Nicola Peltz Is Embarking On Her Most Intense Role Yet
The actress opens up taking on her most emotional role yet in the Alex Pettyfer-directed 'Back Roads'.
The actress opens up taking on her most emotional role yet in the Alex Pettyfer-directed 'Back Roads'.
Photography: Rayan Ayash
Styling: Christian Classen
Text: Jake Viswanath
“I’ve never left more of my heart in a film in my life,” Nicola Peltz says of her role in the upcoming film Back Roads, and it’s easy to understand why. Her character Amber Altmayer has been through child abuse, abandonment, and the loss of both of her parents—albeit in very different ways. Alex Pettyfer both directs and stars in this traumatic drama, where he plays Harley Altmayer, who takes care of his three younger sisters after his mother is jailed for killing their abusive father.
The movie, which recently premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, marks a major turning point for Peltz, who’s known for her roles in blockbusters like Transformers and TV sensations like Bates Motel, as she takes on what may possibly be her most intense and emotional role yet. And it was a long time coming. Below, Peltz opens up about her unique journey with the film, how she prepared for the role of Amber, and why the simple love of acting keeps her going.
How did it feel to have this movie debut at Tribeca, how was your experience there?
It was amazing because I’m from New York, so it felt amazing to have a premiere there, at Tribeca especially. It was just great having all my family and my friends come to support. It felt really nice to premiere a film there that I put my heart and soul in.
What did they all think of it? Did you get any reactions?
There was a sex scene and I was like, “Ahh my parents are here!” but it was fine. My family, they were really complimentary. It was really nice to have them see that and have them be there. It felt really nice to have my entire family be in one place. I felt really lucky.
It seems to be a very dramatic and very emotional role for you. Have you done something this emotional? Do you consider this to be the most emotional role you’ve ever done?
These are the movies that justify why I wanted to become an actress. Playing Amber was so amazing for me. I actually auditioned for Adrian Lyne when I was twelve and I auditioned for Misty’s part, the youngest sister. So having this film come back ten years later and getting to actually play Amber was surreal. I’ve known these characters for ten years, and this is just a script that if you’re in the industry, you just knew about it because it was so well-written and so dark. It was such a good story and based off such an amazing book by Tawni. Being able to actually play Amber was awesome.
That’s really cool, I didn’t know the backstory that this script has been going around for ten years. Why did it take this long for this project to finally come to fruition?
That happens a lot. Scripts have been around for so long and they’re incredibly written and they just never get made, which is crazy to me. Adrian did the screenplay and then he was going to direct it when I was 12, and then it just never happened for one reason or another. Then it just came back around. When I read that Alex was starring in it and directing it, I was like “Wow”. It took me a second and I was like, “Oh my god, this is the script I read ten years ago”. It’s crazy.
Did they come back to you on purpose or did it just come full circle like that naturally?
I don’t know, scripts just happen like that. I actually got a part two years ago with Christian Bale and James Mangold and I knew all my lines, I learned my accent, and then a week before filming, the film fell apart. People knew about that script seven years before that and I heard another actor was going to play it, another director was going to direct it, then just when they were going to film it, that one fell apart. So maybe in another five years, it will actually get made. It’s just funny how scripts just float around.
So take me through this role that you play, what did you do to prepare the role of Amber?
I definitely did a lot of research, especially since she was a victim of child abuse, on how that affects a person and how that almost stunted her in a way. She’s so immature in so many ways and then she’s so wise in so many ways. She has this front of being loud and external and bitchy and strong, but really she’s so hurt inside, and a broken, fractured person. It was incredible, honestly. I’ve never left more of my heart in a film in my life. I really, really loved playing her. When I got her, I was so excited to do my research and get into her and get into the character. That’s just my favorite part of acting. I just had so much fun doing that.
What kind of research did you do? Take me through your preparations.
I read the book again. I knew of the book, I read it quickly for the audition, then when I got the part, I really read it and highlighted every piece of information that it could give me about Amber that I didn’t get in the script. And I always make up a backstory if there’s not one there, because if you’re playing a 16 year old, it’s not like the girl was born at 16. She has 16 years of living that has affected her and made her the person that she is today. So you have to build up all those years and have all that history, so when you’re talking about her dad, or you’re talking about her mom, you have relationships that have affected her as a person. That’s building a puzzle and it’s amazing. So it’s ‘Acting 101’, reacting to what a person is saying to you, and when the writing is good, it makes it almost so much easier because it’s just natural, so you don’t even have to memorize lines because it’s such a natural conversation.
What was the vibe like on set, you said you had so much fun but it also seems like a really emotional role. What kind of impact did playing this role have on set?
There were some scenes in the film where I have to go to a really dark place and you have to just pull it out of you. When you’re on a small film, an independent film that you only have two or three takes to get your scene done, it’s a lot of pressure. But honestly, that pressure, I love it because it just makes me go, “I’m going to fucking do this. I’m going to pull it out of me”. It’s just all or nothing honestly. You just go for it, and at the end of every day when you have those intense scenes where you’re physically tired almost because you’re so emotional.
I bet there are some days where you’re just plopping on the couch like “I need a break”.
Yeah, you get home and you’re like “wow!”
How was working with Alex on set, because this was his directorial debut?
Working with Alex was great. He’s very collaborative as a director, and since he’s acted before, he knows how to speak to actors where it makes communication very easy. He really let me be a part of how Amber looked. When I went back to the book, it’s really descriptive of what outfit she’s wearing. When someone picks her outfit everyday, it’s very personal. Having the chance to be so collaborative in how her hair is or how much makeup she puts on, or how little makeup she puts on, or what she wears, that affects a person. When we got into that and when I got into my costume or outfit, however you want to call it, I really felt like Amber. I loved being a part of that process because it’s so specific. It’s not just “Oh she wears a T-shirt and jeans”. It’s so specific why she wears a necklace, why she’s wearing heels at this point, or why she wants to look sexy. She lives in a house with her brother and she’s always trying to be sexual. Everything’s so specific and I really loved being a part of that process and he was great about that.
