One of the last major films to come out this year will be Steven Spielberg‘s War Horse, based on the best-selling young adult novel and the Tony award-winning play, but the film is a completely different animal than either the book or the play. Unlike the play, which features some of the most creative and delightful puppets to grace a Broadway stage since Julie Taymor’s The Lion King debuted back in 1997, Spielberg’s epic features actual horses. Hundreds of them.
While an argument can definitely be made as to who the actual lead actor in the film is, a strong case can certainly be made for the titular horse, the lead human actor in the film is someone you may not have heard of considering War Horse serves as his feature film debut. However, with War Horse in the bag Jeremy Irvine is continuing on with his film career and is now filming Great Expectations with director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) and has another film, Now is Good, starring Dakota Fanning in the can and The Railway Man with Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz on the horizon.
But for the purposes of this interview I wanted to push aside working with two-legged actors and began my short chat with Irvine asking how he took to working with so many four-legged “actors”.
There’s an old show business adage that you should avoid working with children and dogs and here you are…
Jeremy Irvine (JI): Right, yeah, yeah, yeah. And I’m doing a movie with a horse. We all know who the real star of this movie is, it’s a bloody horse. (laughs) Yeah. These are the most highly trained horses in the world. They’re incredible. They are kind of Formula One racing cars of the horse world.
Acting with them, you know, I was quite skeptical of actually forming an emotional bond with them because I certainly wouldn’t call myself an animal person before making the movie. But what was quite astonishing was how human their emotions are. You know, here’s an animal that’s so powerful, it could easily kill you if it wanted to, and yet it lets you get on its back and ride it. Let’s you kind of be in a scene with it and you really do feel like you’re acting with these horses.
It’s funny, by the time you spend two months prepping, and you get on set, the fourteen horses that play [the lead horse, Joey] were real and hopefully what you see on camera is a genuine relationship. Yeah, we really did create those bonds with those horses and when you’re on set, the horse wants to be there and you want to be there. You know, you’re not going to make a horse do anything it doesn’t want to do. They’re big animals. It has to want to.
On the flip side. The press notes say this is your first film.
JI: Yeah, one of my first jobs in show business period.
Right, and many of your other scenes are mostly with some very experienced actors including Emily Watson, who is one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation. Was that intimidating for a first time film actor?
JI: You always think it’s going to be, when you work with these people. You’re especially naive and you’ve grown up watching their work, but in reality when you get to work with established people it actually makes your job easier. Because you’re working with someone who kind of supports you in scenes. You’re in very safe hands, and with Emily Watson, here’s someone with whom I could turn up on set every day and work and learn from her work, and she could be a treat. In fact, every actor there was a role model, and they all had a hell of a lot more experience than me.
Last week, I got to do a whole group of scenes with Ralph Fiennes [for Great Expectations], and it’s just you and him in a room in your scenes and you would think that would be more difficult with someone like that, but actually it was easy because he’s so committed and so good it makes your job a whole lot easier.
Another thing I wonder about is you’re character ages quite significantly during the course of the film including playing two very different periods in a young man’s life. Was it difficult to play as an actor?
JI: Well, you know I play Albert from the age of 15 to 20, and I was, I was 20 while I was shooting it and I really had to kind of, again, not just age down, but age down in a period when 15 years old were not what 15-year-olds are today. I never considered myself the lead actor in the film, it is only since the press has come out and I’m described as the lead actor. If anyone’s the lead actor, it’s the horse. I don’t know. There had to be changes in the character. But in most scripts you read the character goes through changes, and I think the challenging part for me was to play the young Albert. That was the tough bit.
But usually you’re playing those changes on screen. Here you’re playing two different periods separated by time.
JI: That’s true, yeah, but at the end of the day that doesn’t make so much difference to you, because when you do your homework, you’ve worked all this stuff out in your head anyway. What amazed me when I first watched it was how different I look in the movie. You know, it’s the first time watching yourself on screen. It’s funny, I didn’t really tell my friends what I was doing when I was doing the movie and I didn’t really know how to tell them without seeming funny.
And what did you think when you saw the movie?
JI: That’s Spielberg doing what Spielberg does best. He’s a master craftsman.
War Horse is indeed “Spielberg doing what Spielberg does” and the film hits theaters Christmas Day, for more information on the film click here.