After talking with Dianna Agron, the question of the dinner where she met Alex Pettyfer for the first time came up again. I wasn’t going to ask about it, but when someone else did to director D.J. Caruso – as he was answering the question – I started to get a little anxious, because I knew what my next question would be. Actually, it wasn’t a question, I just wanted to make a joke about a Kurosawa movie. Such is my favorite part of a fairly fun and loose discussion with the director and star of I Am Number Four. Pettyfer came off as a little guarded – perhaps wary of the junketing process – but charming in his caution, while director D.J. Caruso was an old hand at the back and forth. It was a good pairing and made for a fun interview.
Note: as with every group, some people have certain hot button questions. In my group there was a lady who really wanted to talk about Skins, though it is relevant.
Alex, what took you so long to get back into action hero mode?
ALEX PETTYFER: I thought you were going to say what took you so long to get back into shape. It’s like “damn!”
I don’t think any of us are complaining about that.
PETTYFER : What took me so long? Um, I don’t know, I don’t look at a movie and go, “oh I need action.” I look for great stories. And I Am Number Four was a very compelling story and something that I really wanted to tell.
You were so good in Alex Rider that I was sure there’d be another sequel, you’d join the next round of action kid stars.
PETTYFER: The problem with Alex Rider is that he stays fifteen forever and doesn’t grow older. And unfortunately when the next opportunity came around, I was seventeen-eighteen, and you can’t disappoint people like that. It’s like Harry Potter and if he ever stayed young in the book and Daniel Radcliffe starts having a beard, I think people would be upset. I have got another opportunity with I Am Number Four. And I’m very proud of this movie.
What appeals to you about the character of Number Four?
PETTYFER: I think that a lot of kids can relate to who he is. He is a guy who struggles with trying to find his identity as we all do in our lives. We are trying to figure out and maybe some of you are still trying to figure out what you’re doing, I certainly am. It’s his journey that he goes on, and I love the fact that he’s searching for something. Yet sometimes we think we know what we want to do with our lives, and we have a dream and it really just ends up being completely not what you expected. And who you are now and who you end up being are two very different things. And I thought that was, I thought that was very interesting.
This is potentially a big franchise, talk about casting Alex in the lead, was it a gamble?
D.J. CARUSO: I don’t know if it was a gamble because the freedom for a filmmaker in a movie like this is it wasn’t dictated by “get Brad Pitt or we won’t make your movie,” it was “go find new people.” So that’s always very liberating. And Alex was new to me and – I tell the story all the time now – I think what I loved about him was when he came into the very first audition, he started reading and he stopped himself and said, “I’m not right for your movie. I’m not going to ruin your movie, I’m the wrong guy.” And he left but he was very polite about it. Right away I was like, “that’s exactly the quality I want to have in Number Four!” I want to have a guy who’s doubting whether he can pull this off and doesn’t want to do it. And ultimately figures out who he is by the end. And so I had phoned his agent and said “please get him back in here in four days, I know he’s the right guy, I know it.” He came back four days later and he was fantastic, but I love that he can look like this and have that vulnerability. That’s a filmmaker’s dream.
Was that a planned tactic?
PETTYFER: I never thought of it. (Pettyfer stops to deliberately wink) I’m joking. I admire D.J.’s work and D.J. so much and really looked up to and idolized the people that were attached to the film. And in plain simple words, I just didn’t want to do something that they weren’t proud of. And I didn’t want to create something that wasn’t what they wanted. I was really nervous. Now I realize that D.J. stands by you every step of the way. If I had known that I wouldn’t have – I don’t think I offended – but I wouldn’t have been so rude by walking out. But I realized that the opportunity that was being presented was once in a lifetime and I didn’t want to miss it.
Who kicks the best ass, Number Four or Number Six?
PETTYFER: Well I got paid twenty dollars outside to say Teresa (Palmer), so I’ll say Teresa.
Working with these names, is there added pressure?
CARUSO: You know what the biggest pressure on this from a business standpoint was that DreamWorks has re-launched itself. And so the whole DreamWorks thing was all new. Disturbia was interesting because I finished the movie and they said, oh, by the way, put a Paramount logo on there. I was like “why?” “well we just sold ourselves to Paramount” and I was like “okay great.” And by the end of Eagle Eye – which is eighteen months later – they’re like “we’re no longer there.” I was like “okay great.” And then now it’s all changed but the pressure honestly was it was brand new DreamWorks – like a rebooted DreamWorks – where it’s just Steven and Stacey. So the pressure to deliver for them, that was more the pressure I felt than working for Michael or Steven or anything like that.
