Jeremy Irvine, the young star of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, has managed to make a distinct impression on Hollywood in a relatively short time. The 21-year-old studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art before landing a role on TV’s “Life Bites,” which led to his casting as Albert Narracott in Spielberg’s latest. He recently completed filming Now is Good (with Dakota Fanning) and Great Expectations (with Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter). Here, he discusses his experiences filming War Horse.
Q: War Horse is your first film. That’s an incredible way to start…
Irvine: I’m just proud to be a part of it. Just to have lines in a movie, any movie, is ridiculous and to be in a Steven Spielberg movie is beyond my wildest dreams. It’s something I never even contemplated. Even when I was auditioning I never dreamed I would get the role, as far as I was concerned it was just good audition experience.
Q: How long did that go on for?
Irvine: I think it was about two months.
Q: And you kept getting closer and closer…
Irvine: Well, I didn’t know that. At no point did I allow myself to think that I was getting close to landing the part, I just thought it was great experience – meeting with one of the biggest casting directors in the UK and the chance to meet Steven Spielberg and that was all I ever thought about.
Q: When and where was that first meeting with Steven?
Irvine: Very late in the process, it was just before I was offered the job. We had tea in Claridges Hotel in London. I got a phone call one night saying ‘can you meet Steven Spielberg for tea tomorrow morning?’ And as you can imagine I didn’t sleep much that night.
Q: What was that first meeting like? Were you nervous?
Irvine: Oh yes, but within five minutes of being in a room with Steven he puts you completely at ease. It’s one of his greatest skills as a director because he makes the actors feel so comfortable. It would have been very easy for me to get very overwhelmed and he was very careful to make me feel as comfortable as possible and when you’re feeling comfortable you do your best work.
Q: Did you find out that you had the role at that meeting with Steven?
Irvine: I never ever even thought about it. I would phone my agent after each audition and say ‘that was a great experience…’ but we never once said ‘we might be getting close here..’ It just wasn’t on the cards. You know, I wasn’t even getting called back for commercials so why would I get a Steven Spielberg movie? It was really bizarre.
Q: Where were you when you heard?
Irvine: I was at home with my little brother painting his go-kart and I got a call saying ‘Jeremy can you come and have another audition?’ So I rushed into my agent’s office to go in front of a camera and they passed me a piece of script and they said ‘right, Steven wants this to be spontaneous, so don’t turn it over until we press “action”‘ So they pressed action on the tape and I saw a red light come on and I started reading and it said ‘Joey, Joey, Steven Spielberg wants me to be Albert in a film of War Horse..’ and that’s how I found out and I thought I was doing an audition. So I’ve got all of this on tape, me finding out how I got the part, which is pretty amazing.
Q: And who did you call first to share the news with?
Irvine: Well, that’s the thing, I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone. The casting director said to my agent ‘we’d like Jeremy to keep it to himself..’ and when you are offered a chance like this it’s amazing how easy that is. So I didn’t tell my parents for a good three weeks. In fact, I didn’t tell anyone.
Q: But you must have been desperate to share the news?
Irvine: Well, I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize a wonderful opportunity like that. And also I needed to try and make some sense of it. Actually, I’m not sure that I’ve managed to do that even now, but I at least needed to try and make some sense of it in my head. I was actually going off to work and telling people I was going off for another audition and things and it was funny. I mean, I didn’t tell my friends for a long time, not until it had been announced in the press.
Q: Did you know how to ride before the film?
Irvine: No, I’d never ridden before. I never had anything to do with horses before so I had to learn quite quickly. I was a little bit skeptical before when people talked about how they had these close relationships with animals because I wasn’t a huge animal person before but within a week I was besotted with the horses like everyone else. They are incredibly human with their emotions. They are huge, powerful animals and they are not going to do anything that they don’t want to do so you have to have a relationship with them. You can’t fake relationships with horses. And when you are on screen those relationships have to be real – there’s nowhere to hide in that close up. So I spent two months building relationships with the 14 horses that played Joey and I made sure that every relationship was real and the hours spent training with them, getting to know them, paid off and, by the end of it, hopefully what you see on the screen are real, genuine relationships with those horses. The thing is, to state the obvious, a horse doesn’t know that it’s acting so it’s never going to be fake, it’s always going to be real. And as an actor that’s great to work with but you can’t come into a scene with set ideas of how the scene is going to go because the horse is probably going to have other ideas and you have to work with that. There is no point trying to go against it, you have to work with the horse and be fluid and move with the animal.
