He was once the baby of East Enders as young Martin Fowler, now James Alexandrou is poised to take his next career step as a film director.

The Hackney-born 35-year-old, who spent 11 years on the hit soap, is about to graduate from the prestigious National Film and Television School.

But the two-year Directing Fiction postgraduate course isn't his first foray into directing. Since leaving EastEnders at the age of 21 he has directed short films and music videos, including for pop star Anne-Marie’s single ‘Karate’ which garnered over 5.3 million Youtube views.

“I’ve always messed around with cameras,” he says. “I grew up on TV sets, seeing other people do it. I did it out of impulse just to make and create stuff in my early twenties."

Alexandrou describes his motivation to study at NFTS as “opportunistic”. “I was having a bit of a rough patch, I just had a big breakup, and the opportunity came up to apply. Before coming here everything felt quite pressured because it was a career or it was a job I was commissioned for. Spending two years making films without any stakes sounded like a really lovely way to spend my life.”

The course alumni includes Alice Seabright (Netflix's Sex Education) and Lewis Arnold (ITV's Des). For Alexandrou it offered “the chance to explore whatever I wanted to.”

Hackney Gazette: A still from James Alexandrou's graduate short film SunlightA still from James Alexandrou's graduate short film Sunlight (Image: James Alexandrou)

Projects include his graduation short, Sunlight, a horror film that explores the tension between 13th century England and Wales during the Black Death and the origins of the vampire myth.

“It seems that’s when a lot of our modern mythology was crystallized. From there you got werewolves, witches and vampires.”

Alexandrou will be among a cohort of up-and-coming directors graduating from the 50-year-old NFTS which by offering more than £900,000 in scholarships and bursaries is paving the way for a more diverse industry. Accessibility in the industry is something he is passionate about, leading him to set up Actors East in 2018 in Kingsland Road. What was at first a “mouldy leaky basement in Dalston” is now a rehearsal space for actors and creatives, available for hire on a pay-what-you-can basis. It also hosts workshops and classes led by industry professionals.

Hackney Gazette: James Alexandrou at BAFTAJames Alexandrou at BAFTA (Image: PA Archive/PA Images)

“It opened out of a need for a rehearsal space in London that wasn’t prohibitively expensive. Normally you pay 5, 6, 7, 800 or 900 quid a week just to rehearse or create something. I’ve given away thousands of hours of the room to films, theatres, plays, rehearsals, dancers, directors, producers and workshops, in this strange little barnacle of a place in Dalston.”

Actors East has run online workshops while the studio was closed throughout the pandemic, although Alexandrou says this is “only 5 percent of what we used to do.”

The studio reopens in May. “We’re nervous about opening up," he confesses. "We are able to open - it’s just trying to tell whether we can [financially] sustain it.”

For Alexandrou, community and acting have always been linked. “In Hackney and the East End, acting is part of the DNA,” he explains. “There are the old Cockneys or the market traders or just, you know, the larger than life characters. I see East Enders as almost like warrior poets. They’re a tough breed, but they wear their heart on their sleeve and they’re very emotionally open. There’s always been that performance aspect. So you’re very aware of it growing up.”

Despite his experience in performance, Alexandrou is realistic about re-entering the industry in the current climate. After the NFTS’s graduate show in May where Sunlight will be screened, he “just hopes to get a job like everyone else.”

“It’s a bit of a strange time for coming out of school. I feel for every student. Luckily I’m a bit older - I don’t have the same anxiety as other guys. It’s about trying to get films off the ground, trying to make stuff and to pay the bills. And keep doing what I’m doing, as always.”