IN NEW DRAMA

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - TV Guide - - FRONT PAGE -

war­fare in 1920s Birm­ing­ham. Rowan says the writ­ers had big plans for his Peaky Blin­ders char­ac­ter be­fore he landed the role on Noughts + Crosses and so in­stead con­cocted his cru­ci­fix­ion.

While he was sad­dened to have to choose be­tween the two projects, he says the lure of play­ing a lead role in a ma­jor pro­duc­tion like Noughts + Crosses was just too good to refuse.

Based on the award-win­ning book se­ries of the same name by Malo­rie Black­man, Noughts + Crosses reimag­ines a world where an African Em­pire in­vaded and colonised Europe rather than the other way around.

In this al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity it is white peo­ple (known as noughts) like Rowan’s char­ac­ter, Cal­lum, who are marginalis­ed and at the re­ceiv­ing end of racism be­cause of the colour of their skin.

Amid this so­ci­ety sim­mer­ing with racial ten­sions, Rowan’s char­ac­ter, falls in love with Se­phy, a priv­i­leged but well-in­ten­tioned black politi­cian’s daugh­ter.

It’s a modern twist on Romeo and Juliet. But it’s not just the star-crossed lover sto­ry­line that Rowan be­lieves will have view­ers most en­thralled.

Com­ing to the new stream­ing ser­vice Binge hot on the heels of a pe­riod where real-life racial in­jus­tice and ten­sion has dom­i­nated head­lines and de­bate around the world makes the themes of Noughts + Crosses more per­ti­nent than ever be­fore.

Rowan says the six-part se­ries’ unique take on seg­re­ga­tion, op­pres­sion and racism may help view­ers imag­ine life from some­one else’s per­spec­tive.

“(Noughts + Crosses) is in­cred­i­bly rel­e­vant in light of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment we have here right now,” he says.

“But, to be hon­est, these sorts of is­sues have al­ways been rel­e­vant.”

Grow­ing up in Lon­don, Rowan, 23, says he was sur­rounded by a melt­ing pot of dif­fer­ent cul­tures.

He says he never wit­nessed any overt dis­plays of racism first-hand but, since film­ing Noughts + Crosses has had pause for thought about the sub­tle ways that peo­ple of colour are dis­crim­i­nated against ev­ery day.

He be­lieves that a lot of white peo­ple who do not be­lieve that racism is a prob­lem to­day may also have their eyes opened by Noughts + Crosses.

The se­ries does not paint these is­sues with broad brush­strokes. In fact, it is smaller and un­spo­ken signs of ca­sual racism that can pack the most pow­er­ful punch. One scene, in which his char­ac­ter cuts his fin­ger and has his wound dressed in a dark-coloured ban­dage struck a par­tic­u­lar chord with Rowan.

“As a kid you scrape your knee and you put a plas­ter on it,” he ex­plains.

“It never oc­curred to me that those plas­ters are es­sen­tially a Cau­casian-skin tone. Per­haps hav­ing a Cau­casian-coloured plas­ter stuck on you if you are a young black kid could make you feel more iso­lated.

“When we screened the se­ries for an au­di­ence, that scene is al­ways one which they re­act strongly to.”

The ban­dage scene was lifted di­rectly from Black­man’s book. While Black­man col­lab­o­rated with Noughts + Crosses scriptwrit­ers, the se­ries is not a com­pletely faith­ful adap­ta­tion and sig­nif­i­cant changes were made to some sto­ry­lines for the sake of pace and drama.

Rowan didn’t read Black­man’s books be­fore au­di­tion­ing for the part but has done so since film­ing the se­ries in South Africa.

IS IN­CRED­I­BLY REL­E­VANT IN LIGHT OF THE BLACK LIVES MAT­TER MOVE­MENT … BUT, TO BE HON­EST, THESE SORTS OF IS­SUES HAVE AL­WAYS BEEN REL­E­VANT

He was also un­fa­mil­iar with the fact his screen mother He­len Bax­en­dale’s had won in­ter­na­tional fame with a role on Friends.

“I only started watch­ing Friends be­fore I started on Noughts + Crosses,” he says.

“I know, I was re­ally late to that party. I had just got up to the episodes He­len was in (as Ross’ sec­ond wife Emily) when I started work­ing with her.

“Of course, Friends is on ev­ery­where I go now. It’s al­ways on in the back­ground some­where. Now I can go: ‘There’s my mum!’ when­ever I see He­len on it.”

Rowan never set out to be an ac­tor. Like his Blin­ders role, as a kid his first love was box­ing.

But when an in­jury de­railed him from get­ting in the ring for a year, a then 16-year-old Rowan turned his at­ten­tions to drama.

“At the time it seemed like a curse (to be pre­vented from box­ing) but it turned out to be a bless­ing in dis­guise be­cause it al­lowed me to find the thing that I re­ally wanted to do,” he says.

His box­ing past wasn’t com­pletely wasted, how­ever, as he was able to draw on those skills years later on the set of Peaky Blin­ders.

Not that he’s eager to only play char­ac­ters that are sim­i­lar to him­self. What Rowan loves most about his cho­sen pro­fes­sion is the fact he gets to walk a mile in an­other man’s shoes. He rel­ished be­ing able to take a walk on the dark side in the minis­eries Born to Kill, play­ing a psy­cho­pathic teenager (win­ning a Welsh BAFTA for his chill­ing per­for­mance).

Play­ing the bad guy, he says, is of­ten more in­ter­est­ing than a text­book hero.

“While I would 100 per cent love to play James Bond, I think I would pre­fer to play the Bond vil­lain,” he laughs. “Now that would be fun!”

In de­mand: Jack Rowan walked away from Peaky Blin­ders to star in the new po­lit­i­cal drama Noughts + Crosses.

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