Exclusive Interview: Jack Rowan

Ahead of his starring role in A Town Called Malice, actor Jack Rowan explains the show’s irresistible appeal, and shares how amateur boxing prepared him for a career on screen.

Photography by Lee Malone | Styling by Tanja Martin | Grooming by Laura Dexter | Shot on location at ME London

You could say Jack Rowan manifested his latest role – the lead in 80s-set gangland thriller A Town Called Malice – into existence. “There’s a funny story,” he explains when we sit down to talk about the project. “My sleep pattern was all over the place during Covid, I am a night owl anyway, but I was all over the place. And I remember it was midnight and I thought, I’m not going to get to sleep, it’s just one of those nights. So, I turned on the PlayStation and I started playing Crash Bandicoot… I played it for about five hours, and I realised that the sun was coming up. So, I turned the game off and suddenly, I went from all this colour and adrenaline to nothing, just silence. And I got really emotional, and I started crying and I didn’t know why. My girlfriend woke up and asked if I was OK, and it sounds ridiculous, but I remember saying, ‘I am just sad that I don’t get to live in the 80s’. And I was truly sad about that at that moment.”

Jack wears: shirt, tie, blazer, trousers and coat, all by Anglo Italian

Soon afterwards, he found himself auditioning for the brand-new Sky Max series. “I remember when I got the audition through, they used a great line to describe the show: they said it’s like a neon-soaked love letter to the 80s.” The show’s appeal was irresistible; it was like being presented with a dream role that he hadn’t been aware he even wanted.

Penned and exec-produced by Nick Love, the story follows Rowan’s character Gene Lord, the reluctant gangster and youngest member of South London’s Lord family as they relocate to the Costa Del Sol to reset their criminal activity in fertile new pastures. “It’s just wild – that’s what I’d say,” he laughs, when I ask what we can expect from the series. “It’s an ensemble piece, but at the core of the story there are two characters – myself and Tahirah Sharif who plays my girlfriend, Cindy. In a nutshell, it is set in the 80s in the Costa Del Sol, or, as they used to call it, the Costa Del Crime. It’s all about crime, drugs… all that kind of stuff.”

Describing the series, Gabriel Silver, director of commissioning, at Sky Studios, says: “If Dallas and Pulp Fiction created a love child to the strains of Duran Duran, it would be A Town Called Malice, an intoxicating cocktail of 1980s romance, avarice and violence, served up with pineapple chunks and an umbrella. Brought to life so brilliantly by Nick Love’s scripts, audiences will be taken back to the vivid world of the Costa Del Sol in its pomp, with a glorious take on the soundtrack of the era.” Indeed, the eight-parter takes its title from the early 1980s hit song by The Jam, and music is at the beating heart of the series.

Jack wears: grey shirt by Connolly and grey pinstripe trousers by Ermenegildo Zegna

“It is very musically driven. Very driven by the fashion of the time,” Jack agrees. “The number of 80s tunes that are in the show is just incredible. The series is eight one-hour episodes, and as I was filming, I made a playlist of all the songs that were played and mentioned – and it amounted to about four and a half hours. Any 80s band you can think of is probably in that playlist!”

The cast and crew spent six months in Tenerife, recreating 1980s Spain. “There are worse places to be!” Jack grins. “I managed to miss the worst of the English winter. And escape those short days when it gets dark so early. There were some great locations – some of Tenerife is just so untouched. When you go there you are like, man, this really feels like the 80s! Certainly, some of the interiors. There is also so much land, and open space, it almost looks like you are filming on Mars. It’s like, where are we? It is unplaceable. Six months in Tenerife, for me it is up there with the best times I have ever had.”

Made all the better by being in the company of an amazing team, he assures me. They have just been reunited for a cast screening ahead of transmission. “I’m beyond pleased with it,” he tells me. “There’s a version of this that is on the page, but what has ended up on screen is just more than I could have imagined. The post team and the director have done a fantastic job. Everything about it… I think that we have just created a world that people are going to enjoy. The 80s are such fun. In our story the tone can shift so quickly, it goes from being ‘ah, I love this music, I love these characters, they are so cool’, and then before you know it you see something really dark and start to question whether you do like them. The tone shifts beautifully, so you are constantly questioning what is happening. I think it will be the perfect escape. I am really, really excited for it.”

Jack wears: cream suit by Ami Paris and blackshirt by Berluti

Included in Screen International magazine’s ‘Screen Stars of Tomorrow’ line-up in the summer of 2020, Jack’s screen career took off when the naturally gifted Londoner was catapulted into the limelight for his portrayal of Sam, the teenage psychopath leading the cast in C4’s Born to Kill. The performance received unanimously glowing reviews and saw him put forward for multiple leading actor awards, including a BAFTA Best Actor nomination. He eventually took home the BAFTA Cymru Best Actor award.

“It is impossible for any job to ever mean more to me than that one,” he tells me. “At the time I had only done episodic stuff, and short films, so that was the first time that anybody had ever taken a risk on me. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

For me it was the director Bruce (Goodison) and the team, and I’m just glad that it paid off for me and for them. It gave me something to my name. It gave me a confidence in work that has been a catalyst for confidence in the rest of my life. It meant I could walk into a room and feel like I had already proven myself in some ways. When I walk into a room now, Born to Kill is something that I have got. And it can never be taken away.”

