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'Good TV, good books and good art should really make people think...'

A new drama focuses on two families separated by power, prejudice and colour. Gemma Dunn chats to the cast


Crazy journey: Jack Rowan as Callum McGregor

Crazy journey: Jack Rowan as Callum McGregor

Jack Rowan with Masali Baduza as Sephy Hadley

Jack Rowan with Masali Baduza as Sephy Hadley


Crazy journey: Jack Rowan as Callum McGregor

It's been a busy few years for Jack Rowan. Having landed his "first proper job on Silent Witness" in 2015, the former amateur boxer has gone on to earn critical acclaim for his turn as the calculated psychopath Sam Woodford in drama series Born To Kill (a lead, no less), as well as impressing viewers as fierce fighter Bonnie in the hit Peaky Blinders.

Not bad for someone who only found acting after a back injury temporarily put him out of his sport.

Now, Bafta Cymru winner Rowan has landed his second principal role - this time in the much-anticipated adaptation of Malorie Blackman's iconic young adult book series Noughts + Crosses.

"It never gets easier, I'm always nervous," he admits when we meet, the polite actor a far cry from Woodford.

"Born To Kill was my first chance really and it got received well, so I was like, 'Man, I want to follow it up with something' and I thought this is perfect.

"It's another lead role on TV, another mainstream channel, so when I was auditioning I really wanted it; I was really emotionally attached."

Londoner Rowan will play Callum McGregor in the six-part series, alongside newcomer Masali Baduza who has been cast as Sephy Hadley.

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Noughts + Crosses - a story of two families separated by power and prejudice - follows the young duo, who despite having been friends since early childhood, are divided by their colour.

Sephy is a Cross, a member of the black ruling class and daughter of a prominent politician; while Callum is a Nought, a white member of the underclass.

"You learn that in this show, people are segregated not only through their colour, but also class and many different things," Rowan explains.

"Essentially these two are trying to break the social norm and go against what society is telling them that they can't do," he adds. "They just go in with their hearts and their story goes on crazy, crazy journeys."

Joining Rowan on this ride (aside from superstar rapper Stormzy) are Helen Baxendale and Ian Hart, who play Callum's parents Meggie and Ryan; and Josh Dylan, who will play his older brother Jude.

"He's an incredible character; he's like a bad boy in many ways but also really not," Dylan (26) says of the latter, whose actions are predominantly led by his hate for the ruling Crosses.

"I didn't want him to be two-dimensional, because it could just be the psychopath, the racist, the angry young man, on the surface," he reasons.

"What's more interesting is if you think about who he is, that he comes from a good family, and then you see this boy with extraordinary pressure put on him.

"It's hard to think about what that does to someone, but I haven't stopped trying to get to grips with it," pleas the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again star. "I wanted to explore the humanity, I wanted him to be relatable."

Filming in South Africa for six months certainly made for a powerful set-up too, Rowan states.

"Their history is quite close to what we're imitating and sometimes on filming days we'd have, let's say, a group of Noughts and a group of Crosses, and it would be a riot scene, which is a reverse of their own history," he recalls. "So it was quite intense at times."

"It's an amazing place to film, I had a great time, but I found it tricky.

"I won't lie about that," London-born Dylan agrees. "It was spicy... there was tension," he elaborates.

"It was a really diverse cast, multicultural. We were filming, and I remember one guy in the crew saying, 'Yeah, this used to be one of the apartheid buildings; one of the HQ buildings where all sorts of bad things happened'.

"That's very disturbing; I felt very uncomfortable," he fesses. "But you have to just... think about it, that's all you can do."

"We really lived and breathed it," Rowan interjects. "It was an intense experience, all of it."

Perhaps most intense was his character's military scenes - for which he trained at an academy for young offenders.

"Callum joins the military and so I trained before filming for about a week," Rowan begins.

"Then when we got on to set, I was one of the only Nought people there, the only white guy there, and 100 other young lads were told to not talk to me. Give me dirty looks.

"It's that sense of isolation," he realises.

"But I embraced it - that's totally the right fit with the subconsciousness of it all, but some days I'd come away with this feeling of not being involved."

He follows: "I'm very lucky. I was born in London, and at school where I grew up in south London, I was always immersed in a kind of culture. I had friends from everywhere. So, personally, I've never, ever been exposed to anything like that because London is a very multicultural place.

"Now I've had a taste of what it's like to feel isolated - and there's nothing you can do about it because it's all exterior," empathises the star, who went on to film revenge thriller Boys From County Hell immediately after.

"Some people go through that every day and I wouldn't have had that experience, probably ever, if I hadn't got this part. So it was very helpful."

"That's what good TV should be, right? Good TV, good books, good art should really make people think," reasons Dylan, who recently starred in the second season of Channel 4's The End Of The F****** World.

"Filming this show changed me for the better," he adds.

"I really care about it. Not just personally, about my career and the part, that's that. But this show could have the potential to do so much more. There's a collective goodwill behind it, to bring it out to the people, so it feels bigger."

It's challenging and risky, he says, adding: "But it's exactly the kind of telly that should be on."

"I feel so passionately about that," Dylan finishes. "I watch so much stuff and it's boring.

"And it's not representative of the real world.

"How many more period dramas do we need to see? Malorie's story is gripping!"

Noughts + Crosses starts on BBC One tomorrow at 9pm

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