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Jeremy Irvine: Riding High on War Horse

Dec 20, 2011

By: Lynn Barker

Imagine that you’ve been in a few stage plays and a TV series, studied drama and boom! Legendary director Steven Spielberg picks you to star in his next film. It was an exciting whirl for Jeremy Irvine, the cute Brit brunette who suffered from the cold and wet conditions on sets that copied the soggy trenches soldiers fought in during World War One.

Jeremy had never been on a horse but learned to love the steed playing his farm boy character’s beloved pet/friend Joey, a young horse destined to serve as a messenger of peace for soldiers both Brit and German. Jeremy discovered a lot of info on the First World War, including his own family history, got advice from Spielberg and learned why cowboys walk so funny…..

Kidzworld: Jeremy, what kind of audition did you have to go through and also how was meeting Mr. Spielberg for the first time?

  • Jeremy: A big audition! I was in a theatre show with no lines pretending to be a tree, you know, at the time when I was going up for War Horse. I was really struggling as an actor. I wasn’t getting recalls for commercials let alone for movies so it was probably over about two months I think and I was going on tape with the casting director and knowing that what I was taping in London was then being shown to Steven Spielberg in Los Angeles that night.
  • I never even had the thought that I’d get this role. As far as I was concerned it was just good audition experience and I was getting to spend time with a wonderful casting director.  You put a hundred percent into every audition and I was teaching myself to ride and helping out at local stables and things.

Kidzworld: Just in case.

  • Jeremy: Yeah and then one night about ten o’clock in the evening I get a phone call saying, can we come meet Steven Spielberg the next morning for tea and I think I did what every actor would do and freaked out!  It was funny. I mean one of Steven’s best assets I think as a director is within five minutes of being in a room with him, all your nervousness is gone. He puts you so easily in your comfort zone and therefore you do your best work.

Kidzworld: Was it hard playing a teen guy from a different era in time? He’s so innocent.

  • Jeremy: Yeah. I had to find an innocence that I don't think really exists anymore, you know.  Here is a young boy, he’s fifteen when we first see Albert and he’s someone who hasn’t been exposed to television, or the internet, or mobile phones. He’s in a very isolated part of England so he hasn’t been exposed to many people either. This is an innocence and lack of cynicism that we don't have any more. 
  • The horse becomes in brother in a way and he feels that he has to go off to the First World War and risk his life to find his childhood friend.  But, even nowadays, when you are going through a hard time, you take comfort in the people you love.  And the things you love, be that an animal or best friend or a brother or a sister. 

Kidzworld: Steven Spielberg has discovered a lot of stars so what is it like to be discovered by him? 

  • Jeremy: [laughs] Yeah, what was he thinking? Uh, the whole thing isn't real to me yet.  I'm still trying to take it in. I came from having no lines in a theater show to this.  I'm still really trying to work out how on earth I managed to wrangle my way into this film. It's changed everything I guess. [Jeremy was since cast in a movie called Now is Good opposite Dakota Fanning as her love interest and will play Pip in a new Great Expectations film]. Steven was first and foremost my film acting teacher. I really did have no experience of it so I tried to be as much of a sponge of his knowledge as possible. 

Jeremy Irvine: Riding High on War HorseJeremy Irvine: Riding High on War Horse

Kidzworld: You had never even ridden a horse before. What did you learn from being around the horses?

  • Jeremy: Well, I’ve never been on a horse.  But also there’s a small problem in that I’ve never been in a movie, either. There’s a huge amount that I had to learn. For anyone who’s had to learn to ride, it's sore, you know uh, especially for guys. It’s a bit uncomfortable at first. There’s a reason why John Wayne walked like he did [Laughs]. We all waddled around like ducks for a while but we had so much fun.
  • What you learn from working with horses is they are always present.  You know, they’re not doing anything fake. They’re always being very real and you’ve got to raise your game to meet that.  As a human actor there’s so many distractions going on, on a movie set. You’ve just got to be in that moment with the horse.

Kidzworld: So, did you become friends with the horses?

  • Jeremy: I'm not particularly big animal person but I've got a younger brother who’s training to be a vet so I saw how he was with animals. My character Albert is a very lonely character. He’s an only child and in a very isolated part of Devon in England and I think the horse becomes his brother.

Kidzworld: How did Spielberg approach telling this story, that has been a book then a play, as a film?

  • Jeremy: I think that what he does so amazingly in all his films is capturing that human element, showing real people’s emotions.  And I think that the book of “War Horse” told the story from the horse’s POV, from inside the horse’s head.  What the play did is add this phenomenal spectacle of these puppets [playing the big horses].  What the film does is I think it tells the story from the people’s point of view and really captures these people in a time of incredible, horrendous hardship.

Kidzworld: Being new to films, what was the hardest thing to learn?

  • Jeremy: It was really kind of learning from scratch, you know.  Theater acting and film acting, although I think that they both come from the same place, are two quite different crafts.  And I had to learn how to do all those emotional intimate scenes with a camera six inches from my face and there are sixty people there and the sound guy has got a microphone bobbing up and down in front of you and people keep on fiddling with your makeup and stuff. 
  • I guess the hardest thing for me was learning to keep focused, I remember Steven Spielberg said to me, I think my first week of filming; he said “The camera shows true emotion”. You don't have to worry about what your face is doing or if your arm is up there or whatever. As long as you're being real and you're in the moment, and you're not faking it, then the camera will show that.  

Kidzworld: Did you do any research on World War One to play your part? Did you know much about it?

  • Jeremy: Nearly everyone in Britain has a relative who was affected by the first war. It’s something that runs deep in our culture and our history. A lot of us have stories from our family who were in the first war.  My great grandfathers were in the first war, and, you know, remarkably, one of them had a horse throughout the war in Gallipoli and on the western front. At the end of the war he bought this horse back from the Army at an auction for nearly exactly the same amount of money as Albert, my character does in the film which is extraordinary. But what isn’t extraordinary is the fact that nearly everyone does have one of those stories.

Kidzworld: The Joey horse goes through so much in the film. Kids and teens might be worried about him.

  • Jeremy: Oh don’t worry! These horses [in the film] were treated better than the actors. 

War Horse Trailer