Sam is a charming, handsome young man. The elderly patients on his mum's hospital ward love that he reads to them; the bullied boy on the school bus considers him a hero for stepping in; no one can stay cold to the tragic backstory he tells which explains why his dad is missing-in-action.
But in Channel 4's new four-part drama Born to Kill, they are all missing something: Sam is a teenage psychopath about to make his first kill. Behind the scenes of his sleepy commuter town existence, he doesn't lack empathy so much as completely reject the idea of it. The dead dad story is made up. The bullied boy is really only his new toy to play with. Those old folk have got more coming to them than a bunch of grapes and a bedtime story.
"Sam's superior. He teacher tells his mum he doesn't have any friends but really he doesn't want any friends," explains Jack Rowan, the newcomer actor charged with playing teen psychopath. "He can't stand anyone in school; he'll say hi but it's all fake. He's a narcissist."
Sam, as you might have gathered, is deeply troubled beneath the confident attitude. His dad is really in prison for crimes so dark they are only slowly revealed in flashback. Sam is a couple of steps away from doing something rather nasty himself. But as a teenager he's not fully there yet; there may be time to turn away from this grim fate, which is something the show turns on. "He's not fully flushed out. He's not full developed," says Jack.
Born to Kill is Jack's first major role after smaller parts in TV dramas like Silent Witness. The 20-year-old Londoner only recently gave up boxing to concentrate on acting. Born and raised in Pimlico just around the corner from the Channel 4 office, he spent his adolescence going between the nearby Fitzroy Lodge for boxing training and the YPTC in Camden at Saturday drama lessons. Jack quit amateur boxing in 2015 after his 27th fight, when he got good news on the acting front. "I was street cast for my first role in Silent Witness and I heard I got it on a day that I had a boxing fight. When I got on set, I fell in love with it and fell out of love with boxing."
Next up, he returns to the ring to play a boxer in Peaky Blinders, another sign of his rising star. In Born to Kill, he plays the part with a similar kind of vulnerability that made Andrew Garfield stand out in his breakthrough C4 role of similarly troubled teen in Boy A.
For Born to Kill, Jack found that stepping into his character's shoes meant embracing his style. Sam is perfectly neat and tidy, his Pretty Green style entirely buttoned up and ultra smart. It helped the actor tune into his character. "I made the choice to make Sam very neat," says Jack, whose own fashion sense is more skate kid meets Camden mod (he has a real thing for Dr Martens loafers, cropped jeans and a crisp white sock). "He's not scruffy because he would care about how he's perceived. I had this jacket which I loved and they let me keep. I always thought that was iconic about Sam; he's got this really sweet coat on but is doing these really terrible things. Clothing is part of the mask."
The only time Born to Kill's wannabe serial killer's mask slips is when a girl arrives on the scene. Chrissy, in a brilliantly weird turn by another emerging talent, Laura Peake, is a stroppy firestarter (she does actually set fire to the science lab) who sparks something in Sam. "She's a new girl. She's not wearing the right uniform, she's different," says Jack. "He sees her as someone who could aid him and be his companion. He thinks she has potential to be like him because she does things like try to set the school on fire. He doesn't think weirdo; he thinks this girl's got it in her."
Whether Krissy turns accomplice or Sam acts out his deathly desires is at the crux of the drama in Born to Kill, which is unnerving television to watch. "In the beginning Sam's on the verge of fulfilling these psychopathic desires," says Jack, "but when we meet him he hasn't killed ten people so there might be a chance he could pull back from it."
Those pensioners better watch out…
Born to Kill is on C4 20 April at 9pm
Text Colin Crummy