actress rather than my writing. In the books—as the books progress, she has warmed up. If you get to Scorpio and Ark Angel—in Ark Angel, she visits Alex in hospital by which time she's become very warm. It is possible and it's an interesting point, that I was actually remembering the later books a little bit when I wrote Mrs. Jones.
G: Obviously, we have a tremendous cast for the film. I wanted to ask you, Alex, about their influence on you. What did you learn from various cast members?
AP: Basically their knowledge. You know, working with these guys, you get so much energy and creativity from their performances. And that's what you really take away and experience.
G: What was Jimmy Carr saying and doing in that train station to crack you up so much? I'm curious.
AP: Awww. That guy. He is funny, funny. Even just not saying words—looking at him is funny.
AH: He can't stop himself making jokes, that guy. I said I wrote the first Alex Rider book on a gravestone. Which is true, I was writing on a gravestone. But he immediately turned around and said, "What, you went around the cemetery writing on different gravestones?" I said, "No, no—"
G: With a chisel.
AH: Yeah, exactly.
G: You mentioned that you weren't initially keen on the horseback chase in the film, Anthony.
AH: That's true.
G: Is there anything else that, if you had had your druthers, wouldn't have made it to the screen?
AH: There wouldn't have been a girl. I put that in because—there's nothing in this movie that I now think was a mistake. Because everything has played with one section of the audience. The horse chase—people love it. I mean it's true that we closed down Piccadilly Circus for the whole day and put a horse in places there have never been horses, and it was sort of amazing to watch them to do. Have the whole of the Coldstream Guards turn out to chase your hero. Not bad going. The girl also really works. You know, she gets a big laugh, and it's a good performance by Sarah Bolger. But those are the two—the only grievance is that I represent the fan base. And the fan base knows that he meets Sabina Pleasure in film three, not film one. So in a sense, that is a betrayal. But, that said, it doesn't hurt. It doesn't hurt the movie.
G: Have you thought ahead to, should you make it to film three, what the master plan is for reintroducing--
AH: Sabina. Well, I haven't, to be honest with you. My concentration is focused entirely on October the 6th after which we will know if there'll be another movie, and I will start to worry about such things as how I reintroduce Sabina and who's gonna play Alex. But those are questions that haven't occurred to me yet.
G: Since you mention it and I have you both here, I know you don't really know, but have you taken odds in your head as to, should you get the go ahead, do you feel like you would play the part again?
AP: It's all up—down to these guys.
AH: It's not even down to me. The funny thing is, I'm the writer of the movie, but I didn't cast Alex for this one, and I won't cast Alex Rider for the next one either. If you're asking me on a personal level, it depends how much Alex grows in the next six months. It depends on a lot of things. But I'd certainly love to work with him again in one way or another.
G: There's, I understand, about half an hour of footage that was whittled away from the film. Films are often—
AH: How'd you know that?
G: Made in the editing. I read the intro to your screenplay.
AH: Oh, interesting, yes.
G: And I just wondered—did you have any favorite bits that you would wish to see again on the DVD or things you were sad to see go? Either of you?
AH: I liked a lot of the early stuff with you and Jack. There are two—three scenes with you and Alicia that are all about the character. And are all about the mood—
G: Dealing with the aftermath of—
AH: Dealing with the aftermath of the funeral. After the fight, there was a scene in the kitchen. I never actually saw it cut, but I liked the writing of it. And a scene just before you went away on the mission where it's a last sort of "Is this a good idea?" scene. And those three scenes, I'm sorry they cut. And I think, still to this day, it was a mistake. They were so intent about getting the action going that they didn't stop and think about some of the character stuff. So I'm sorry to see those go.
G: I know Stephen Fry filigreed his scene a bit. Did he come to the set with those bits, or did he work them out on the day with you, Alex?
AP: Stephen Fry's a great actor, you know. Just to work with him for a second time is fantastic, you know? When you get a rapport with him, you kind of create your own scene.
AH: He was ad-libbing on the day.
G: Alex, you played Tom Brown. That was your breakthrough role. And Anthony, I gather, in a sense, you were Tom Brown.
AH: (Laughs.) Actually, I was Flashman; I was the bully. No, I don't think I was either. But I was in the school—But, you know, it's one of those funny little tricks life throws you. The only reason I ever watched that show was because I was at the school. That's where I saw Alex's first performance. And rang and said he must take the part.
G: Is that in fact the school—the same school?
AH: It was filmed at the school where I went. It was actually filmed at the school. But he'd have got the part anyway; I mean, it's not as if I found him because Alex was certainly going to be up for the role. And everybody was buzzing about him after Tom Brown—all the reviews said how good he was in that part. So the producer didn't need me to call him: really everybody knew anyway because he was really terrific.
G: In a nutshell, though, how would you describe your childhoods, both of you? They seem to be probably not run of the mill. Is that the case?
AP: Uh, great experiences.
AH: (Pause.) Mine was more difficult, troubled. And mostly empty.
G: I'm curious about the product placement both for the books and the films. How does that get worked out?
AH: Product placement of what?
G: Well, I noticed in reading the book that there are mentions of sodas and Gap—
AH: Oh yeah.
