Peaky Blinders’s Jack Rowan can even make a sociopathic killer seem likeable
For his performance as Sam, the teenage sociopath protagonist of Born to Kill, Jack Rowan received unanimously glowing reviews. The unsettling miniseries, which aired in April and May in the UK, offered Rowan his first leading role; before playing Sam, the 20-year-old South London native only had a handful of credits to his name, including a guest part in Silent Witness, a short film, and the fantasy series Beowulf. “Reading the reviews [for Born to Kill] made me cry, man,” he explains earnestly. “I was absolutely over the bloody moon.” A favorite piece of feedback came from The Guardian, which wrote that Rowan would “would almost certainly have been in Skins if he had been born a few years earlier.”
“Skins was my favorite show,” says Rowan. “I absolutely screen-shotted that and was like, ‘Make another one and cast me in it!’”
For Rowan, it is clear that Born to Kill is just the beginning: earlier this month, Rowan wrapped Benjamin, Simon Amstell’s debut narrative feature as a director and writer. Next up, he will appear in the fourth season of Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders as Bonnie Gold, a Romany gypsy. Other new cast members include Oscar-winner Adrien Brody and Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen, who plays Rowan’s father. It’s a show that Rowan has been watching for years as a fan. “To be able to call these people my colleagues or my peers,” he remarks of Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson, and company, “a few years ago, these sorts of moments felt so far away.”
HOMETOWN: Pimlico, South London. I’ve lived there my whole life. I went to Pimlico School. Nothing extravagant has happened; people have come and gone, memories have been made, fun has been had.
EARLY AMBITIONS: I used to want to be an Olympian. I used to want to go to the Olympics and be a boxer. That was always my dream. I used to get up in the morning and think about boxing, go to sleep thinking about boxing, do my exams thinking about boxing. But I got an injury that kept my out for 16 months, and it was only in them 16 months that I happened to generate a love for acting.
INTRODUCTION TO ACTING: I did the National Theatre’s Connections festival [when I was younger]. I used to go to a small drama place, and every year a play would come through and we’d have the chance to perform it at a theater called the artsdepot. The opportunity to get a play from the National and do your own interpretation, that was awesome. It was the beginning of everything, really. It was what made me know that, “Yeah, this is quite enjoyable, and I’m alright at it.”
FIRST PROFESSIONAL ROLE: Silent Witness, 2015. I was with this tiny, tiny agency, and I had this headshot with a hood up. The character was very raw, and they were very open in the casting. I guess you could say they encouraged a form of street casting, because they went to people who weren’t even on the radar. I had to do a self-tape for it. I remember I was in the cinema so I didn’t look at my phone until the nighttime. I wasn’t used to getting auditions, and it had to be in early the next day. I woke my mum up, woke my sister up, and there we were, my mum reading me the lines on my sister’s phone and my sister filming it. It was crazy! I wrote my lines on pieces of paper and stuck them to my wall, so if I forgot it, I just looked straight ahead to my wall. I had two more auditions after that, and then got it. It just snowballed from there, really. I couldn’t have asked for a better first job. It was such a close-to-home character. It was a character that I could do, it was a character that came naturally for me, and a great team and a great show that has been going for years. Silent Witness will always have a place in my heart, as will Born to Kill. It’s all a journey. Where Silent Witness was the first one, Born to Kill was the first lead role, my first big shot. Them jobs will always be in my heart.
FIRST BIG BREAK: [For Born to Kill,] I came in at the later stages. I had six auditions. It was certainly a grueling process. As time went on, I just wanted it more and more, to the point where I was giving everything. It would have been heartbreaking to not get it. For my second audition, they said, “Prepare well and we’ll pick out a few scenes for you to do.” I learnt every scene in episode one and two that Sam was in, even if he only had two lines, just to show them that I wanted it and I was working hard for it. Learning it all by my own accord actually helped me. I was always prepared; I was always ready. And I thank them for giving it to me.
PLAYING THE VILLAIN: It was draining, but I absolutely loved playing Sam. When I read the script, I never judged him. Although he kills people—he’s quite a cold individual—I was like, “I need to find a bit where he’s likable, where he’s relatable, where you feel sorry for him, where he’s vulnerable.” I wanted the audience to break for him. I wanted their hearts to break for the killer. I wanted them to feel empathy towards a character who can’t feel empathy. He was so complex and so profound that it was so much fun. Every day would be different; one day I’d be wearing the mask of the cocky school boy, the next I’d be this vulnerable kid, the next I’d be a bully, the next I’d be killing people, the next I’d be diving. It certainly tested my range. It was a dream part, and I knew that from the get-go. Obviously he was quite a horrible person, and by the end of shooting days I would feel a little bit sad or a little bit down sometimes because of how horrible he was. I sat in his mind all day, so when I’d go home and I’d be on my own, I’d still be sitting in his mind. But I’d just whip on a romantic comedy or a Louis Theroux documentary, and everything would be fine. I’d look in the mirror and I’d say, “Look what I’m doing!”
PLAYING THE GAME: I’m sort of nuts in general. I drive myself crazy. I’ve had to learn from it. There are a few [roles] where I got really, really close—big jobs as well, ones that would change my life financially and acting-wise—and certainly getting close and not getting it, for the first few times, it was hard to deal with and frustrating. But as time has gone on, I’ve learnt that that’s just the industry. That’s just what’s going to happen. You’re not going to get every role. I think rejection is good. It fires you up a little bit. Particularly before Born to Kill, there were about five jobs I got close to—each one I got to the last two, the last five, the last handful—and by the time I got to Born to Kill, I was like, “No way. This is the one.” It did light a fire up me.
PEAKY BLINDERS: I can say little things. I got to work with Aidan Gillen, which was great. I learnt a lot from him. Even when he wasn’t doing anything, I was watching the guy. [laughs] My character is a very talented boxer, although he’s small. Given that it’s set in the 1920s, the boxing style back then was quite flat-footed and quite brawly. The way I chose to box, he’s a boxer who’s before his time. They were looking for actors that can box, and I box myself. That’s all I am, really. [laughs] Those are the two things that I’ve ever been good at in this world. I love watching old boxing—not as far back as the ’20s, but I love boxers like Jack Dempsey. I love watching black and white boxing fights. There’s something raw about olden-time boxing. Nowadays you get too much flash and too much trash talk. Back then it was just business.
FEELING STARSTRUCK: Peaky Blinders is up there with my favorite shows. To be a part of it, to be on that set, I was just constantly pinching myself. I remember my friend asking me what it was like after my first day, and all I could say was, “I know this might sound weird, but Cillian Murphy looks like Tommy Shelby. Tommy Shelby looks like Tommy Shelby.” Because I’d watched it on telly, it’s like seeing the character in front of you. It’s kind of funny, because, like I said, I love the show, so to be a part of it I’ve kind of ruined it for myself because now I know what happens. [laughs] Now that I’m in it, I won’t watch it the same.
THE PERKS: My family all have humble jobs—quite honest jobs. My dad is a bricklayer. Acting is new to them. It’s fun to go home and tell them everything because it’s so big to them as well. “I’m working with Cillian Murphy!” To just tell them is a highlight. I’m the first actor of the family, but hopefully not the last.
SEASONS ONE TO THREE OF PEAKY BLINDERS ARE AVAILABLE VIA NETFLIX. SEASON FOUR WILL AIR ON BBC TWO IN THE UK LATER THIS YEAR.