Moomintroll is a bit of a hero down in Moominvalley. The dashing young fellow is brave, kind, adventurous; he’s travelled to remote islands, investigated comets, rescued the Snork Maiden from a poisonous bush. He also proved an unlikely saviour for Jack Rowan in the dark days of lockdown.
If you didn’t work for Zoom, Pfizer or the Downing Street off-licence, Covid was a fallow period for your employment. Actors were hit bad; Rowan was no different. Gradually, he came to accept a simple, stark truth: “Man, I don't know when I'm gonna work again.”
Unemployment didn’t only hurt his bank balance. It hurt his confidence, his belief in the viability of his chosen profession. By his early twenties, Rowan had already played lead roles in major TV shows: a psychotic schoolboy in Channel 4’s Born to Kill; a lovestruck teenager in BBC One’s Noughts + Crosses. Now? Nothing. A blossoming career had seemingly withered on the branch overnight.
“It was easy for your mind to go to those places, as much as I'm an optimistic guy,” recalls Rowan. “But it was hard. For everyone.”
Then Jennifer Duffy reached out. Duffy is the casting director for the animated TV series Moominvalley – based on the children’s novels by Tove Jansson. The previous Moomintroll Taron Egerton wasn’t returning for season three; she wondered if Rowan might be interested in the role? (Yes, I was also surprised to discover that Taron Egerton had voiced Moomintroll: the show fields some big hitters. Rowan’s castmates include Rosamund Pike as Moominmamma, Matt Berry as Moominpappa and, er, Will Self as Muskrat.)
Suddenly, Rowan found himself back in business. Soon afterwards, he landed the lead role in the star-studded Sky crime drama A Town Called Malice alongside the likes of Jason Flemyng, Martha Plimpton and Dougray Scott. His face now adorns billboards and buses. His career is no longer withering, or even blossoming – it’s in full bloody bloom, as bright and brilliant as one of his character’s Hawaiian shirts. (The show is set in 1980s’ Costa Del Sol. There are many Hawaiian shirts.)
So thank you, Jennifer Duffy. Thank you, Tove Jansson. Thank you, Moomintroll.
“As deep and as dramatic as it sounds, Moomintroll gave me everything back. Everything I’d felt like I’d lost. Confidence. I always describe it as Moomintroll came smashing through the glass ceiling. He came to the rescue, picked me up out of a rut. I fell in love with that character, man.”
Obviously Rowan owns a Moomintroll mug. He owns several Moomin mugs: the Moomin parents and the Snork Maiden also grace his shelves. When I mention that I might buy a Moomin present for my godson – shoutout to Solly – Rowan promptly informs me that there’s a Moomin gift shop in Covent Garden.
I didn’t know about the Moomin gift shop in Covent Garden. I happened to know there was one in Brighton… “Yeah, I've been to the one in Brighton,” says Rowan. “It’s not really a Moomin shop though, is it?”
He’s right. It isn’t technically a Moomin shop; merely a shop that sells a range of products, some of which are Moomins or are adorned with Moomins. Basically, if your local pub ever hosts a Moomin-themed quiz night, give Jack Rowan a call. And if you’re this deep into the article and still wondering what a Moomin is, go have a quick Google. I’ll end this section, just to make life easy for you.
It’s what Moomintroll would do.
Here’s a weird one: the night before my interview with Jack Rowan, I dream about it. Nothing particularly out there: just me and Rowan and heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, who I’m interviewing after Jack. Fury does weights in the corner while Rowan and I speak. It’s a mundane dream but vivid nonetheless, and upon awakening I need a few moments to realise it never happened.
Rowan laughs when I tell him about the dream. Then he does an uncanny impression of Tyson Fury. “Deontay Wilder! Shithouse!”
The dream summit of myself, Rowan and Fury occurred in a bare white room; the real thing – minus Tyson of course – takes place at Century Club in Piccadilly. It’s still a little surreal: the place is packed so we find what appears to be an empty function room on the third floor and there we converse over coffee.
