Charlie Rowe is a bit bemused by widespread speculation that he and his fellow young cast mates on “Red Band Society” will become hot little new celebrities once their show debuts on Fox tonight (9/17). “I don’t really know quite what it means, to be honest,” he admits. “Everyone’s mentioning it. I don’t know if I accept it,” adds the 18-year-old, who already finds himself with a burgeoning Twitter following, though he has yet to be recognized on the street.
Certainly he will be easy to spot, having had to shave his head to play a cancer patient on the Steven Spielberg-produced show that has been hailed as “The Breakfast Club” in a pediatric hospital.
“That’s true. That’s why I’m buying more hats,” he says jovially.
Rowe plays Leo Roth, de facto leader of the collection of friends brought together by shared serious medical plight — a complex charmer with an edge of sadness, the kind of character that does indeed turn up-and-comers into stars. His portrayal is all that much more impressive when you hear his natural British accent and realize that behind the all-American Leo is a Londoner, born and raised.
Rowe played Peter Pan in Syfy’s “Neverland” prequel and Billy Costa in the big-screen “Golden Compass.” Last year, he became the youngest lead actor in the history of The Old Vic, where he played the title role of Ronnie Winslow in “The Winslow Boy.”
So how did a nice British teen wind up working in Atlanta, Ga., playing a cancer-stricken California boy?
“This is the first pilot I’ve ever auditioned for. I’ve never done pilot season or anything like that,” notes Rowe. “I was just going off the pilot script, reading it in the U.K., and I got to page four, and I knew I wanted to do it — it just seemed to be more ambitious than other shows. It was one I could really relate to. It wasn’t about guns and cops or the Middle East; it was very clearly something I related to, yet it was something far away from me. An interesting mix.”
There was also the character himself. “I really, really like Leo. I think he’s very powerful. There are things that are different from me about Leo, but I’m not quite sure what those things are yet. There are things I find similar. He has an urge to know everything, not be left out.”
Once Rowe put in his bid for the role, he had an audition for a London casting director within a week. “The director was on Skype, and the writer was on Facetime, so it was a strange conception of screens,” he recalls.
“They enjoyed it, and I got the part about a week and a half later.”
Rowe has the theater in his blood. His mother is a drama teacher whose students have included “Coronation Street” actor Charlie Condou. His father is an actor and writer. His aunt is on television in the U.K. His grandmother on his father’s side is an actress, as well, and his grandpa is a camera man. “I’ve grown up with it, and I can’t imagine myself doing anything or attempting to do anything else,” he says.
Taking the edge off his homesickness as he toils on sound stages half a world away from the British Isles is the fact that he’s become fast friends with his young “Red Band Society” cast mates. “Some of us live in the same building, some five minutes away. We’re all almost the same age. It’s almost like family,” he notes. The show also stars Octavia Spencer and Dave Annable.
Another bonding experience: Cast members did a cross-country tour of pediatric hospitals. “We went visiting different cities and different hospitals and talked to the kids there about what we were doing and why we wanted to talk to them and get to know them. Partly it was very formalized, in that we were there to do interviews and we had a whole publicity team with us, and it was very much part of the publicity process. But part of it was going to these kids and chatting with them, one on one, about what they were going through and stuff like that. That was the part I really loved,” he recalls. “There was some really funny and hilarious stuff. You don’t have to use a lot of imagination with this. It’s easy to relate to the real thing.”
Asked whether the visits were emotional, Rowe says no. “None of them were really upset. They were very happy to be where they were and very happy they were getting better, and tremendously interested in telling their stories. You know, they’re just ordinary kids. I’m going to try to meet this girl, I’m going to try to have new friends — that sort of thing.”
The series also benefits from writer/executive producer Margaret Nagle’s experience, having spent countless hours and days in the hospital with her brother, who was comatose for years. (He is now an outsider artist, though still disabled.)
Rowe reports that the company is working on episode five as we speak, and he says, “We’re getting to the good stuff now. We’re getting to the heart of the show. We’re going into more aspects of the characters. It’s great.”
Whether Rowe and his cast mates skyrocket to fame or not, his acting work is such that he’s bound to be around for a long, long time.