'It feels like a dream!' War Horse's Jeremy Irvine on how he's still adjusting to his new-found fame

It is the day after the Royal premiere of War Horse and Jeremy Irvine still can’t believe what is happening. The star of Steven Spielberg’s new film, it is not long since Jeremy thought his short acting career was all but over after failing to win a single speaking part in two years.

‘Trying to explain where I am now, you have to start with where I was; playing a tree with no lines in a theatre show,’ he says. ‘I had been out of work for nearly two years and I was thinking playing a tree was as good as it got.’

He was one of hundreds of young British actors – both known and unknown – who auditioned to be farm boy Albert Narracott for the World War 1 epic based on the children’s book by Michael Murpurgo. The audition process was exhausting – several times a week for two months – but even as the weeks went by he never thought he would win the role.

'I still can't believe it': War Horse actor Jeremy Irvine says he is still finding it hard to believe he was chosen for Steven Spielberg's War Horse

'I still can't believe it': War Horse actor Jeremy Irvine says he is still finding it hard to believe he was chosen for Steven Spielberg's War Horse

‘After each audition I would phone up my agent and we would agree it was great audition experience. That’s all we thought it was – we never even discussed me getting the role.’

And then came the day when he was told he got the job. It appears he has been stunned ever since. ‘To be in a movie with lines. For it to be a Spielberg film. To be one of the main characters; it’s all beyond my imagination really and I was completely freaked out,’ says the puppy dog sweet actor.

‘When we first started filming some of
the actors had to calm me down, put their arms around me and remind me
that it’s only a job. There is still a part of me that feels it’s just a
dream. It is completely mad.’

Getting used to fame: Irvine at the 17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards last night

Getting used to fame: Irvine at the 17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards last night

But then it was this innocent facet of 21-year-old actor’s character which convinced Spielberg he was worth taking a punt on even though the idea of having an unknown and untested actor helm a film about horses and a war most Americans care little about would terrify all but the bravest of directors.

‘We looked at hundreds of boys for Albert,’ he says. ‘But nobody had the heart or the spirit or the communication skills that Jeremy had. I am very accustomed to working with people with no experience; look at the kids in ET and look at Christian Bale who had never made a movie before Empire of The Sun and who now has the sort of career that I think Jeremy could have.

‘My job is to get real people to be themselves in front of the camera. The problem with a newcomer can be is that they freeze when they see the camera or imitate the actors they admire and they stop being themselves. My job is to return them to what I first saw in them. I didn’t want Jeremy to be a character actor; I wanted him to be the wonderful person that he is today. He did a wonderful job of playing himself.’

Albert is the innocent but stubbornly determined Devon farm boy who tames a fiery colt his father buys on a whim. When the horse, Joey, is sold off to be part of the cavalry for the war, Albert joins up in a bid to be reunited with his best friend.

Michael Morpurgo conceived the idea of his children’s more than 30 years ago after moving into the Devon village of Iddesleigh and met three octogenarians. Two of them told him about the war – the third about the old horse sales outside the pub in the village which he begins the book with.

Captain Arthur Budgett had been in the yeomanry and he tearfully described how his horse became the confidante of his fears going into battle and how the war had proved the end of the cavalry. While Michael was even more struck by the story of Private Wilf Ellis whose stories came rolling out of him one evening.

Red carpet style: Irvine with director Spielberg and Joey the horse at the Royal premiere of the film

Red carpet style: Irvine with director Spielberg and Joey the horse at the Royal premiere of the film

‘He had been gassed, he had all sorts of interesting things to tell me which he told me with a fervour with which his wife said she had never known him to talk to someone,’ recalls Morpurgo. ‘One thing that he told me was he had been wounded in the leg and was lying at the bottom of a trench and a German soldier jumped down and had a bayonet at his throat. Wilf thought that was it but he didn’t kill him; he said: ‘Get up and go away’. Wilf never forgot it.

‘The person under that coal scuttle helmet probably came from a little village in Germany and was thinking, ‘why end this man’s life’ It’s an iconic story. All you hear about wars is the brutality and you forget about behind the helmet there are these extraordinary people and that is what I wanted to show with this book.’

Red carpet style: Irvine with director Spielberg and Joey the horse at the Royal premiere of the film

Majestic: A scene from the critically-acclaimed movie

Joey’s tale is not just centred on Albert; after a cavalry charge goes dreadfully wrong the horse is taken captive by Germans. Both the book and the film are at pains to show both sides in equally humane lights and in the film’s most poignant moment Joey becomes trapped in barbed wire in no man’s land.

In a truce inspired by the real life Christmas Day of 1914 truce when the Brits and Germans downed their guns and played football against each other, a German and an English soldier work together to free Joey.

For most of the 30 years since War Horse was written it sold unspectacularly well. Roald Dahl told Michael that the book would never be a hit because, ‘it’s history and it’s war and children don’t need to read about that stuff’. But five years ago the National Theatre announced it wanted to produce the show with puppets.