Rowan is an immensely likeable character. Easy-going and good natured, I suspect he’s one of the people who gets along with everybody, equally happy discussing his favourite poetry or his beloved West Ham United. Still only 26, his hinterland is large and his CV impressive – even more so considering he racked up 27 bouts as an amateur boxer before acting took off.
A Town Called Malice is his biggest role to date. Set in the 1980s, the show depicts fictional crime family the Lords, a tough bunch fallen on even tougher times. Rowan plays Gene Lord, the youngest son, de facto protagonist and the only member of the Lord family you wouldn’t mind being stuck in a lift with. He still becomes a wanted man in the first episode, necessitating a swift relocation to the Costa Del Sol with his fiancée Cindy. The rest of the family soon follow, bringing further chaos and violence with them.
The show is the TV equivalent of an adrenaline shot: barely a moment passes without someone getting double crossed or done in, and the script is as blue as the Spanish sky. Reviews have been positive – even the Guardian, acknowledged its “sheer mindless entertainment” – and Sky clearly see it as a winner judging by the extensive marketing campaign. Rowan adorns every other bus in London right now, sporting an Hawaiian shirt and a glare beneath the tagline ‘Suns Out, Guns Out’. (Whoever thought of that one deserves a raise.)
Rowan has a good story about manifesting Malice. It occurred during Covid, and came in the opposite of the dream: those endless insomniatic hours in the early morning when sleep will not arrive. How do you pass time that refuses to pass? Rowan played the PS4 game Crash Bandicoot.
“It was colourful, it was nostalgic. I’d gone from accepting that I’m not gonna sleep, playing it for about five hours or whatever, the sun has come up outside, the birds are bloody chirping… I’m like, I need to get off this now. And all of a sudden you press that button and it goes from colour, sound, focus to just nothing.”
For another hour or so, his restless mind wandered. Eventually it wandered back to the 1980s and began imagining a time he would never experience. “I was just thinking about that decade because my mum always talks about it. And I started crying!” He chuckles at the strangeness of it all.
What, actual tears? “Yeah! Actual tears! My mind was scrambled. My girlfriend woke up and asked if I was OK. And dramatic as it sounds, I literally said, ‘I’m just sad I’ll never get to live in the 1980s.’ Because in that moment I was like, take me back to a time that was perhaps more simple.” Well, you know the rest: Malice comes along and fulfils Rowan’s dream.
Filming largely took place in Tenerife – “Worse places to go,” grins Rowan – and coincided with his 25th birthday. It proved a memorable one, as Rowan evocatively describes.
“I never thought that when I turned 25, I’d be wearing a pair of tiny bright pink Ellesse shorts, a bright baby blue Ellesse track jacket, sitting in a yellow vintage Rolls-Royce Corniche next to Dougray Scott driving around the Tenerife roads.” Can’t get much more 1980s than that.
For Rowan and his colleagues, Malice was clearly one of those dream gigs that don’t come around all too often. “This job just ticked every single box: location, the company, getting to work with the actors I work with. We had a great bond on offscreen as well as on the screen. I look back at Malice and I’m glad I had at least one of those, an experience like that. I loved every second.”
Before I meet Rowan, I interview his castmate Daniel Sharman – aka Kelly Lord. “He’s lovely,” says Sharman when asked about Jack. “He’s such a full hearted, emotionally vulnerable, very loyal, very smart lad.” The pair bonded over poetry and football; Sharman tells me of a day spent filming in a little orange Citroën open top in the middle of the desert, swapping stories and poems. “It was a gift,” says Sharman of that day.
One of the poems that Rowan shared with Sharman was by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. It’s his favourite poem in the world. It begins: “Seagulls are flying close to the ground. They say that means it’s going to rain. But it’s not raining yet.”
