Currently in production on BBC Films’ “Great Expectations,” in which he stars as Pip, the classic Dickens story is directed by Mike Newell and includes Academy Award® winner Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter. He recently completed production on the independent feature “Now Is Good,” opposite Dakota Fanning, based on Jenny Downham’s novel “Before I Die.” Irvine will next begin shooting “The Railway Man” opposite Colin Firth. The film is based on the WWII memoir by Eric Lomax, who was captured and tortured by the Japanese and forced to work on the infamous Burma Railway. Lomax will be portrayed by both Irvine and Firth at different ages.
Irvine studied acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and has appeared in stage productions, including the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Dunsinane.”
He resides in England.
DreamWorks Pictures' "War Horse," director Steven Spielberg's epic adventure, is a tale of loyalty, hope and tenacity set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War. "War Horse" begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets-British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter-before the story reaches its emotional climax in the heart of No Man's Land.
The First World War is experienced through the journey of this horse-an odyssey of joy and sorrow, passionate friendship and high adventure. "War Horse" is one of the great stories of friendship and war - a successful book, it was turned into a hugely successful international theatrical hit that is currently on Broadway. It now comes to screen in an epic adaptation by one of the great directors in film history.
Were you familiar with the book before you started shooting the film?
My Mum actually read me the book when I was about 10 or 11. I’ve got this very, very battered old copy, which I’ve had on my bookshelf since I was a child. I had not read the book in some 5 years, but when I was auditioning, there were things I remembered so clearly. In the first page I remembered a beautiful bit about Joey’s first memories being in dark stables and rats scuttling along the roof beams. For some reason, that stayed with me and had a big effect on me as a child. It’s just such a joy to be playing Albert now.
The book is told from the point of view of a horse. Did that affect how you played Albert?
The film, more than just being about the characters, is about the affect the horse has on them. Joey is Albert’s friend and his brother. My character can relate to Joey and put his feelings and emotions into him, which he probably can’t do with his Dad. He can talk with his horse and sort of push everything onto that relationship, so that’s how I approached it.
What is your character Albert like?
Albert is incredibly innocent, almost in a naive way. He’s never left his village because people didn’t back then, especially in Dartmoor, which is a very remote little village. His world would have been very small and he’s been working on his farm most of his life. His whole future is kind of set out for him. He will inherit the farm from his father and he will work on it until he dies, so I mean that naiveté and that innocence is incredibly important for him.
I personally think Albert’s got this very strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. I think he’s got this sort of naive idea of good and evil. Then he goes off to the trenches and that is just obliterated. There is suddenly no sense of what’s right and wrong.
How did you get to audition for the film?
It was very funny actually, because I signed with a new agent and I think the “War Horse” audition was one of the first things they got me. Steven Spielberg saw my first tape and liked it and the process went on for quite a few weeks. I thought I’d better start learning to ride a horse, so I took some more riding lessons and tried to teach myself to ride. In the end, it all paid off.
What did they have you do at the auditions?
I did a few of the integral scenes talking to Joey. The first one I did was just me giving a little monologue to him. Then we did some filming with the horses. One session was on the farm to see how comfortable I was, I guess. I was quite lucky because I actually grew up with horses living behind my house when I was very young. I’d never really ridden them, but I wasn’t terrified of them.
Talk about working with Steven Spielberg.
What’s fantastic about Steven is that he gives you enough space to work and have your own margins of experimentation on things. Everything that Steven Spielberg does has a realism to it. The most incredible thing about working with Steven Spielberg is that you get the best people in the world working with you. There’s no doing things by halves. Everything is done the best way it can possibly be done.
[Director of Photography] Janusz [Kaminski] is a genius. You’re on the set and you think, “It’s gonna look okay.” Then you look on the screen and you’re, like, “How did you get that?” It’s purely down to this incredibly close knit and very, very highly skilled crew that we’ve got and they’ve all worked together countless times before. It’s like a very big family.
Why do you think Albert has such a strong relationship with the horse?
I think it’s about Albert escaping from the troubles with his parents and bonding with Joey. His dad is a very heavy drinker and he’s got to the age where he’s suddenly realizing that maybe his father isn’t everything his mother told him he was. As a child, I think you see your parents like they can do no wrong and then you begin to mature and you kind of realize they’re human like everybody else, with very real human problems.
A lot of kids that age find something else that they can focus on so they can ignore what’s going on with their parents. For Albert, it’s his horse, Joey. He’s also an only child, so Joey becomes like a brother and his best friend.
In “War Horse,” your character and his horse get separated and then reunited.
Back then, horses were the machines that got men and machinery to the front, so they needed thousands and thousands of horses. Joey gets bought by the Army and taken out to the front. Albert tries to join up, but he’s too young. Then we follow the story of the British soldiers and German soldiers who come into contact with Joey as we follow him. With the Germans, he’s pulling these huge guns and you follow the lines of the German soldiers and see how equally horrific it was on both sides. Then finally the war brings Joey and Albert back together.