Q: Steven has talked about the themes that appealed to him in this story – courage, tenacity, and loyalty. Did he talk to you about the themes that are at the heart of this story?
Irvine: When we were shooting for me it was just about playing the character for real. I didn’t tend to think about the big messages and themes because that’s what you try to do – play it for real and play the situations for real. But obviously Steven as the filmmaker can direct us to formulate those things. And it’s lovely to be in safe hands.
Q: But how would you sum up the film?
Irvine: I think it’s a very powerful anti-war film for people for all ages. I think it’s so impressive that he has made this anti-war film and that children can understand its message. There is no blood and guts to get distracted by but when you see the cavalry charge and the machine guns start firing and suddenly most of the horses don’t have riders on their backs anymore and the camera pans up and you see a whole field of dead horses. That’s so powerful because it leaves something to the audience’s imagination. I think that Steven brings out those themes in a way that is so clever. I remember going to the premier in New York and the film was ending and there were all these tough New York guys all around me and they were all welling up with tears in their eyes. Everyone knows that this is a film, we’re working from a script, it’s actors and it’s not real and there’s a cameraman and a sound guy and yet it can still move people to tears and I think that says everything. That’s one of the reasons I got into acting and that’s the power that an amazing director like Steven has. War Horse harks back to the golden age of Hollywood. It’s ambitious filmmaking and only a director like Steven Spielberg can pull that off. Who else could do that?
Q: What was the first Spielberg movie you would have seen?
Irvine: Probably Jurassic Park. I can remember watching Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones movies at Christmas. They still remind me of Christmas whenever I see them. And I remember getting a video of Saving Private Ryan from school and I was probably too young to watch it and I watched it at home with the sound down really low so that my parents wouldn’t know. And being in some of the battle sequences in War Horse made me think of watching Saving Private Ryan. And you know, for me, this has been a dream and it still hasn’t really sunk in. It’s every boy’s dream. You know, the day I read that I’d get to throw a grenade into a German machine gun nest. That was a big day! (laughs). It was like, ‘Steven please can I pull the pin out with my teeth?’ It was great.
Q: And a film like this is a game changer for you isn’t it?
Irvine: It’s an incredible opportunity. I’ve got my next film, Now Is Good, with Dakota Fanning, coming out in May. And I’m about to go on to a film called The Railway Man. It’s an incredible story and I play a wonderful guy called Eric Lomax, who is still alive and Colin Firth plays Eric as an older man. One of the best things that has come out of War Horse is first of all I can get work (laughs) and mostly I can almost choose my work and choose the things I’m passionate about. I’ve been allowed to do three movies that I’m really passionate about and that’s the greatest gift that any actor can ask for.
Q: What do your family and friends make of it all?
Irvine: I’m very lucky and they don’t make a fuss. I go back home and they go ‘yeah, great, go and tidy your room…’ I know they are very proud of me but there is something very British about them. You go off to these events in LA or New York but it’s nice to come back home where they don’t make a fuss. I live in London but I do most of my script work back home in the countryside where my parents live, in Cambridgeshire, which is just lovely. In five or ten minutes I can be out walking in the countryside. And that’s where I do all of my script work, walking around the fields – that’s my rehearsal room.
Q: Do you have any siblings?
Irvine: Yes, I’ve got two younger brothers. Lawrence who is 19 who is training to be a vet and I used a lot of the way that he is with animals when I was playing Albert. And my youngest brother, Toby, is 13 and he is playing the younger me, the Pip character, in Great Expectations. And he’s never acted before in his life and I took him along to the read through in a room with 150 people and it’s him and Ralph Fiennes in the first scene. And I watched this 13 year-old boy, who has never acted before, completely hold his own. He has got something, he really has and it’s going to be the death of my career getting him involved, I can tell you (laughs).
Q: What do Mom and Dad do?
Irvine: My Dad is an engineer and my Mum is in local politics.
