IT’S in the eyes. Like flicking a switch, actor Jack Rowan can turn the lights off and give off a dull-eyed killer stare. He scared the bejesus out of us as teenage killer Sam in psycho thriller Born To Kill earlier this year and now he’s at it again, giving it the evil eye as young boxer Bonnie Gold.
So it’s pleasantly reassuring to find that in person, Rowan, 20, has lights dancing about in eyes as lively as his conversation. He’s also disarmingly polite. I can’t remember the last time someone said ‘thank you for having me’ at the start of an interview.
Not that you’d want to cross him. A junior boxer who had the first of his 27 amateur fights when he was just 12 (he won 18), he knows how to handle himself in the ring, a skill that proves mighty handy in Peaky Blinders, in which he plays the pugilistic protegé of the Shelby clan and son to Aidan Gillen’s slippery schemer of a dad.
‘It was a dream job for me,’ admits Rowan. ‘The old boxing feeling came back when I stepped into the ring for Peaky Blinders. As the series goes on Bonnie’s story comes out through his boxing, so I was really keen that it would come out looking right. It was a lot of fun, getting involved with the choreography of the fight scenes, filming in front of a screaming crowd at the Olympia in Liverpool.’
As a kid he had ‘every boy’s dream’: ‘I wanted to be world champion,’ he says. ‘Really, more than that, I wanted to box in the Olympics and then be world champion.’
He started out in karate but turned to boxing because it allowed for more self-expression. ‘In karate there’s a right way to do things — in boxing you develop your own style, your own personality. That’s the buzz.’
But when boxing went head to head with the lure of acting and the distractions of teenage life, boxing lost on a TKO. ‘I was always really disciplined, I’d go to house parties and pretend I was drinking when I’d filled the can with water. But I started to feel like I was missing my youth — and the acting took over.’
In boxing parlance, Rowan is a technician, using his rangy frame — at 6ft, he weighs in at a slender 64kg (10st) — to keep opponents at a distance. It’s not too much of a stretch to see that’s how his acting works too, bringing a chilling detachment to Born To Kill, his breakthrough role.
‘It was the perfect role to get my teeth stuck into,’ he says. ‘Sam had such a lot of different things to do and be — he had to be charming, he was a diver… and a killer. When I got the role I knew I really wanted to smash it.’
Next year will see a change of pace as he plays comedy in Simon Amstell’s new film, Benjamin. ‘I really wanted that part because I’m a big fan of Simon’s and I thought I might get to be his friend. And now, er, I am.’ The last said with a hint of disbelief.
Though only 20, he’d felt the sting of rejection that is the aspiring actor’s lot. But his family keeps him grounded. The best piece of advice he’s had? From his dad, a bricklayer. Rowan playfully puts on the Irish accent: ‘You know, Jack, only one lad can get the part, so they can, so it won’t always be you.’
He’s new to the fame game, gleefully recalling an incident at his local barbers in Pimlico, south London, just after Born To Kill came out. He genuinely thought he was in trouble when the bloke in the chair next to him fixed him with a steely gaze throughout his cut and then met him with a mob of mates outside.
‘I had my eyes fixed straight ahead, I didn’t know what was up,’ laughs Rowan. ‘And then the guy says, “Ain’t you the bloke off Born To Kill? We loved that show!”’
So what did his mates make of his new role? ‘One said, “You know everyone’s going to want to fight you?” But it’s not happening — I’m a lover, not a fighter!’
Peaky Blinders is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm. Catch up on iPlayer