How do you find the balance, because you did a better job than a lot of action directors, keeping the audience engaged?
CARUSO: I think what you have to do is you have to really police it. It’s always a fight of character versus plot. And pace. And you’re always going to have the studio or people tell you, “your movie is a little slow in the beginning.” But I do believe your movie is slow in the beginning if it’s character. Because if you can build and spend the time with the characters and learn about them, then ultimately what’s going to happen in the end in the action is going to mean so much more. So you’re discovering with them, and then ultimately trying to put the audience in there. So I always feel like, yes, I make genre movies that are sort of elevated I hope and I think it’s the elevation is the time and I try to stand with the characters. So it’s a complement that you say that, thank you.
Alex, when you audition for an American character, do you do the accent?
PETTYFER: Uh, no I go in with an American.
You keep in character?
Can you clarify the first meeting between Alex and his female lead?
CARUSO: I’ve read a lot about old filmmakers and David Lean was a guy who believed that like you have a barbecue with your cast and you try on wardrobe and you form this family. And so I always have this fantasy in today’s day and age that I always want the actors to get together. And I had a dinner with everybody there and I encouraged them to make sure you get together. And Dianna came aboard late. And so I suggested that she and Alex get together and just have a dinner or lunch or something a coffee, so they can meet each other, because in three days you’re going to be kissing each other. It’s something that I encourage. And so it was really on a professional level, I didn’t think like “wow, you can be great with her.” It just was more, I wanted them to bond and at least exchange ideas and let them know who they are, who they really are, before we would develop their characters.
She said she thought you were going to be present but then you conveniently were busy?
CARUSO: I was very busy with the movie. But yes, I was supposed to join them. I didn’t make it.
That sounds like a bit of a gamble, not knowing if your two leads have chemistry?
CARUSO: Well I’d obviously casted them independently but I just knew. And I’ve been with them in the wardrobe and gotten to know them so I knew that they kind of would work out but it’s just something I recommend, because you can’t always share openly. And I think the more you know someone more about someone, who they really are, the more it helps you develop who the characters are together. So-
Let’s go full Rashomon on this, Alex?
PETTYFER: You know what I love the most is that you push your seat forward, like wishing you were there on the night. Like ah, “I need it.” It was a fun experience. Dianna is this amazing actress who has got this old school movie star feel to her. And it was easy. You guys met her, haven’t you? And she’s such a lovely person to be around. It was fun to make a film with her.
What about the iPhone and Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” it’s in a lot of the scenes.
CARUSO: I just try- whatever kids have or whatever they’re using, you know, in the ring tones and stuff. I think Apple is the greatest company. And if you look at ninety percent of every kid that you see has an iPhone. And that just-
It’s my ringtone.
CARUSO: You thought it was yours though, when it rings?
CARUSO: I always think that it’s the greatest thing and a great product and it was realistic. And for me as long as it’s realistic, it’s going to be there instead of some generic-
That plays a big part also in the movie, as far as getting information out and getting him on video?
CARUSO: Well I mean it’s a kind of starts for me in Disturbia, and then obviously Eagle Eye is all about technology. But it’s what real, it’s what’s out there, it’s what everybody is using. So it just helps you tell your story and makes it easier.
Alex there’s a lot of green screen work in the film, how challenging is that for you as an actor? How comfortable were you with it?
PETTYFER: It was one day. One day of green screen. The rest of it was practical. D.J. creates these mind blowing sets that you go in and everything is real and when you’re running down the hallway and walls are being smashed and lockers are being thrown in, they really are being thrown in. And everything is one hundred percent real. CGI comes after, so you can actually live it as an actor.
CARUSO: Yeah, I think it’s important to create the environment for the actors so when the wall is blowing up, we’re blowing up the wall. Even though we’re going to add the CG element because it makes the reality better. And then also I think the audience sophistication with CGI is so much more intense and they scrutinize it. That the more real things happen in the frame, the more textures are going to be in the frame. So it makes it believable for the actors and for the audience.
How much training did you have to do to get ready for this role?
PETTYFER: Two months of training, rehearsed it and then, yeah. You kind of put your trust and your life in these stunt guys’ hands and hope to God that they catch you when you fall.
Any stunts that you wanted to do that you weren’t allowed to do?