Michael thought it would be a disaster but went with the idea – and it has proved an incredible hit both over here and, more recently, on Broadway. Two years ago Spielberg’s right hand woman and key producer Kathleen Kennedy was on a trip to London and saw the show. She was immediately struck by the audience’s tearful response to it and told Spielberg he had to see it. Within two weeks he had flown to London and was in tears as he saw the show.

At first Michael thought the idea of Spielberg making his little book into a film was too incredible for words. It had always been a family joke that whenever the phone rang they always had to answer it because ‘it could be Spielberg’. And then one day he really did telephone.

But the writer says he is not surprised that War Horse has touched a nerve now more than in the relatively peaceful 1980s. ‘Once again we have coffins coming home,’ he says. ‘There is a consciousness that this war thing goes on and on and on. It’s not just history or nostalgia. It’s people going off to war and getting killed. And once again why is the big question.’

You better learn fast! Benedict Cumberbatch has revealed he knew nothing about horse-riding before signing on for the movie

You better learn fast! Benedict Cumberbatch has revealed he knew nothing about horse-riding before signing on for the movie

Spielberg has an obsession with war which started with his father’s tales of his own exploits in Burma in World War 2. His earliest films were about war while he has also made Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and the television series Band of Brothers.

‘There is no better way of finding out about someone than to put him into a war,’ he says. ‘But I don’t see this as a war film. There are only 15 minutes of combat and there is hardly any blood unlike in Saving Private Ryan when I was trying to make the movie as brutally authentic as I could.

‘Albert shows blind fear and courage in the battle of the Somme but he is also driven on by his love of his horse; this is a love story. Joey also represents common sense. If people had more common horse sense we would not be having wars.’

Spielberg calls War Horse his most British film to date and the movie revels in images of the stunning British landscape. Many of the early shots and final shots were filmed on Dartmoor in Devon while shots of Albert’s villager were done in the picturesque village of Castle Combe in Wiltshire. The trenches were built on Wisley Airfield, an abandoned World War 2 military testing field in Surrey.

‘Castle Combe is so beautiful it looks like Hollywood built it,’ says the director. ‘While the Devon location has some of the most natural wonders in all of England. Originally the budget did not allow us to go to Devon but we stretched the budget to afford to go there and it was worth every penny.


Spielberg has dedicated the film to his
15-year-old daughter Destry, the youngest of his seven children who is a
keen horse rider. ‘When she heard I was going to London to look at the
possibility of War Horse she said, ‘you have to do it for me,’ he says.Nearly 1million horses from England alone died in World War 1.Several of the actors had personal
experiences of the war; two of Jeremy’s great grandfathers fought – one
was at Gallipoli on a horse called Elizabeth. He still has a receipt
showing she was bought for 28 – the same amount as Joey.Joey was played by 14 horses and horse
whisperers from around the world were hired for the film’s team of
horses which numbered more than 200. But they key Joey was played by a
horse called Finder, who also starred in the film Seabiscuit.

‘People often comment on how much they loved the digital skies that we added in but there is not a single sky that we put in by special effects – not even the spectacular sunsets.’

For his cast Steven picked both established actors and exciting new talent. A prodigious watcher of both film and television, he says he writes down the names of every actor he admires. Many of the cast were offered the job on the spot including Emily Watson who play’s Albert’s mother.

‘It’s a great day in any actor’s career when you get the call that Steven Spielberg would like to meet you,’ she says. ‘We had connected many years ago in Hollywood at one of those luncheons. He had made a point of coming over and saying well done. It was more than ten years ago but now it has connected up. We had tea at Claridges when he asked me to do the job and I was walking on air.’

As Steven is a fan of BBC1’s Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch was an obvious choice for the masterly Major Jamie Stewart whose friend Captain Nicholls leads Joey into a disastrous battle. ‘It’s one of those clichs when you say, ‘yup I’ll do it unless Spielberg calls ‘ and I had literally said that as I was thinking about taking a break and then I had to eat my words because he was actually on the telephone.’

Despite the accolade, the actor – who talks in a stream of consciousness manner not unlike the television detective he has become famous for – admits he was almost late for their first meeting at a London hotel. ‘I couldn’t find a parking space for my motorbike and I was getting all these frantic calls saying, “where are you Where are you Steven’s come early. And I was thinking that I’m going to my first meeting with Steven Spielberg and I am going to be late; my mother is right. I have a problem.

‘But when we met he was just lovely and we talked about doomed youth, modernity, English social history, Rupert Graves, the vainglory of horse against machine gun. It was fine.’

Neither Jeremy or Benedict knew anything about horseriding when they started, while Tom Hiddletson, who plays Captain Nicholls, the soldier Joey is sold to, was a novice rider from his film Thor. They embarked on six weeks of training – with Jeremy being the keenest of all. When the others arrived at 8am he had already mucked out three horses.

‘I’ve had to learn everything from scratch,’ says the young actor who already has three new films being lined up, including the film version of Great Expectations. ‘But I have taken advice from all the amazing actors I have got to work with; I’m just going to do the best I can.’