IN NEW DRAMA
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.