PETTYFER: I did all my own stunts. There were only a few things that I couldn’t physically do. We had a guy called Damian Waters who is the number one hard core champion in the world and he’s the world champion tumble roller. And literally he can stand and you can draw chalk around his feet. Literally around his feet. And he can do a back flip and land exactly the same place. I think there was one stunt that I wanted to do which I realized when I saw it, when I come out with Sarah and then they tackle me and I land on the floor. Well I jump up and they tackle my body first. And then my legs. And he lands on his neck. And obviously I can’t land on my neck. Nor would I want to. So I left that to him.
I just saw a documentary about Jeff Bridges, and he talked about the film Starman, where he would study babies and birds, is there anything you studied to nail the alien?
PETTYFER: Yeah, I studied Starman.
CARUSO: I totally made him watch that, I said “can you think of any great alien romances? For me Starman is the perfect one.” And I don’t want to speak for Alex, but my favorite moment for him in the movie is when he gets to Dianna’s house, Sarah’s house, and it’s like this Normal Rockwell neighborhood with this warm light. He’s looking at it like Jeff Bridges would in Starman. He’s just gazing at this house like it’s the first time he ever saw anything so inviting. And she’s just starting at him. But I think our little homage to Starman, but we definitely watched that movie. So it’s funny that you point that out.
The casting was great, it’s not the classic “Jocks vs. Nerds.”
CARUSO: I’m proud there’s not one letterman’s jacket in this movie, I’m so proud of that.
And also Sam is bullied, but is not a nerd.
CARUSO: Yes, right.
He’s bullyied because of what he believes.
CARUSO: That’s right, that was the take, there’s a lot of cliché routes to do certain things. But Sam is this sort of outsider who really has this crazy belief, and whose father, according to everyone else, was a little bit crazy. But he’s just this wonderful kid in spirit who lost and loves his father. And because of their views he’s viewed on the outside. But he’s highly intelligent, but he’s not the nerd. Mark is a guy who happens to be jealous. You know, and he’s a little bit more intelligent than your normal angry jock that you might see in a movie. So we tried to bring intelligence there. I think one of the things we’re really proud of is that our hero steps in and stops the bullying, in a way. It’s so hard for kids to step in. They all have to sit there and they watch it, and you see it happen and I think we’ve all probably been guilty of it in our lives. So I like the fact that our hero basically says, “I’m not going to let that happen,” he has to restrain himself, because god knows what he can do to those kids. He steps in and I think that bond of outsiders, it’s totally okay to be an outsider, it’s okay to believe what you want to be. It’s okay, whatever your sexual preference is, it doesn’t really matter if you’re true to who you are. And I think it’s a fun movie, but in a really subtle way, there’s really nice things that happen in the high school that I’m proud of.
What do you think with teen movies about doing down to earth relatable kids and the opposite extreme like Skins?
CARUSO: I feel strongly the wonderful thing about the art form is that there’s different ways. In Skins obviously- and I watched the British series, I have not seen the MTV show yet. But man, does it really push the envelope and I mean it does really push the envelope. And is it entertaining, yes? And is it something that should be seen, I think as any parent and a parent of five, you know, you really have to monitor. And you have to figure out what’s right. Would I let my sixteen year old watch Skins? Yeah. I probably would. But I’d also have to preface it with what I think it’s about. I think everyone has the right to make anything that they want to make. And it’s just there’s such a parental absence in this sort of age of where they can watch it on their iPhone, so you can’t really monitor. But it’s a trust built with parents. I mean if someone is ten watching Skins, I think that’s horribly wrong. Horribly wrong, and it is happening, sure.
You’ve made three films with DreamWorks, how does it feel to gain that access at work?
CARUSO: It’s nice because as a filmmaker, I always tell my kids I’m sort of like this independent contractor plumber. I’ll go fix somebody’s house and go work and you kind of fix it, you leave, and you say, I’ll see you later. So it’s nice to be going to the same house all the time, and then you feel at home. And my editing room has been the same for the last three movies. And the screening room across the way is Steven’s screening room, so you can go screen things in there, because there’s a projectionist in there all the time. And it feels really good – particularly when I’m like any other independent contractor. You’re always trying to do good work and sell your stuff and get good jobs and it’s great to be in one place. I feel very blessed to have that. So it’s really comforting and they’re probably going to kick me out on Monday, but we’ll try to start again and see what happens.
Are we going to see a sequel?
CARUSO: Uh, it’s not already in the works, I think you can say that, because we said it all day. If you enjoy this one, we’ll make another. I think Four and Six – where we left them – is in a really good spot. So it’ll be fun to see them get some fighting going on.
I Am Number Four opens tomorrow.