Q: So where did the acting come from for you?
Irvine: I think it came from a desire to do something different. I was at school and like all teenagers you don’t feel like you fit in and you want to do something different. I wanted to get away from the crowd and that’s always been something that’s very strong within me.
Q: Where was drama school?
Irvine: LAMDA [The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art].
Q: Did it live up to expectations?
Irvine: I had a great time but it wasn’t everything I hoped it would be. Again, I found myself in with a group of people and I wanted to be in control of me finding myself an agent. I filmed a show reel with a friend of mine and tried to pass it off as real work to agents. I spent a long time walking round London getting a lot of rejection letters. Then after a year and a half Igot a new agent and I was working in the chorus of the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time and the second audition they got me was for a film called Dartmoor which I found out later was War Horse. So it’s been amazing.
Q: You must have been over to Los Angeles a couple of times by now. What’s your take on that?
Irvine: It’s a wonderful city and for someone who hasn’t done a huge amount of traveling before it’s very exciting to go there and to other places. I like to be based in London because it’s where my friends and family are and I’ve got a soft spot for London. But it’s great to go to places like LA and New York and let people know that I’m working even if I do get a little embarrassed saying I’m working. I’m lucky enough to be doing my hobby for a job. But I like it in LA and New York. All the people there who I’ve worked with have been so kind and generous.
Q: Did you do Great Expectations straight after War Horse?
Irvine: Actually I spent a couple of months out in LA straight after War Horse doing meetings. I’m doing this the wrong way round and I should have met everyone before I got to this stage but I’ve now got to go backwards (laughs). Now Is Good was the first film I did after War Horse and it’s a very different movie, it has less than a tenth of the budget of War Horse. We filmed it here in the UK and these sort of films aren’t easy to get made. We finally started about seven months after I’d first been offered the part and in the meantime I’d been offered another big studio movie but I felt very passionate about Now Is Good and I wanted to hold out for it and I’m very glad that I did. Jina Jay, when she cast me for War Horse, sat me down and we had a long chat about not getting carried away by the machine and the industry and choosing projects where you are working with people who you are going to learn from and I’m glad that I heeded her advice because there is obviously a huge temptation to go and do movies that you are not as passionate about as you should be but there are other draws and I think it’s been lovely to have been able to have representation around me that has encouraged me to do films that I’m passionate about and not be distracting by other things.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Irvine: A lot of the time when you are not working you find odd jobs to do here and there. I’m just about to move into a flat with a couple of friends, one who is a cameraman and they have a natural hatred of actors (laughs) so that’s good. And another actor will be sharing with us. There are all sorts of things I like doing. There’s nothing better than going to a country pub with some friends. And actually, I’ve always been fascinated with the First and Second World Wars so I’ve been writing a documentary about a fighter pilot on my days off and I’m hoping to do that this year. And that’s been very interesting.
Q: So you knew quite a lot about the First World War before you started War Horse?
Irvine: Yes, I’ve always been passionate about it and it’s funny because I was asked to drop History as a subject just before my GCSE exam because my grades were so awful. But there’s learning a syllabus and there’s being passionate about something. And sometimes learning a subject at school can suck the passion out of it. I didn’t do subjects that I probably should have done at school but I did ones I enjoyed. I did things like Film Studies
Q: You must have studied Steven Spielberg’s work in film studies?
Irvine: Yes, I did. I can remember doing an essay on E.T. And I did another one on Jaws and I can remember discussing this shot where he zooms out while tracking in and I think it’s a shot that he might have invented. It’s great and I remember writing an essay about that. My other subjects were Art and Drama.
Q: So next up is The Railway Man?
Irvine: Yes, we start filming that in March and we are filming in the UK and Australia. I’ll be doing most of my stuff in Australia where we’re filming the Japanese part of the film.
Two-time Academy Award nominee Emily Watson has earned a reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest actresses, and she brings her exceptional talents to the role of Rose Narracott, mother of Albert (Jeremy Irvine) in War Horse. Watson had previously earned Oscar nods in 1996 for Breaking the Waves and in 1998 for Hilary and Jackie. Here, she discusses her approach to the film and Steven Spielberg’s directing style.
