Alex Pettyfer is looking at a flyer with his name and picture on it. “ALEX PETTYFER!” he bellows in a mock-announcer voice. “And also, BAY AREA NATIVE DIANNA AGRON!” he reads, referring to the Glee actress and Burlingame native, also his I Am Number Four costar and rumored girlfriend. The flyer is advertising a promotional appearance Pettyfer and Agron will be making at a store in San Bruno the next day. “This is very impressive,” he says. “Just… wow.”
Like the rest of America, the 20-year-old Pettyfer isn’t quite used to seeing himself in the spotlight yet. As of this moment, the British native is still able to walk the streets largely unrecognized. Other than roles in such little-seen films as Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker and the Emma Roberts vehicle Wild Child (and his work as a Burberry model), there’s really no reason you should know him. But that all changes this Friday, with the release of the massively promoted, Michael Bay-produced I Am Number Four.
This is Pettyfer’s first major U.S. press tour, and when I spoke to him, it was the same day as the premiere of his American talk show debut on Ellen. It was an appearance that was already garnering plenty of attention, due to the fact that, as Ellen’s website (which refers to him as “the newest sexy stud in Hollywood”) tastefully reads: Ellen told him first-timers always take their shirt off — and he believed it! I’m not sure when Ellen became the daytime lesbian equivalent of Girls Gone Wild impresario Joe Francis, but anyway.
For his part, Pettyfer (who resembles a younger, lankier Ryan Kwanten) seems shamed by the experience. “Oh my god,” he says at the very mention of the word Ellen. “I’m very, very embarrassed. Ellen made me take off my t-shirt! So when you see that, and you see that I’m completely out of shape, please don’t laugh!” Which made me do one of these:
But I kept it on the inside.
Regardless of any false modesty and/or profound body image problems from his days as a model, Pettyfer seems genuinely kind and sweet-natured while discussing his imminent stardom. “It’s overwhelming, man,” he muses. “I love America, I’ve moved out here now. I love the people, I love doing talk shows and speaking to you guys. It’s very nerve-wracking, but also very enjoyable, and I get to promote the thing I love.”
It’s a good thing that Pettyfer enjoys promotion, because it’s pretty much taken over his life. He says that, since relocating to Los Angeles, he has been renting “a nice, cute house” there. “Everyone needs a base,” he says. “Not that I’ll ever be there, because I’ll be promoting this movie for the next twenty years. [laughs] Making sure [executive producer] Spielberg and DreamWorks get their residuals. I am a slave to I Am Number Four!” Then, quickly, in a quieter voice, staring down at the table, handlers standing a few feet away: “No, I’m joking. I love I Am Number Four.”
Pettyfer has been working the interview circuit long enough to have immediate one-liner responses to such questions as what superpowers he’d rather have than his on-screen character’s (“X-ray vision and mind-reading”) and whether he’ll ever join Agron on Glee for a song (“If I could sing, I would, but I sound like a foghorn”). Aside from that, conversation about Agron is off-limits. The two have yet to formally confirm their relationship, although they have been repeatedly photographed together, and Glee costar Jayma Mays spoke to People about Pettyfer’s visits to the set.
Call him naive, but Pettyfer doesn’t believe that stardom necessarily has to lead to the oh-so-familiar pitfalls of young fame. “Can I be honest?” he asks. “Lots of people say, ‘Oh, your life is gonna change,’ and this and that and this and that, but I’ve been though this experience before with another movie, and really, I think people bring it upon themselves. They change their own lives. I think I am a very normal guy — well, I hope I’m a normal guy! [laughs] I can’t be the judge of that, I could be completely insane. But I’ve got a very quiet life and I’m very happy with that. You can’t help certain things that happen with this industry, but to prevent those things as much as possible is what I try to do.”
By the way, here’s some video of Pettyfer and his quiet life:
He isn’t lying. Very quiet.
Perhaps he’d have been whistling a different tune had I spoken to him two weeks later, when a damning story in The Hollywood Reporter made enough allegations about Pettyfer’s reportedly “difficult” behavior that Gawker labeled him “Hollywood’s Newest Diva.” While I can hardly claim to be an expert on him from our brief time together, I can also say that he was a completely guileless delight: charming, but not slickly so; still very young and silly; animated and dorky. I would suggest that he presumably has a very aggressive team in place fighting to make him the Next Big Thing.
And so far, it appears to be working. In addition to Number Four, he’ll also soon appear opposite Vanessa Hudgens, Mary-Kate Olsen, and Neil Patrick Harris in Beastly, which he describes as “a modern-day Beauty and the Beast told from the Beast’s perspective;” he plays the Beast. He’s being sought after for multiple other franchises, and broke the hearts of fans around the world when he recently turned down a role in the film adaptation of the Mortal Instruments book series in favor of another series, The Last Apprentice. The first film will be called The Seventh Son, in which Pettyfer will share the screen with two of this year’s Oscar nominees, Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Lawrence.
And, when we spoke, he was just four days removed from wrapping the shoot for the highly-anticipated Now, directed by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), and featuring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Olivia Wilde, Cillian Murphy, Matthew Bomer, Yaya DaCosta, and Vincent Kartheiser. “It’s this kind of futuristic but very old-school sci-fi movie, and it’s beautifully shot by Roger Deakins [currently nominated for an Oscar for True Grit],” he says. When asked about his role in the highly secretive production, he hesitates. “I don’t know if I can say this, but I play the bad guy. He’s a gang leader, the main bad guy, and just a really great character. My character has this crazy tick, and he’s this kind of Charles Manson, Gary Oldman-in-Léon guy. He’s crazy and so much fun to play. The movie is just great. Although it’s taken me days to get the fake tattoo off my arm.”
But, before any of that, there’s I Am Number Four, a full-fledged, high-powered teen sci-fi epic rooted very strongly in the high school experience: hormones, bullies, teachers, parents, and even a climactic showdown on a football field. Buffy the Vampire Slayer series writer Marti Noxon worked on the script, and the parallels are plentiful: Pettyfer’s character, John Smith, is a teen who craves a normal life but is separated by a supernatural otherness (although fortunately we’re spared the endless platitudes Sarah Michelle Gellar was forced to recite about her character’s difficult plight). However, for Pettyfer, it’s really more about the story than the spectacle.
“I Am Number Four has all these big sci-fi elements, but it all takes place in a very intimate setting. It’s really a love story about a guy fighting for what he believes in and who he is. And who he wants to be isn’t necessarily who he becomes.” As for Pettyfer, only time will tell if stardom will wedge a similar divide into his own sense of self. But in his opinion, he’s doing just fine.
I Am Number Four open in Bay Area theaters on Friday.