Jack wears: shirt, tie, blazer, trousers and coat, all by Anglo Italian

For Jack, the award encompasses everything he feels about this life-changing job. “I got the BAFTA nomination for it in the March, and the ceremony was in the May, and obviously I didn’t win that, but the nomination was enough to feel like, man, what a way to encapsulate such an amazing time. To underline it,” he explains. “Months passed, and then all of a sudden, I got nominated for the Welsh BAFTA. I was like, what? I didn’t know how it all worked – but because Born to Kill was filmed in Wales, it made it eligible. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the series was back in my life. Winning that, the whole experience is encapsulated in this one physical thing. Every time I look at it, or glance at it subconsciously, it is there, it is captured, it’s never going anywhere – all of the feelings, all of the stress, all the love, all the work… Everything is in that thing. So, it is fun to just pick it up and think that it is a journey that is complete.”

The iconic bronze cast theatrical mask is surprisingly heavy, he reveals. “Whenever somebody sees it for the first time, they want to pick it up and they are always surprised. That thing could be a weapon! If it fell on your foot, even from a small height, it would really injure you. It is really heavy,” he laughs.

It was an injury, though not a BAFTA inflicted one, that saw him pursue a career in acting originally. “Acting wasn’t something that I really wanted to do from a young age. It was more like, in school, when you have your favourite subjects and drama was one that I always enjoyed. But I was doing boxing at the time – I was an amateur boxer, and I felt like that might be a route I would go down,” he explains. “I went to a little drama class in Camden on Saturdays. But with boxing, I boxed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Through those very formative years, my school years, it gave me an escape, certainly when things got tough, it gave me another focus. And then I got an injury in my back – which occurred punching a punchbag, it was nothing spectacular… I was like, it’s OK, it’ll all be fine, but it went from a niggling injury into something much more serious that stopped me from boxing. All of a sudden, I went from training all the time, to nothing. I had no passion anymore.”

Jack wears: grey shirt by Connolly and grey pinstripe trousers by Ermenegildo Zegna

As the months passed, he understood that he needed to find a new focus. “I realised that I really enjoyed the acting, and I started to put more effort into it. And suddenly, I lived for Saturdays, just as I used to live for boxing,” he tells me. “I would much rather do my Saturday homework than my school homework. And then, when I got my first job, it just changed completely. I realised how much I wanted to be an actor. After my first job, I only ever had one more fight, and I lost, and I was like, you know what, I’m going to leave this for now. And it’s good, because boxing was always there waiting if I needed it, but I have never needed it.”

The two worlds did collide briefly though, when Jack was offered the role of boxer Bonnie Gold in Peaky Blinders. Appearing in five episodes over series four and five of the hit BBC show, he was given the opportunity to show off his skills in the ring. He has not boxed since, though. “I can officially say I have gone soft. The thought of boxing is terrifying,” he laughs.

He is grateful for the things that boxing taught him, though, particularly about discipline and preparation. “As an amateur boxer I’d have a dry patch with no fights, and all of a sudden, I’d have three over two months,” he recalls. “So, what that instilled is that you have always got to be ready for anything – you have got to do your running, you have got to be eating well, staying on your weight, because all of a sudden, your coach can say you are boxing on Saturday. So, if you haven’t been training hard, and you’re not on weight, you have no time to sort that out. It teaches you to put in the work all the time. If you see the ring as almost like an audition room – I have to put the graft in for the audition room in the same way as I would’ve done for the ring. I have read this script, I have learnt these lines, I have thought about what I am doing, so, when I am in front of everybody, I am not going to get found out, because the work has been done.”

Jack wears: black suit, white t-shirt and shoes, all by Dunhill

The audition process will always be a tough one. “The dream is to be in a position where I have enough behind me to get offered roles without having to go through that,” Jack explains. “Every role I have ever played, I have had to go and get it, if that makes sense. When you have to go and get something, somebody else could easily take it from you. It is up to you to try and prove that you are right for it in a different way than somebody else might be right for it. So, I would love to be in a position where I am known enough, that directors trust me enough to say, ‘yeah, I am thinking of this person for this role’. So, you can read the script in a very calm way and feel happy that it is something you want to do.”

So that’s the dream scenario, but what about the dream job? “I couldn’t say,” he shrugs, “but hopefully it is there waiting somewhere. I never knew I wanted to play a teenage psychopath until I did it,” he laughs. He would like to try his hand at some theatre. “I love theatre. I went to the theatre last night to see Martha, who plays my mum in A Town Called Malice. Martha Plimpton, she was in a play called As You Like It in Soho Place,” he reveals. “My route into acting was through am dram theatre, but the work has come through TV and film. There’s always a passion waiting in theatre, and I hope that I can find my way into it soon. For me it is about the small spaces – obviously if something came, I would want to do it, but I’m not into the big, massive theatres, I am about the petite stuff with a really immersive feel to it. Hopefully that can come sooner or later.” It is something we’d love to see.

A Town Called Malice will be on Sky Max from 16th March