Not too long ago, Jeremy Irvine was in a stage play with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London when the opportunity for an audition for Steven Spielberg's equine-themed World War I epic "War Horse" presented itself. As a working actor, he felt blessed to be on stage with "amazing British theater actors" night after night, even though there were times when he dreaded that he had already reached his pinnacle.
But then there's that unexplainable phenomena called "luck." Irvine, 21, can't explain exactly how he landed the role in "War Horse," except to say that he went through a couple months of auditions, and tried to teach himself how to ride horses in between.
"You can be the best actor in the world, but if you don't have that one lucky moment, it kind of doesn't matter. There are a lot of amazing actors who will never get the chance to prove themselves because they won't have that one lucky moment," Irvine told me, humbly in a recent interview. "I feel incredibly privileged that it's come along so quickly. How many industries can you go from that to suddenly being in the position of a lead in a movie? I came from a stage show and having no lines, to not only having lines, but having lines in a Spielberg movie."
Even better, by the time Irvine made his way to the set for the first time, Spielberg, the Oscar-winning director, made him feel like a seasoned professional.
"One of his greatest skills as a director is his ability to instantly put you at ease and make you feel very comfortable," Irvine recalled. "Within five minutes we started having a chat about the character and the story, and our thoughts and ideas about the characters. That's the way he is on set. That's how he gets the best performances out of people."
Based on the 1982 hit novel-turned-acclaimed stage play of the same name, "War Horse" tells the sweeping tale of Joey, a beloved farm horse who shares a remarkably unique bond with Albert (Irvine), a farm boy in the English countryside who tamed and trained him. But that bond is put to the test when Albert's father (Peter Mullan), in desperate need of money to keep the family farm, sells Joey to British Army to serve as a war horse at the outbreak of World War I.
Immediately dispatched to the frontlines with his new owner, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), Joey takes the harrowing first steps in a trek against the backdrop of the war, and deeply affecting every person he meets along the way.
'War Horse' Training
While Irvine gave it his best shot, he admitted that his attempt at learning how to ride a horse in the midst of the audition process was just that.
"I tried to teach myself how to be a horseman but didn't do too well," Irvine said, laughing. "So I went through a couple of months of really intensive horse riding training when I got the job. I went from learning on these riding school horses to the equivalent of being on the Formula One race cars of horses, and that's when you really learn to ride."
Of course, due to the complex nature of filming and long hours that go with it, more than one horse was used to play Joey in the film. Of the "13 or 14" horses that Irvine said played the role, he said none of the horses he worked gave him any difficulty.
Quite simply, like Albert and Joey in the film, Irvine said there has to be a certain amount of bonding for things to go right.
"It's very simple. If a horse doesn't want to do something, you're not going to make him do it. They're incredibly powerful animals," Irvine said. "You have to have a relationship of mutual respect. If you don't and need to effectively act with a horse in a scene, the horse won't go along with you. That's what a lot of the preparation was about -- creating a real bond. Once we got on set it was all there, and what people will see on screen is all real."
As if learning to be a horseman wasn't enough on "War Horse," Irvine had to school himself in the first part of the title, too, as a soldier in the war.
Because Spielberg wanted to use as little computer-generated imagery as possible in the film, Irvine said all of the sets were real, including a 1,000-foot-square replication of No Man's Land for the film's pivotal Trench Warfare scenes.
During filming, Irvine said he couldn't help but mourn for the souls of the soldiers who really served in World War I, and said he or his castmates never could truly replicate the emotions they experienced.
"All the rifles were real, and my helmet was a standard issue from the First World War, but even so, I can't even say we could even begin to relate to what these boys and young men went through," Irvine said. "If we tried, it would be insulting to their memory. There's absolutely no way somebody in my generation has seen something similar to that. They can't possibly begin to imagine what that may have been like."
As for his physical reactions during the filming of the war sequences, Irvine found that basic human instinct took over.
"The realistic sequences allowed us to immerse ourselves in that world," Irvine said. "When you're running across No Man's Land and a massive explosion goes off next to you, there's no acting involved. Stunt men fly past you, machine guns are going off; the world that Spielberg created made acting very easy. It wasn't even acting, really, just reacting."
"War Horse" opens Christmas Day.