Poetry is a big part of Rowan’s life. As a kid, he attended the YPTC (Young Persons Theatre Company) in Camden Town. “It was a tiny church we used to hire out. I used to live for Saturdays. We had these in-house shows at the end of each term. I wrote a poem about my best friend Tom, just because I wanted to. I didn't tell him. He came and it went down so well. I just wanted to share my love with my best friend.”
He was 16. The poem lasted a good five minutes, the audience numbered nearly a hundred. “He would never get emotional,” says Rowan of Tom. “But we had an understanding of each other. So I wanted to sit him down, front row, and have him basically be forced for me to pour my heart out and say, ‘I love you, mate.’” The pair remain best friends to this day; Rowan enjoyed the experience so much that he composed a new poem for every end of term performance.
After leaving YPTC, he lost the habit for a while. “I didn't write much for a few years; now I use, you know, birthdays as a good excuse to write poems for people.” I ask Rowan for the opening lines of Tom’s poem but he claims not to remember – it was a decade ago, after all. Here’s some more Pessoa instead: “Likewise, when there’s happiness, they say sadness is on its way. Perhaps, but so what?”
As a kid, Rowan enjoyed acting but no more than that. He played the Artful Dodger in Year Six – I can fully envisage him as the charming Victorian scallywag – then lost interest for a while. He only discovered YPTC when its director Robbie Stevens visited his secondary school drama class. “Everyone put their name down, everyone put their email down. And I was the only one that went!”
The teenage Rowan wanted to be a boxer. He grew up on an estate in Westminster – “You say Westminster and people think Big Ben,” – and enrolled in Vauxhall’s Fitzroy Lodge boxing gym across the Thames. He had his first amateur bout aged 12 and amassed an 18-9 record over 27 fights. “I boxed all the good kids. I looked through my losses in particular – this guy boxed for England, this guy boxed for GB.”
Is there an alternate universe in which Rowan is performing between the ropes rather than before the camera? “I was most probably never good enough to progress and go to the Olympics, which is the climax of amateur boxing… My goal as an amateur was to represent England at a national level. That would’ve been nice.” Had he turned pro, the goal would have been the British title, the famed Lonsdale Belt. Then who knows?
In this universe, a back injury curtailed his boxing career and brought him back to acting. Rowan harbours no regrets. “There is nothing I could think of that would be worse right now than warming up for a fight – specifically warming up. Once you get in the ring, the nerves all go. But those times when I warmed up for a fight, I used to look at the door and think, I might just jog on here!”
His acting career progressed at a veritable sprint. In 2017, Rowan landed the lead role in Channel 4 drama Born To Kill. He was 18 years old. Even now, the show holds “the biggest special place” in his heart. It changed the trajectory of his career, changed his whole mindset. He used to get nervous before auditions. Now he felt as though he belonged.
“It gave me confidence I didn’t have before. When I went into an audition room now, I would say my head was a little bit higher and my shoulders were a bit more back. The energy changed a little bit – instead of it being like, ‘Please want me, please want me!’ I had something in my arsenal to back it up.”
That arsenal quickly expanded. Five episodes of Peaky Blinders in which he played boxer Bonnie Gold. Then the BBC adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s acclaimed novel series Noughts & Crosses. “I always called her Auntie Malorie because me and Malorie got on really well.” Noughts & Crosses depicts an alternate reality in which black people (Crosses) rule over white people (Noughts). At a talk promoting the show, Blackman noted that Rowan’s character Callum was an author surrogate in many ways.
“She was like, ‘Me and Jack, we’re very different’,” recalls Rowan. “We are from similar backgrounds but we’re very different, if you look at me and Malorie Blackman on face value. But essentially I played a version of her. In that story, everything is reversed. So things that she may have experienced in different ways as she was growing up were portrayed through the eyes of someone who was a different race in the show. In a way, I played a version of Malorie Blackman. She said it herself.”