G: And Nike and—
AH: Well I think the trouble is—the reason for that is—first of all, I have never taken a penny from anybody to put their products into my books. You know, obviously the film making a product placement is a whole another issue, which has nothing to do with me. The reason I put the brand names in is that kids live by brand names. Modern kids don't just buy trainers, they buy Nike trainers. They don't just buy jeans; it has to be Levi or whatever. They are very brand-name conscious, and, Alex, being a modern character, you know, has that. It also helps to ground the book in some sort of reality. It's not just a machine gun that gets pointed at him; it's a Hector cock 9mm manufactured in Russia. You know, whatever.
G: And the vehicles in the film—
AH: Exactly. The same sort of thing.
G: And of course that's also kind of a hand-me down from James Bond, I suppose.
AH: Very much so. It always amused me that Bond—Ian Fleming was the first writer to use brand names in fiction, as far as I know. And it always amused me that just as Bond has his martini shaken but not stirred, Alex Rider wouldn't be seen dead drinking Virgin Coca Cola, for example. It's got to be Pepsi or whatever.
G: I know there are a lot of allusions to Bond in the film, and I know you mentioned Jason Bourne earlier—this is perhaps a more grittier, perhaps more emotionally rounded character. But can you talk about how Bond influenced you to write it and also how this is sort of, in a sense, the antithesis of Bond?
AH: Well, I mean, there's no denying that the movie was inspired by James Bond. But what I was inspired by most was my memories of a thirteen-year-old going to see Goldfinger and Dr. No and From Russia With Love. Or thirteen, fourteen, twelve—you know, that age in my life. And my great excitement and pleasure in those films. I suppose that what my aim was, always, was to bring Bond into—to create a Bond for children. But at the same time, once I've got that idea, every bone in my body is saying "Don't pastiche. Don't rip off. Don't imitate. Try and do your own thing." And I would hate people to see the movie as merely being a sort of—cut-rate James Bond movie. And Alex was absolutely right when he said this—on the set we used to talk more about Bourne than about Bond. But I think probably the new Bond is going to be more like Bourne anyway.
G: Right, right.
AH: Look at the way things are going there. The character is totally different to Bond. I mean he is a model teenager. He's not a patriot. He is not, you know, somebody who is out to sort of prove a point. He is the spy more by accident rather than by design. And the world he inhabits is very different to the world of the Bond films too—certainly in terms of MI6 or more the MI6 of today than they were of sort of the SOE—the Special Operations Executive of the Second World War, which is what Ian Fleming based his on.
G: I was reflecting on this point earlier. The idea of the untrustworthiness of —
AH: Why is the main character of MI6 in my thing called Blunt? As any Englishman with tell you—any British man will tell you—Blunt was the traitor back in the sort of '60s or '70s who got exposed. I think that we have a view of intelligence now that is much less naïve than before, where we trust so much less. Particularly after the weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco. You know, as Blunt says in the movie, the trouble with the government is they trust us about as much as a ouija board now. That is the relationship between Blair and his Secret Service, I think.
G: And it's also the perfect moment, adolescence, to figure that issue of not trusting authority, isn't it?
AH: I think that's a good point, yeah. I think that kids have a natural, and I think a healthy, mistrust of authority when they get into their teens. It is a time, after all, when they've got to start making decisions for themselves. So it's just as well that they should question what they're told to do.
G: One other thing I really wanted to ask about is how you research your locations for your novels and devise those action scenes. You like to be there, step in, see—
AH: That's actually correct, yeah. I mean, the books are written very visually. They've got to work on that level because they're written for a generation of kids who are much more visual than literate. That is to say, they live with screens: telephone screens, cell screens, computer screens, TV screens, MTV, the movies. So they have to be visually accurate, and the best way to do that is to go to the places and, as it were, take a photograph in my mind and reproduce it. I like also for the books to have a sort of—for the action sequences, the first rule is it's got to be something Bond has never done. So getting dunked in a giant tank with a Jellyfish may seem extreme, but at least it's original. And researching—I was in Bangkok three weeks ago, and I was working on Snakehead, which is the next Alex Rider book. And just being there, I mean—I know that in one of the chapters, Alex is going to have to hide out in Bangkok, in a real cockroach-infested, disgusting apartment in the middle of Bangkok. Now I could have written that without going anywhere near Bangkok. But I have photos of alleyways and rooms and corridors and food stalls that are so disgusting that I will be able to write little details, and names of shops and just things I couldn't know about unless I had been there, and by doing that, I will sell Bangkok to the kids. And by selling Bangkok to the kids, I will sell the reality of Alex being an undercover agent living in Bangkok—It just gives it authority. Authority is what we're needing here to sell these very extreme and sort of slightly unrealistic stories and give them that kiss of reality—you've got to have authority. And I get that by a lot of hard work and a lot of—you know, in the next book, for example, when I describe Alex's return from outer space, the entire chapter was given to me by an astronaut. I spoke to an astronaut for about forty minutes. You know, "What is it like re-entering the Earth's atmosphere? What does your body do? What do you feel like?" And everything he said to me is in that chapter. I couldn't go to outer space, but at least I got it second hand.
G: Excellent. Thank you very much.
AH: My pleasure—
AP: Thanks very much.
G: Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of Stormbreaker, click here.]