How do you think you relate most to Amber? How do you think you’re most like her and how would you say you’re most unlike her?
I grew up with six brothers, so I’m very tough. It would take a lot to knock me down. I have a tough exterior, even if something is hurting me inside, my first instinct isn’t to lean into the hurt. My first instinct is to say “I’m fine”. I think that Amber does it to a way larger extent, but that whole covering up your feelings, I can relate to that a lot.
How is she different from you?
We’re different in a lot of ways. I can look back at my childhood and feel really blessed. I’m really close with my family and I feel really privileged to have such an amazing childhood. I’m really close to all my brothers and my sister and my parents and all that, but a lot of people aren’t lucky enough to have that relationship. You can’t choose where you were born. All of that can affect a person, especially Amber was a victim of child abuse and that really deeply affects someone. All of her experiences from when she was born up until she was 16 when I played her in the movie, that deeply affected her as a person. It was really nice and exciting for me to dig through that and find where she’s hurt, what are the buttons that make her crack, all that stuff.
Have you ever thought back and gone “What if? What if I had played the younger sister?” What do you think would have happened?
The thing about the film that’s so amazing is that each character is so well-written, like sometimes you read scripts and the two main characters are like “wow, they’re amazing”, then there’s just a friend, or a cousin, or a girlfriend, or a side piece just around these two people. The script is so well-written because everyone is a full human, everyone is a full person, so every character is amazing. I remember when I read for Misty for Adrian Lyne, and I’m a huge fan of Adrian Lyne. I’ll never forget, I’ve auditioned for him twice and for another script eight years later. When I auditioned for Misty for him and he was directing me, I remember it. I was twelve years old and I loved it because she’s also such a star character and Chiara (Aurelia) was so amazing when she played her. The thing about this film is there are a lot of women in it, and I haven’t been a part of a film where there was so many women and I love that. I love working with women and watching them shine, bringing their characters to life is such a fun thing to watch.
You have Jennifer Morrison, Juliette Lewis, you have all of these powerful, strong women that you’re working with. What was the vibe like on set?
I wish I had a scene with Juliette. She is so incredible, she is so talented, such an incredible actress. I was so bummed. To be able to act in a scene with her would have been so cool. But being in the same film with her and watching her do her thing was awesome. She’s incredible.
I want to talk to you about this role, does this role affect what roles you take or what roles you want to play in the future? Where do you want to go from here?
I’ve been acting since I was twelve and my first job ever was at Manhattan Theatre Club. It was a really dark play called Blackbird.
Did you say Blackbird? Is it the same play about the man who had an affair and then she comes back years later?
I saw that on Broadway. It’s such a good but really dark play.
That was me! That was me! I was the girl!
This was back when you were twelve years old? Wow!
Yes! That’s so funny. That’s fantastic that you saw that. Anyways, growing up, basically I played ice hockey and my parents were like “You want to act? I don’t know what that means, and we live an hour from the city, there’s no way.” I basically begged them so much to take me to meet this manager that I had heard about from a friend. I basically convinced my mom and my mom was like, “If she doesn’t take you, you can’t ask me again until you’re 18, and between now and then you have to go to school”. I remember meeting the lady and I was like, “Please just sign me, I don’t care if you don’t believe in me, just please sign me”. She asked “What have you done?” and I’m like “Nothing, I’m not even the main character in the school play, but I know I want to do this, please sign me, just do it because you feel bad for me, just sign me.” And she signed me, she was like “Oh my god this poor kid”.
My first audition was Blackbird, and I booked that. My parents were going to let me do this. Growing up I was never put in a bubble. That was a really dark play, and my mom was like “Well if you want to do it..." and I read the script and I took what I could from it and I loved it. I’ve always been drawn to dark characters and people who are not like me, so I can play someone new and get to be someone else. In your career you just do things and it’s a journey. I get offered a lot of roles from Transformers that are one-dimensional characters and I never take them because I never want to do a project that my full heart and soul isn’t involved in, because someone else would do a better job because their heart is invested in it. I’m very particular about things I want to do. That’s why I was so excited about Amber, I was like, “This is someone I want to play”.
I love that. On that note, has there been one that you regretted letting go? Has the been a movie that got away?
No regrets. Love it. Is there a role you wished you could have played after seeing it?
The movie I saw that I was like “Holy shit, that’s what I want to do” is Girl, Interrupted, Angelina Jolie’s part with Jim Mangold. He’s the director who I just fucking love him. That’s actually the part I got in the Christian Bale film, he was directing it and it ended up falling apart. He inspires me so much. I love him, as a person and he’s such a creator. I hope we finally get to work together one day because he’s fucking amazing.
How has your upbringing in New York affected your acting process?
I grew up an hour outside Manhattan, but I went to high school in Manhattan. Honestly growing up in New York City was so amazing. I love New York. Honestly, LA, the weather is great, but it never will feel like home to me. I’m out here for work. I’m such a New York girl and I love that you can just walk around and fall into random conversations with random people and they can inspire you in situations that you never knew you could be inspired by on random days. It’s such a vibrant city, it can be so dark but it can also be so light. There’s just so much going on and I love the energy. Whereas in LA it’s kind of like a weird bubble, the weather’s always the same, it’s harder to meet people not in the industry. My best friend lives in Toronto, my acting coach out here, she’s my family, thank God I have her out here. Then I have my brother who lives across the hall from me, thank God. He keeps me sane.