Alex Rider, which has delighted young readers for two decades, is now a spy-thriller series aimed at teens and young adults. After 2013’s Stormbreaker, author Anthony Horowitz opted to license the property to Eleventh Hour Films and Sony in order to make a show out of the remaining books.
The first season has now found its US home on IMDb TV’s new platform, and it will be available to stream on November 13. Mostly pulling from the second book in the series, Point Blanc, it follows newly-minted spy Alex (Otto Farrant) as he investigates a mysterious boarding school while adjusting to his strange new life.
The author and series star spoke to Screen Rant about how the show balanced the youthful optimism of the books with a more grown-up sense of danger, as well as how crucial Alex’s relationships are to his success in the field.
Anthony, what got the ball rolling to make this Alex Rider series into a reality?
Anthony Horowitz: I will tell you what happened. Eleventh Hour Films, which is a production company I’ve worked with before on Foyle’s War, approached me for the rights. I went ahead with them because I knew them personally, but what really happened to make the big difference was Sony came forward and decided to make the entire series without having anyone to sell it to. It was the most extraordinary show of good faith in the material, in the scripts, and in the property of Alex Rider. How can I not be wowed by that? They could lose everything – because you don’t make television normally, unless you actually have a platform on which to show it – but they went ahead.
Then we went to Los Angeles and showed it to everybody, and of course, there was a fantastic response there. We knew very quickly there was a lot of interest in the show. In the end IMDb took it for America, which couldn’t make me happier because it’s a brand new subscription channel and a new start – and we’re right there at the beginning of it. So, it’s worked out really well. But that’s how it came to be. It was a big punt by Sony, and I will forever be grateful to them.
Otto, how did you become Alex, and what was your first reaction to the script?
Otto Farrant: I auditioned over the space of about three months. I had four or five different rounds, which started with a self-tape that I just sent in and ended with a full day of auditions where I was paired up with Jacks and Toms. It was a really intense day that was like The X Factor: you’d go in, and they’d kick five boys away. You come out and say, “Where did everyone go?” And they’re like, “There’s only three of you.” Now there’s only two of you. The closer I got, the less I wanted to admit that actually it might happen.
I read these books as a kid, and I loved them. So, the idea that I would actually get the chance to play the role would have been amazing. And then when I found out I got it, and I looked at the script for the first time, I was just so excited by how Guy Burt had adapted the books, which already had so much fancy and mystery and suspense and thrill in them. I was amazed at how he brought that to life and actually breathed a whole new life into it as well.
I feel like this show really takes a whole different spin on [the material]; it’s a darker version of Alex. It’s a grittier version, and it’s aged up a bit, so that’s quite nice as well. It was great fun.
Speaking of the adaptation, I thought it was really interesting that the season combined the first two books instead of starting with Stormbreaker. Not only that, but Tom was pulled in from a later book as well. Why was that the right decision to make?
Anthony Horowitz: First of all, let’s go with Tom. Tom Harris is a very minor character in the Alex Rider books, who turns up in about book four or five. But it was Guy Burt’s idea to actually have somebody of his own age to talk to and, actually, that the secret that he is a spy should be shared – which is not the case in the books. I think it’s a brilliant idea. It brought Brenock O’Connor in, who is a wonderfully talented young actor. It’s great to see him and Otto on the screen together, because there is such warmth and such friendship, which instantly existed on set as well as off. That was the first thing, and a good decision.
The other thing, which is where to start: Stormbreaker had been done as a movie in 2003. I think it was an enjoyable movie; it did the job at the time. But the feeling in the production team was that we should move on. That material had already been covered, so why make it again for television. Therefore, Point Blanc was the book that was chosen, number two in the series, and they did weave in a little bit of origin material to make sense of how Alex became a spy. I’m totally happy with that decision. I think it was a very good one to make.
Otto, you do have great chemistry with Brenock as Tom and Ronkẹ as Jack. What is it that makes those characters so special to Alex, and how easily did you click with those actors?
Otto Farrant: That’s a really good question. For me, what makes these characters so special is that they have unconditional love for Alex. They really care about him, and he doesn’t have many people in his life that he can say that about. He doesn’t know who to trust, but he knows that he can trust those guys and that they are family to him. They help him so much, and they are the heart of the show in lots of ways.
What caused us to click together? Sometimes, it just happens. I feel very safe when I’m around Brenock and Ronkẹ, because they are friends first and colleagues second. I think that’s the way you should work; that’s how you get the truth out of things, if you can make real connections with people. And I definitely did that with Brenock and Ronkẹ.
Anthony, how involved were you in the writing and production of the series? Can you talk a little bit about the collaboration process?