Q: What did you think the first time you saw the finished film?
Watson: I love it. It’s a big, brassy, bold piece of Hollywood and I mean that as a compliment. I think when you see the film it makes you think of all those words like ‘trust’ and ‘love’ and ‘hope’ and ‘friendship’ and it’s redemptive and it’s a miraculous and it has an uplifting, happy ending which is wonderful and that’s absolutely what you want. But, at the same time, I think Steven has made a very powerful anti-war film. And I think that is great and especially for the younger generation. A lot of kids are growing up playing war games on their computers and they think it’s a game and this film shows very powerfully that it’s not a game and it’s not cool. There was a whole generation wiped out by the First World War and this is what it looks like. It’s a very powerful piece of filmmaking.
Q: You’ve worked with so many great directors covering every spectrum of film, from Lars Von Trier to Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman to Steven Spielberg…
Watson: Yes, I feel very lucky. And it was a really great thing to get the call from Steven Spielberg. I actually met Steven a long time ago in Hollywood at an (Oscar) nominee’s lunch. Hilary and Jackie was out the same year as Private Ryan and it was one of those things where nominees have a get together. And he came across the room, looked me in the eye and shook my hand and said ‘well done, that was great..’ And I was completely overwhelmed. And then ten years later I got a phone call saying that Steven wanted to meet me and I went to Claridges Hotel in London and he offered me the job.
Q: Did you know what the project was before you met him?
Watson: Yes, I knew it was for War Horse and I’d seen the play and I said ‘I presume it’s for the (role of the) Mum?’ And they said ‘yes..’
Q: When had you seen the play?
Watson: I’d seen it when I was eight months pregnant and I said ‘I’ve got to get to the theatre before the baby is born because after the birth I don’t know when I’ll get to go again. What shall we go and see?’ And we decided on War Horse and of course after about ten seconds I just went to pieces and was sobbing away. I did sit through it and I remember I went to a matinee and it was full of a lot of older people who were really quite shaken by it. You know, they were an older generation and for them the First World War wasn’t within living memory but certainly it would have been for their parents and so it was very meaningful to them.
Q: At those early meeting with Steven did you discuss his approach for adapting the play onto the screen?
Watson: We had a chat about the play and he obviously loved it, as did I. He said ‘I’d love you to do this..’ and I came out of the meeting walking on air, it was a very thrilling day. And obviously, I was very, very excited at the prospect of working with Steven – what actor wouldn’t be? I love his films. And I was intrigued, too, because I knew that he would tell this story in a very powerful way. And he has.
Q: The actors who go to war in the film, like Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, obviously had a lot of preparation for that big cavalry charge…
Watson: That’s amazing. I love the sequence because it’s brilliantly conceived and so dramatic.
Q: For you, does it compare with the famous battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan?
Watson: Yes, it does. And you know when you are watching it that these poor men are riding to their deaths and it’s so moving. And it’s so brilliant to have a sequence like that that portrays such a turning point in history – it’s brilliant, really brilliant.
Q: But what was your preparation? Did you meet up with Peter and Jeremy to discuss a shared approach?
Watson: I met with Jeremy before hand and I think that was when Jeremy was still going though the casting process and they wanted us to get together to see whether it would work as mother and son. Although, by that time, I think Steven was pretty sure that he wanted Jeremy from quite early on but he just wanted to cover the bases. As far as my preparation goes, it was very interesting because the writing was so well formed and the language, the vernacular, was brilliant because it was so evocative of the place. It was about being in the place with the farm tools and things like that. There’s a scene, which actually didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie which is where I’m making bread. I’d said to Steven, ‘I want to be doing things..’ Because I think a woman in that position, a farmer’s wife who is really running the farm, she is working all of the time, there’s not a lot of sitting around and talking.
Q: So you found the character quite easily?
Watson: Playing that role was like putting on a really well fitting coat. In a way it’s an archetype because Rose is the Earth Mother, she is the Penelope in The Odyssey and she is the heart to which you return at the end of the journey.
Q: She is a very strong, stoic character. Did you like playing her?
Watson: I loved playing her. And I loved the relationship with Ted, which is clearly complicated but lovely. They are really well drawn characters.
Q: Did you feel that your characters were almost playing a story within a story?
Watson: Yes, in a way. There’s a scene where my character Rose tells her son about his father’s involvement in the Boer War and how it has hurt him and changed him. And that was actually Steven’s idea, the Boer War and the pennant that she gives Albert as a sort of cinematic physical emblem that goes through the film. And I think that works beautifully well.
Q: Am I right in thinking that you hadn’t worked with Peter Mullan before? Did you know him?
Watson: Peter is lovely. I had met him socially a while back. But I hadn’t worked with either Peter or David (Thewlis) but it felt like I knew them both really well because I felt we were all from a similar stable in a way. And it was quite interesting on the first day because Steven talks to you during a take.
Q: Isn’t that distracting?
Watson: No, it’s not distracting and actually it’s really great but you have to get used to it. I could see Peter was slightly taken aback at first because his universe is Ken Loach where performance is utterly sacrosanct and you don’t disturb it, it’s a really sacred thing, you are in the world of truth of it. But on War Horse you would be in the middle of a take and Steven would talk to you and it’s like he is planting little seeds in your ear and they start to flower. If you accept it, it’s great and a really creative thing.
Q: What sort of things would he say to you?
Watson: Tom told me about something that Steven said to him before the cavalry scene, which I thought, was a beautiful piece of direction. There is a close up of Tom when he is riding towards the enemy lines and he realizes the machine guns are there and there’s a silent slow motion close up on his face and at that point he knows that he is riding into his death and Steven said ‘I don’t want to see fear, anger, surprise, I don’t want to see any of those emotions.’ He said to Tom ‘how old are you?’ 29. ‘OK, start at 29 and end up at nine. I want to see the man becoming the boy..’ What a brilliant piece of direction that is. And in amongst all the technical things that Steven was dealing with for a sequence like that, which must have been extraordinary, to have that level of emotional awareness kind of sums him up as a director. Extraordinary.
Q: Can you remember the first Steven Spielberg movie you were aware of?
Watson: Probably Jaws although I don’t think I was allowed to watch it but I was aware that everyone was talking about it and I knew that incredible music that was in it, too. I think E.T. was the first one that I actually saw, which must have been in the early eighties (1982). I saw that in the cinema and I absolutely loved it. I just cried and thought it was wonderful. I actually saw it twice and thought it was just magical.
Q: And over the years you would have watched all of his films?
Watson: Oh yes. I remember when Schindler’s List came out and people were saying ‘Steven Spielberg is making a film about the holocaust?’ Everyone was kind of sniping about it and then they saw it. And what unbelievable commitment and passion it took to make that extraordinary film. I also loved all the Indiana Jones films, too. And Saving Private Ryan was extraordinary. I think he has created his own cinematic language with war films and our movie, War Horse, is another wonderful example of that. When Joey is caught in the barbed wire in no man’s land it is just a very, very powerful sequence – what a brilliant scene. I love that scene when the English boy meets the German boy and they both cut Joey free.
Q: The English countryside looks very beautiful in the film. Where did you film your section?
Watson: Most of my scenes were on Dartmoor. I loved it. I actually took my family back there on holiday last summer and the kids loved it. It was wild and wonderful and they were outdoors and wading in streams and climbing up trees. I’ve got a girl and a boy, six and three.
Q: Are they old enough to see the film?
Watson: No. I’ve showed them the first 20 minutes but they will have to wait until they are older to see the rest. It was like ‘Mummy, what are you doing? Why are you so cross? Why Mummy so cross?’ They saw me on a TV show the other morning and it was ‘Mummy, what have they done to your eyes?’ And I said ‘don’t worry it’s just make-up…'(laughs). They don’t usually see me wearing make up.
Q: So they’re not really aware of what you do?
Watson: Juliet is, she’s six and she sees the poster on television. But I try and keep a little bit of distance from it.
Q: Do you take the children with you when you’re filming?
Watson: Not on this one. I bring them when I can but it’s much harder now that my daughter is in school. Up until then I had taken them all over the world – my daughter has been to New Zealand and Australia. And just in September I was doing a film in Mexico and they came out for that.
War Horse is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Walt Disney Home Entertainment.