Brit Alex Pettyfer had to be convinced he was the right actor for the lead role in 'I Am Number Four'
February 17, 2011 5:00 AM
Alex Pettyfer as John in "I Am Number Four"
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sometimes actors don't know best.
Take Alex Pettyfer, a 20-year-old Brit who walked into the audition for "I Am Number Four," sat down but stood up and announced he was sorry, he wasn't right for the role.
"Deborah Aquila, who's the casting director, ran after me. She's like, 'Alex, Alex, Alex, you've got to come back.' I said, 'I can't come back, I'm not right for it, and I don't want to muck up your movie.' "
Two weeks later, a call asked him to reconsider.
"I still didn't want to come in, but I came in a week later, and they still hadn't found anyone and I read for D.J. [Caruso, the director], and they seemed to maybe like what I did and screen-tested me. ... And I got an e-mail from my agent, 'Oh, we're waiting to hear what Steven says.'
"I'm like, 'Who's Steven?' Steven Spielberg. Oh, right, because I just did a screen test for Steven Spielberg, and he gave me the thumbs up, which is a very, very, very big honor. It's very humbling to realize there's such amazing people behind this movie."
Mr. Pettyfer, sitting a few yards from the makeup chairs in a trailer in Deer Lakes Park one evening in June, told this story with just the right amount of charm and self-deprecating humor.
Unlike some younger stars who appear tormented by publicity -- none apparently on this set -- he seems like a good sport who is about to gain more attention thanks to "I Am Number Four" and "Beastly" opening on March 4.
In one he's an alien with telekinetic powers and the ability to shoot light and energy from his palms and in the other, he's a dreamy but shallow teen who is cursed and transformed into someone as unattractive on the outside as the inside.
Mr. Pettyfer says Number Four, who goes by the name of John Smith, is a bit like James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause," trying to find his identity.
"I think every teenager comes to a point in their life -- around 15, 16, 17 and I think most of it is because of coming into puberty -- I think you're kind of like, who do I want to be? What do I want to do in my life? You get the stroppy teenager and that's how I kind of related to it."
Stroppy? A British term for ill-tempered or belligerent.
When it comes to stunt work, Mr. Pettyfer is anything but stroppy, crediting 2006's "Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker" in which he played a teenage spy for MI6, the British intelligence agency, for his fearlessness.
"I was so eager to do everything, and I had a real learning experience on that, and I've used that experience and brought it onto this movie," he said. "I did a back flip off a 150-foot scaffolding to practice for this dive I'm going to do, and I'm training doing martial arts."
Calling himself a "very naturally skinny guy," Mr. Pettyfer said it was challenging to stick to a regime of eating a protein-rich diet (lots of chicken and rice) and working out while filming.
He doesn't want moviegoers to look at him on screen and scoff, "He's no leading man," he said. "So I try and go to the gym, and I absolutely hate it. My brother's a tennis player, and he's like fitness, fitness fitness. I'd rather be sitting on the couch playing PlayStation."
Instead, he spent his summer engaged in cardiovascular exercises, fight training, stunt wire work and weight lifting, along with stretching.
It was flexing another muscle -- learning to do an American accent -- that brought his burgeoning career to a temporary halt. He came to America after "Stormbreaker" and disappeared because he couldn't master the accent.
Then he met a dialect coach who assisted him on "Beastly" and another on "I Am Number Four," and he realized an accent is like a mask an actor dons and is crucial to creating the character.
"I've got a lovely lady, Peggy, who is with me day and night just hammering down at the words I can't say." Among them: Paradise, the name of the rural town where his character and guardian settle.
Although Mr. Pettyfer and co-star Dianna Agron are rumored to be a couple, they apparently didn't know each other before the shoot. "I remember being cast and coming up to D.J., 'We should get Dianna.' [Snaps his fingers.] Got her."
Then, after seeing Teresa Palmer in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," he suggested her to the director. "Dude, look at the wall," he was told, and her picture was already there.
Mr. Pettyfer considers himself a movie buff and rattles off a list of performances he admires: Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in "Hunger," Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean" and Robert Downey Jr. in "Chaplin."
"So many people think that our job is so glamorous, and easy and it's really not. To really build someone else and work 20-hour days and pump everything you've got into that person, it's really quite amazing."
As for repeating as Number Four if the movie spawns a franchise, he said, "You can never say what you feel before you actually do it ... and I'm on the movie now and the character that I play I love and enjoy, and I love where he's going and where he will go."
If sequels are launched and cultivate the sort of devotion of "Matrix" and "Pirates," he hopes he will still be involved and deliver what moviegoers want. "The character is going to develop so much over the next couple of years. He's starting off a boy and he'll turn into, well, you'll have to wait and find out."
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri:
or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies.