He was the child star whose lavish spending and drug use threatened to derail his career. Dexter Fletcher tells Alistair Harkness how he’s relishing a new sense of direction on the other side of the camera
‘THE jumping-off point for me was really a story about a man who was a boy and a boy who was a man,” begins Dexter Fletcher. Ensconced in the bar of a Glasgow hotel, a shock of curly grey hair tumbling across his brow, the former child actor is talking about the inspiration behind his directorial debut Wild Bill. “It was very much based on the adult responsibility that I kind of shouldered as a kid and the way that led me into being an adult who functioned more as a child.”
Wild Bill may not be autobiographical, but its thematic content resonated with Fletcher deeply. The film tells the story of a newly paroled ex-con (Charlie Creed-Miles) belatedly learning to appreciate his parental duties while his eldest son (Will Poulter) comes to terms with the fact that his adolescence has been spent negotiating a very grown-up world.
“That’s what I was trying to get at,” says the 46-year-old, still best remembered by many as Babyface in Bugsy Malone and Spike in the cult British TV show Press Gang. “It took me a long time to make that leap to being a grown-up and responsible adult because I carried on being a child actor into my late twenties. It’s OK to be precocious when you’re young, but when you’re a man of about 27 or 28 and playing a 17-year-old in a TV show it kind of prolongs your childhood.”
That contradiction was certainly a factor in him going off the rails. Entering adulthood flush with cash but with no idea of how to manage himself, his finances or his career, Fletcher succumbed to the usual temptations – drugs, partying, fast cars, big houses – and neglected to pay his taxes. By his thirties he was bankrupt and had little in the way of a career.
“I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company when I was 16 to 18, and I did a film as well [The Bounty with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins], but people kind of left you to your own devices,” he says of his lack of direction. He’s not really blaming anyone. His teacher parents did the best they could, but they weren’t in the industry. “I certainly don’t remember anyone ever sitting me down and giving me any sage advice.”
Apart from Press Gang, Fletcher’s career in his twenties certainly wasn’t reflective of the promise he showed as a kid. In addition to making Bugsy Malone with Alan Parker, for instance, he worked with David Lynch (The Elephant Man), Derek Jarman (Caravaggio) and Ken Russell (Gothic) and starred opposite the likes of John Hurt and Al Pacino.
Not that he appreciated it at the time. His first job (at the age of six) was sitting on Diana Dors’ lap in an episode of Steptoe And Son. By the time he was he was playing Al Pacino’s son in Revolution 13 years later he’d become thoroughly blasé. “I was on set with Al Pacino, at 19, and going, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s just where my life is,’ rather than going: ‘OK, I’ve really got somewhere and achieved something.’
“What happens when you take it for granted is that you tend to be too self-deprecating about the things that you do achieve. You go, ‘Well, I’m just lucky,’ and that’s a dangerous trap to fall into. As an older and wiser man, I don’t believe in luck. I believe in hard work and talent and determination.”
The nadir of his career came immediately after Press Gang when he presented Channel 4’s early 1990s videogame show GamesMaster. “I needed money for drugs,” he sighs. “I was making bad choices in terms of my career. Here was someone who’d worked with David Lynch as a kid and was now presenting, badly, a computer game show.”
It destroyed his credibility and cast him out into the professional wilderness. He credits his long, slow recovery to the steadying influence of his wife, Lithuanian theatre director Dalia Ibelhauptaite. They met thanks to Alan Rickman, with whom he’d worked in theatre at the age of 14. “I bumped into him at a recording of Absolutely Fabulous when I was still going out with Julia [Sawalha, his Press Gang co-star],” recalls Fletcher. “I was in a particularly bad way and I think Alan was a little bit shocked by that so he put me forward to do this play.”
It wasn’t anything major: just a little production of Goldini’s The Impresario Of Smyrna in a pub theatre. Nevertheless, working with Dalia eventually helped him rediscover what he loved about acting. “And we fell in love,” adds Fletcher. “We sat and talked long into the night on many occasions and she said, ‘You have to make a decision: you have to decide whether you want to grow up or try to be the child forever.’ So everything sort of came as a result of that and I put a lot of that in Wild Bill.”
His marriage in 1997 also coincided with the start of his professional comeback. He was cast in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (producer Matthew Vaughn was a fan of Fletcher’s performance in The Rachel Papers) and he capitalised on its unexpected success (“People were like, ‘Oh, it’s OK to like him again’”) to re-establish a foothold in the industry and be serious and diligent about his acting.
He also started writing and developing ideas – for a sitcom, and an unproduced gangster film – all of which eventually led to him moving behind the camera for Wild Bill.
And it’s here he’d like to remain, even though he’s amenable to any interesting theatre and film roles that continue to come his way.
“With directing you’ve got to find something and drag it up from its inception and I’m at the early stages of doing that again,” he beams. “There’s something all-consuming and addictive about that.”
• Wild Bill is in cinemas from Friday, and reviewed on page 17