Anthony Horowitz: Absolutely, I was involved in almost every decision that was made. I can’t say that I was the one who made the decisions, but the production team talked to me at every single stage from the very beginning through to the end of filming and beyond. I worked very closely with Guy on the eight scripts, and there are lines in there which I recognize as coming from my pen here, and a general agreement between the two of us. It was a very close collaboration and a very good one.
I’m not good at casting; it’s one of my weak spots. But I will say that when I saw Otto, both in real life and on tape, he was from the very start my favorite Alex. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But actually, there was a moment when we had Otto, Brenock and Ronkẹ in the same room for the first time. Those three sat down on the sofa – Jack, Alex and Tom – and there were 11 suits, as we call executives, in the room. There wasn’t a single person in the room who didn’t agree; we didn’t have to have any discussion. We knew we had found the perfect pairing.
And if you look at them on the screen, that chemistry comes right across into the show, and it’s very special. Otto was talking about Ronkẹ and what makes her so special as Jack, and all I can say is that I wish she’d looked after me when I was a kid. The actress here as well as the character, she just emotes that warmth. Otto put it so well when he said it’s unconditional love for Alex, and that’s exactly what she brings to the part.
Otto Farrant: I think Tom’s his heart and Jack’s his strength in lots of ways. She’s fiery, and she’s strong. She’s a really strong person, and I love that. With Ronkẹ, that definitely comes through on screen.
Alex is separated from his heart and inner strength very early in the series, and yet he manages to step up in an impressive way. What do you think makes him so uniquely prepared for that life?
Otto Farrant: I think Alex’s superpower is his instincts. I’m not even sure he knows what causes him to do what he does, but it’s an instinct, and he follows it. It’s almost as if, by the time he started thinking about it, it’s too late. He’s already done it. He thinks and is calculating constantly; he’s processing the information around him and the situation around him. But he reacts very instinctively, and he’s not a typical superhero. He’s an everyday hero in that way. He’s got that moral compass.
Did you also have to do any extra training for the physical strength side?
Otto Farrant: Yeah, I did. I did some Krav Maga training, which is an Israeli self defense. I worked with a personal trainer a little bit and did some climbing and running and swimming, and just generally kept very active on the big cycler as well. So, there’s a bit of a bike chase in Alex Rider, and you get to see a lot of that as well.
I’m quite an active person as it is. I’m into my snowboarding as well; I’m quite a big snowboarder, but they wouldn’t let me do that bit. They wouldn’t let me get on an ironing board and go down the mountain for some reason. Who knows why?
Anthony, I think Ronkẹ is perfect for Jack, but I know she’s a big change from the books, physically speaking. Did you deliberately seek to add diversity, or did you have open casting in general?
Anthony Horowitz: When we approached Alex Rider, I think race and ethnicity were not in our minds, except that the show should reflect modern life and should be as multi-ethnic as modern life is. And I’m very proud of the fact that this is such a diverse cast in every way. I absolutely adore Nyasha Hatendi, who plays Smithers, one of my favorite characters. Ace Bhatti is absolutely wonderful as Crawle, and these actors from different ethnicities just make the show more realistic and more enjoyable and more real. But we were not ticking boxes; we went for the best talent with no eye on their on their background.
As for the tone, how do you strike that perfect balance of making the series a little darker than the original but still keeping that youthful optimism from the original?
Anthony Horowitz: I think it was trial and error, to a certain extent. There were things that were filmed that were not in the end in the final cut, because they were considered too violent or too dark. I had two hats on, I was the executive producer, but I was also the author of the books. And there are eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds who will watch this show. There might be some scenes and some moments that put them on the edge of the sofa, and they might even have to hold somebody’s hand, but they will not have nightmares as a result. They’re not going to be traumatized.
At the same time, there are people who used to read these book 20 years ago. They were 12 then and they’re 32 now, so they don’t want to be spoon-fed. They want stuff that is serious and adult and edgy, and which keeps us in suspense. So, largely trial and error, but as we went on and created the show, I think we realized we had the right tone. And I can’t tell you how confident I am, especially because I’ve seen the response in the UK, that we have managed to embrace both those audiences.
Otto Farrant: I think what I really enjoyed was that Alex is thrown into so many different worlds in this series. You’re in so many different locations and with different people, and he’s constantly bouncing off all these characters big, larger-than-life characters. He’s not really got time to think about that. Luckily, we had an incredible cast, so as an actor, it’s just about responding to the energy that is in front of me. And when you’ve got great actors like we had, it becomes very easy to do that.
It wasn’t difficult in that way. Tracking the grief of losing your uncle, that was difficult for me. That was a hard thing to experience. But I had great people around me, and that optimism comes from Jack and Tom and Kyra – all those characters.
More: 5 Things Stormbreaker Got Right About The Alex Rider Franchise (& 5 Things It Didn’t)
Alex Rider‘s first season is available to stream on IMDb TV starting November 13.
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