Jeremy Irvine was a tree. Before landing the lead role in Steven Spielberg's Oscar fare 'War Horse,' Irvine was playing a tree in a play that featured not one word of dialogue. Now Irvine is being recognized on the street, which -- as he admits -- freaks him out. Considering that 'War Horse' hasn't even been released yet, that aspect of his new job is not likely to change any time soon.
In 'War Horse,' Irvine plays Albert Narracott, the closest thing this film has to a main character that doesn't eat hay. Albert raises a young horse named Joey who is eventually sold by Albert's father (Peter Mullan) to the military for use during World War I -- sending Joey on a series of adventures that, if the fates cooperate, will culminate in a reunion with Albert.

Before 'War Horse's' release on Christmas day, Irvine sat down with Moviefone to discuss his breakthrough role (if you don't count his role as "tree"), his fear of fame, and his love for 'Saving Private Ryan.'

It's really early in the morning, what are we doing here?
I know, right? I got in at two in the morning yesterday. I'm filming 'Great Expectations' in England.

When the casting notice came out for your part, I have to assume the word "earnest" was used.
No, totally. What I found in Albert was an innocence to such an extent that it's the sort of innocence we don't see nowadays. This is someone who's living in a very isolated part of England. You know, he's only got one real friend and he only sees people in his community -- before people were exposed to television, the Internet and mobile phones. You have the naïveté and innocence that you just don't get nowadays. Kids are exposed to so much. So I had to find that. And from that comes a lack of cynicism.

And it takes a while to get used to the earnestness, but eventually you do.
And to do anything different would have been untrue to have Albert...

Cracking wise?
It wouldn't have been true to the story and it certainly wouldn't have been true to the script. At the end of the day, my job is to play the character for real.

Could you tell the different horses that played Joey apart?
I have no idea [laughs]. No, weirdly, there were more horse makeup artists than there were people makeup artists. These horses had a huge makeup process with the little white spot, so, by the end, they did look exactly the same. But, yeah, you could tell. And I had never been on a horse and I can't say that I'm a big animal person beforehand, so I had two months of being in this stable and having it sort of beaten into me.

Did they have different temperaments? Were there times you'd think, oh, shit, here comes the mean horse?
Oh, absolutely. But they were not mean, these are the most highly trained film horses in the word. You know, they're incredible. And after spending such a long time with them, you do build real relationships even though I was quite skeptical and sort of, "There's no way I'm actually going to be falling for these horses" -- I think it took probably about a week. When you get on set, a horse isn't going to do anything it doesn't want to do. It's got to want to do what you're asking it to do. And the way that you make that happen is by having a relationship and having respect for each other, I think. And that has to be real. You can't fake that.

There's almost a horror movie here, too: 'The Curse of Joey.'
[Laughing] Yeah!

A lot of not great things happen to whomever owns this horse.
[Laughing] Yes. I guess not. No, you're absolutely right. But what's important is that this is a time when there is hardship that is hard to relate to for people -- especially in first world countries. So it's difficult to relate to that sort of hardship and what the horse brings out in people is a bit of humanity amongst hardship in the background of war and the horrific things that were going on. The horse kind of touches all of these people along the way and I guess kind of brings the best out of everyone.

Do you look at the track record of people who had their first big break in a Spielberg movie? Like, "Hey, Christian Bale, that turned out OK."
[Laughs] Um ... well, the whole thing isn't real yet. I don't know, I guess it will sink in at some point. But certainly not yet.

Why do you think that is?
Because I was literally playing a tree in a stage show when I got the job. I had no lines.

There's no shame in playing a tree. Productions need trees.
There's no shame at all! Funny enough, I thought that was brilliant. I thought that this was as good as it got. But this is somewhat different to that, I think. I don't know, it seems to me like at times I go, "Do I really deserve this?" To go from right down at the bottom to this so quickly, you kind of feel a little bit guilty sometimes.

Do you think that things will change even more once the movie is released?
I don't know. That side of it is the only thing that scares me, I think. You can have training and advice on how to act, it's the other stuff that maybe comes with being in a film like this.

What specific part of that scares you?
I mean, like five minutes ago I went out for a coffee and there are people outside who know who I am and I don't know them.

To be fair, those people outside do know the entire cast of 'War Horse' is currently in this hotel.
Yeah, no, sure. But when somebody recognizes you and you don't know them, it's weird.

But once the movie comes out, that's going to happen quite a bit.
Right. That's kind of ... I don't know. I come from a little village in England with not many people living there. It's very private, isolated little place. And I find all of that is a very different world.

So, that's interesting. Was there any hesitation on our part in taking this role, making that jump so quickly?
I didn't even think about it. I mean, first and foremost, I get to do my hobby as a job.

Hey, me too.
Right! And what greater privilege is there than that? To get up and I kind of go red when I say, "I'm off to work." I'm not really going to work. I'm going to have fun, you know? [Laughs] And doing what I enjoy most. Yeah, sure, it is hard work sometimes, but, you know, at the end of the day, it is what I enjoy. And being able to do that, is, I think, probably the greatest privilege you could ask for. So, yeah, I just want to do that as long as possible.

What's your favorite Spielberg movie?
'Saving Private Ryan.' Because, I think -- when did that come out?

It was 1998.
It was '98? So, yeah, I was eight or nine when it came out.

I don't think you're supposed to watch 'Saving Private Ryan' when you're eight or nine.
Well, exactly. I remember being about twelve when finally getting hold of a VHS copy and watching it in a dark room with the sound down so my parents didn't know. And watching that kind of made me go, "I'd love to be in a movie like that." And I think the day that I read in the script, the bit where I throw a grenade into a German machine gun -- every guy's dream!

That scene in particular is reminiscent of 'Saving Private Ryan.'
But I don't think this is a war movie. You know, there's really only one or two major battles.

Though, it does say the word "war" in the title.
Yeah, but there's a lot of how war is affecting people in a very personal level. What there's not a lot of is fighting -- or not in the physical sense. And there is only one major battle scene. It's a pretty good major battle scene. And I always think that what Steven Spielberg does best is showing the human elements of the story. If you show someone the numbers of the people killed in the first World War, it kind of doesn't mean a lot. You can't really relate to that. If you show someone the story of one person in that war, you can relate and emotionally connect with that.

And now in 'The Railway Man,' you're jumping ahead to World War II.
Yeah, right. If I keep doing war movies it would be amazing. Again, the casting director who cast me in 'War Horse' gave me amazing advice: to keep working with people you're going to learn from. To be able to go from Steven Spielberg to working with Ralph Fiennes and people like Colin Firth -- people I can just look up to and try to take as much from as possible.

I assume you mean literally "look up to" with Colin Firth. He's a very tall man.
Yeah! [Laughs] And he's a nice guy.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter

[Photo: DreamWorks]

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War Horse
Based on 40 critics

A remarkable horse experiences life and death on the battlefields of World War I. Read More

categories Interviews, Movies, Awards