Talk about your training for the film.
We spent two months of really intense horse training with these Spanish stuntmen. It’s incredible when you see them ride, because they look like they’re part of the horse. I had learned to ride on Riding School horses, so I basically had to learn all over again. It was the difference between learning to drive a scooter and being put in an F-1 racecar. These horses are just so sensitive. You just have to think what you want them to do and they go and do it. They’re magnificent. I mean, we’re riding on the original Black Beauty and Seabiscuit. He’s in the film and he’s one of the Joeys.
Along with that, I was focusing doing loads and loads of research. I’ve actually always been fascinated by the First World War and even have a big collection of military stuff at home. It’s something that I’ve always been fascinated by. You can read diaries of the soldiers and somebody went and recorded them too. You can listen to what it was really like and it just brings it all home when it’s the real people talking about their own experiences.
At the end of the day, to say that, as an actor, you can relate to what these men and boys went through would almost be insulting to them. You just can’t. For our generation, there’s nothing that comes even close to it. But if I can just get a taste of what they experienced and try to put that into my performance, even if it’s just 1%, then I’ll be more than happy.
Which horses have you trained with?
I learned to ride about six or seven different horses. They wouldn’t let me on real Joeys straight away. I learned first and when they thought I was ready, I was put on the Joeys.
How comfortable were you with handling the weapons?
I love all the weapon stuff. It’s kind of a boy thing, but as I said, I sort of collect this stuff at home. I’m just fascinated by it. Yesterday I was on set and I wasn’t needed, but I heard they were firing machine guns, so I said to myself, “I’m gonna be down there.” So, yeah, I just love it. We’ve also got a superb military historian on set. He teaches how to use the weapons and gives us background.
Talk about your fellow cast members.
Everyone’s been so great. We all spent two months working and riding together and we’ve been through the highs and lows. It’s been such beautiful weather where we’ve been—big meadows and glorious sunshine. It’s been such a perfect, wonderful experience and we’ve all gotten very close, very quickly.
What about this role can you relate to on an emotional level?
There are a few things I can relate to. I grew up in quite a small village. I think nearly everyone can relate to Albert’s naiveté, which we all go through and we’ve all experienced. We’ve all wanted to escape from things and find something else to put our passion into. For Albert, it’s the horse. For me, it was acting. I just wanted to skip lessons and rehearse my drama school auditions and things like that. And even if you don’t have that emotional connection with a pet or an animal, you’ve probably got it with somebody—a friend or a member of your family. It’s the same thing. When they’re taken away from you, you can understand what that feels like.
Were any of your family members in the Great War?
Two of my great-grandfathers were in the First World War. One of them had a horse called Elizabeth that he was very attached to. My Auntie sent me an e-mail the other day and she goes, “I’ve just found this receipt.” It shows that he bought Elizabeth from the Army at the end of the war for 28 pounds, which is exactly how much Albert has at the auction when he tries to buy Joey back from the Army. That was just amazing to find that out. Nobody of that generation was left unaffected. Everyone either knew somebody who was in the war or was involved in it himself.
Talk about the humanity in this story and its large appeal to an audience.
You kind of know immediately that it’s not going to be a typical war film. It’s not about soldiers running around with machine guns on each hip, mowing down the enemy. It’s driven by the characters and it’s driven by all the different people who are affected by the horses and have this emotional connection to them and each other.
I think the reason the story works so well with people of all ages is that relationship between a boy and his horse. Our relationship with horses goes back centuries and I think in a weird way it’s written into our DNA. We’ve relied on horses for thousands of years and have this almost human relationship with them. A lot of people talk about their relationship with their dog and things, but I think horses are just on this other level. I think that’s probably why the story speaks to so many people.
Talk about your locations.
Dartmoor is one of my favorite places in the world. I go down there about twice a year on holiday, anyway. It’s got a sort of peaceful, barren wilderness but at the same time, it can be gorgeous on a summer’s day. It’s beautiful, and the light you get down there is fantastic.
Do you have an emotional connection to the animals in the movie?
It’s funny, because I’m not an animal person and I certainly wasn’t particularly a horse person. Then I started working with them on this film and realized how human they are. They are not like any other animal. They’ve just got these human qualities and it’s just something in us that connects to horses and after you’ve spent a few weeks with them, you start getting very emotional about a horse. I think it took about a week.
The horses are great and they’ve all got completely different characteristics. Just because you ride one horse doesn’t mean you can ride another. You have to spend a good two or three days learning to ride each horse because they’re all so different and you’ve got to get them to trust you. That’s a huge part of it. The horse knows who’s riding it. If you’ve never ridden a horse before, it knows you’ve never ridden a horse. You’ve got to connect to it in a human way or it’s not going to do what you want. And if a horse doesn’t want to do something, you’re not going to make it.
War Horse Film Page | Jeremy Irvine Profile
War Horse will be released in cinemas on 13th January