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Alexander Richard Pettyfer was born in Hertfordshire and raised in Windsor. His mother, Lee, is an interior designer. His father, Richard Pettyfer, is a fellow actor. His parents divorced and Alex now has a younger half-brother, James, from his mother's re-marriage to a property developer, Michael Ireland. James is a junior tennis player.
At age 7, Alex started modeling for Gap's children range. He also appeared in TV commercials for other brands. When he was older, he modeled for Burberry to fund his traveling adventures.
Pettyfer was brought up in Slough, Berkshire, and began his career as a child fashion model at the age of seven, for Gap, after meeting Ralph Lauren in a toy store in New York. He also did advertisements for some yogurt brands. His first commercial was at age six.
As a schoolboy, he performed in plays, including in the role of Willy Wonka in a production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Jack in his school play "Jack and the Beanstalk" and Robin Hood in the adaptation of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Pettyfer was educated at two junior independent schools: The Mall School, a small school in Twickenham, followed by the Lambrook Haileybury school in Berkshire. He subsequently attended two other independent boarding schools: Millfield School in Street, Somerset and Shiplake College near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. After his GCSEs, he left Shiplake College to attend the independent Sylvia Young Theatre School in London.
At age 13, he auditioned and won a role in the TV movie Tom Brown's Schooldays (2005). At age 15, he went to Los Angeles and was cast as "Alex Rider", the main character in Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker (2006) (aka "Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker"). This was his breakthrough role and he was nominated for a Young Artist Award and an Empire Award for this role. He passed up the role in Eragon (2005) to do "Alex Rider" due to his fear of flying.
He next appeared in Wild Child, a film set in California, Kent and Yorkshire part of which took place at Cobham Hall Girls' School in Kent. He played schoolboy Freddie Kingsley and he co-starred with Emma Roberts. In 2009, he played the callous ringleader of a group of cool but cruel teenagers who are picked off one by one by the ghost of one of their former victims, in the horror-comedy, Tormented.
He starred in the film Beastly, based on the novel by Alex Flinn, alongside Mary-Kate Olsen, Vanessa Hudgens and Neil Patrick Harris. Pettyfer portrayed the main character in I Am Number Four, released in February 2011. The film co-starred Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron and Teresa Palmer, and was directed by D.J. Caruso, produced by Michael Bay and executive produced by Steven Spielberg.
After Pettyfer completed filming Stormbreaker, he did not discuss the film with anyone at his school, citing the advice of his Stormbreaker star Ewan McGregor, who told him to keep his personal and professional lives separate. Pettyfer subsequently decided to leave school and concentrate on his film career, while studying drama at college, saying that "When you have already experienced going out and working in the real world, and you come back to school, you just see it as a playground and you don't want to be there any more".
Pettyfer was briefly engaged to Elvis Presley's granddaughter, the actress Riley Keough in 2012. He has seven tattoos, including a Celtic cross on his chest, Tibetan script on the inside of his right arm, the words "What Goes Around Comes Around" on his right shoulder, a Katakana script on his lower waist, and the letters "ER," the initials of ex-girlfriend Emma Roberts inside interlinking hearts on his right wrist. He has Emma Roberts' name tattooed on his wrist while the two were dating.
In 2011 Pettyfer boasted to VMAN magazine that he had gotten a tattoo reading 'thank you' above his penis so that he can say it to women "in case I forget to say it."