The kids are aight

"At his core, Rich is a character who doesn't compromise his beliefs and values for something else," says Skins actor Alexander Arnold.
"At his core, Rich is a character who doesn't compromise his beliefs and values for something else," says Skins actor Alexander Arnold.

Alexander Arnold couldn't watch the original series of controversial British teen drama Skins.

The programme about a group of Bristol teenagers in their final years of high school engaging in sex, drugs and all manner of taboo activities was televised way past his bedtime.

"I was only about 12 or 13 when it first came out and it was on very late at night, so I didn't watch it as religiously as people might think," the 17-year-old says.

"But for my birthday, I was given the first four series of Skins on DVD by my friends, so I have caught up.

"I really enjoy the show. It's a great piece of telly, really."

Arnold can now count himself among the show's student body, after being one of eight people, most without previous acting experience, to be selected from 8000 applicants at open auditions in England for a role in the fifth instalment of the cult series.

It's the third time the cast have been completely replaced since the show began in 2007, as per the creators' desire to refresh the series every two years, and Arnold was under no illusions about the potentially hostile reception from fans loyal to the previous generations.

"We knew Skins had a big fan base before we were attached to the project in series five and we respected that," he says.

"But we also believed in the characters and believed in the writing, and so we were hoping people would give us a chance."

Arnold plays Rich Hardbeck - a long-haired, metal-music-loving teenager who skulks around in chains and boots.

Some transformation was required for the normally short-haired Arnold, who is in his last year of school in real life, and who lists Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground as more to his musical tastes than Rich's thrash metal idol, Slayer.

"I had to wear a wig. I got the part three weeks before we started filming, so I couldn't really grow my hair for five years first," he says.

"That was good fun, actually. I thought the wig would be really itchy and horrible, but it was very good.

"You can't play a character if you don't sympathise with them and put yourself in their shoes.

"I couldn't see a lot because of this peripheral vision of my wig, so the only place to look at really was down.

"My shoulders were sinking and the boots were heavy, so I also developed a different walk."

Despite their external differences, Arnold says one of the great strengths of Skins is characters a young audience can relate to, and Rich was no different for him.

"At his core, Rich is a character who doesn't compromise his beliefs and values for something else.

"Everyone has that sort of stage in life - 'I'm not going to do something just because everyone else is going to'. I was really attracted to that side of Rich.

"He hangs out with best mate Alo (Will Merrick), a ginger lad. Rich is a cynical, downbeat 'get out of my face' kind of guy and Alo is all optimism and hope and happy, so at the beginning, it's a very Laurel and Hardy sort of relationship. We had a lot of fun playing it."

After a particularly grim fourth season, in which a character was beaten to death and another faced a distressing battle with mental illness, fans may be relieved to hear Skins will be going back to its comic roots this time around.

"I think the creators made a conscious effort to make (the fifth series) a bit lighter," Arnold says.

"It's a very young cast - I think we're the youngest cast ever. We have Dakota (Blue Richards, who plays Franky) and Jess (Sula, who plays Grace), who were 16 when they were filming and the oldest is 18 or 19.

"So they wanted something young and fun that perhaps contrasted to (the fourth series). But in saying that, there are still some dark places in this series."

Created by father and son writing duo Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, Skins has spawned an American remake (which was criticised, despite being toned down, for its depictions of drug use and underage sex) and has actors Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), Nicholas Hoult (About A Boy) and Luke Pasqualino, who has been cast as the lead in new United States series Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, among its alumni.

Skins' winning formula lies in its development of young talent across all aspects of the show, with most of the writing team in their early 20s or younger, making it look and sound like its target audience, even if the storylines, like the show's legendary parties - which sparked a copycat trend across Britain and France of drug-fuelled, out-of-control gatherings nicknamed 'Skins parties' - are taken to the extreme.

"A lot of people say, 'Is Skins real? Is it a true reflection (of teenage life)?' " Arnold says.

"That sort of thing doesn't really matter. I think saying that something is relatable and that something is real are two different things.

"There are elements of realism - 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds playing those ages, and that's something that's really brave.

"Skins isn't The OC or Gossip Girl, you know, and I think that's what's good about it."

Arnold, who is a member of Britain's National Youth Theatre, says it also gives young performers a rare stepping stone into a competitive industry.

"It appeals to someone like myself who is an aspiring actor," he says.

"I want to pursue acting and I always did, but it's given me a bit more confirmation about what I want to do.

"I didn't even have an agent when I first open auditioned [for Skins]."

 Skins, Monday, 9.30pm on Four.

The Dominion Post