Both series of Noughts & Crosses were filmed in Cape Town. Cumulatively, he spent nine months there – not bad for a lad in his early twenties. Covid then threatened to ruin everything but along came Moomintroll and Malice. Rowan began 2022 in Tenerife, then returned home to buy his first house. When there’s happiness, they say sadness is on its way.
“It was quite a mad, fucked-up year, last year,” says Rowan. “It was the ultimate high of doing Malice at the beginning of the year. Then my sister, bless her, she has a fucking brain tumour. She had surgery and they couldn’t remove any of it. Her body went into so much stress post-surgery that she almost died. So mentally it was fucked up. I went from an ultimate high to an ultimate low. That’s life for everybody, right? These things happen.”
He speaks of this traumatic event with remarkable frankness. Over the course of our interview, I have grown to like Jack Rowan a lot. Now I actively admire him.
The tumour was benign, thank God, although the recovery process is ongoing. Understandably, Rowan took the rest of the year off – “mentally I couldn't think about acting.” He’s cracking on now, with a heightened appreciation for life’s countless joys. For all of us, bad news is a phone call away. Bad days will come so you should cherish the good ones, or even the days that aren’t bad.
As Rowan puts it: “If that shit is coming anyway, if that’s inevitable – which is true, you’re going to experience tough times and you will lose people. It’s the natural life thing. At least on those days where I can wake up and go, right, I’ve only got these minor bullshit stresses of everyday life…”
He quotes the Pessoa poem from memory: “If today is full of happiness, where does sadness fit in? It doesn’t. It belongs to tomorrow. When it comes, then I’ll be sad.”
It’s the little things that make Rowan happy. Attending West Ham matches; Saturday night takeaways in front of the boxing; time spent with his girlfriend Lucy; a few pints down the pub with mates; poetry. “The things that give me happiness are very, very simple things.”
He loves his work but it’s only part of his life: acting doesn’t consume him. “My favourite part of a job is landing the part. There's that thrill of, ‘I've got it!’ Go for a few beers, whatever. Then something hits you where you go, ‘Oh shit, I actually have to do it now.’ And then it’s the work part. I love the work. But when you finish and it’s complete, I’ve done it – no pressure. Get back on the beers.”
As work-life balance goes, I’ll drink to it.
A few days after our interview, I attend the launch party for A Town Called Malice. Jack Rowan is literally the first person I encounter, looking mighty dapper in a sage green suit. He greets me by name, introduces his girlfriend. Then he takes some selfies with people on the pavement. He hasn’t even got inside yet.
The launch party is quite a vibe – turns out Sky has money to burn. Who knew? There’s an open bar, obviously, and tropical cocktails and canapés and a DJ and fake palm trees and a makeshift aeroplane interior – plug the headphones into your seat to watch a video message from the cast. There are also mannequins displaying costumes from the show and a tattoo parlour where you can get ‘Lord’ temporarily etched on your knuckles (or anywhere else for that matter) and a stand giving away bespoke Ellesse T-shirts with slogans such as ‘Sun’s Out, Gun’s Out’ (the most popular) or ‘Let’s Be Fucking Having It.’
The Malice family are out in force: Martha Plimpton, Eliza Butterworth, Tahirah Sharif to name but three. The mood is celebratory. Tonight is the final exclamation point of a cherished chapter in many lives. Hopefully there will be a second season but, judging by the body count of the early episodes,I wouldn’t bet on all the cast reaching it.
“I would love for some longevity with Malice,” Rowan told me at Century Club. “I love the job so much.” But there are so many jobs to do. He wants to make short films, develop some projects with a close friend of his. Hopefully get back on stage. Nothing crazy, no West End musicals for him. “Small hall stuff. Small spaces, very intimate shows.”
I’ll leave the last words to Fernando Pessoa – words Jack Rowan will surely know by heart: “Be, tomorrow, what tomorrow brings you. For now accept, be ignorant and believe. Keep close to the ground, but flying. Like the seagull.”
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A Town Called Malice is out now on Sky Atlantic.