Jeremy Irvine: ‘I Decided Early That I Didn’t Want To Be Famous’

From Spielberg’s War Horse to leading Great Expectations, we talk about the actor’s incredible year.

At the age of only 22, Jeremy Irvine is having something of a magical 2012. Starting the year as the lead in Steven Spielberg’s soaring epic War Horse, he followed it up with the contemporary weepie Now is Good alongside Dakota Fanning. Rounding up the year he stars as the lead in Mike Newell’s lavish adaptation of Great Expectations as Charles Dickens’ hero of the piece, Pip, alongside Holliday Grainger as Estella, Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers and Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch.

We met up with Jeremy in the plush Savoy Hotel in London for a round table chat, where he amiably joked about how ‘ridiculous’ and fancy the hotel was and about how he had demanded the Maria Callas paraphernalia that adorned the room. Irvine will next be seen as the young Eric Lomax in incredible true WWII story The Railway Man.

You must be living in hotel rooms at the moment - you’ve been on an endless press tour this year.
I’ve been on an endless shooting tour this year. I did six months away shooting which is great, amazing, cool; I got to see some very cool places. I did Scotland, Australia then Thailand and then Texas for a few months so it’s been weird. For first time in the last couple of years I actually got a bit of time at home to remind my family of what I looked like [laughs]. Hotels all sound great, then they all start merging together and you just kind of want to make cheese on toast back at home and not have to order room service. It sounds incredibly pretentious!

You started the year with War Horse and are rounding up the year with Great Expectations - have you adapted to stardom yet?
It’s weird, everyone expects your whole life to change and actually the only thing that’s changed is I can now get work and I couldn’t get any work before. I spent two years going up for five or six auditions a week and just hearing ‘No, no, no, no, no, no.’ I wasn’t even getting commercial call backs so why on earth would I expect to be getting movies? I still do all the same stuff and nothing’s changed. I saw myself on the side of the bus yesterday and completely freaked out. I just blank all that stuff out like it’s not happening, so I just focus on trying to do a good job when you’re shooting.

Are you now in a position where you can pick and choose scripts?
That’s the strange thing about having something like War Horse as your first film. I was in a very privileged position to suddenly be offered a few things and I had the opportunity to go and do a movie that was a very big movie and very commercial. But I’d read a script called Now is Good while I was filming, and I knew that wouldn’t be for another six months and then I knew that I had the opportunity to do Great Expectations with that. It meant that I had to turn down everything for six months after filming War Horse - I didn’t work for six months - because I wanted to do those two movies. The temptation was huge to go and take all these things but I think I decided early that I didn’t want to be famous and so I didn’t feel under pressure to go and do these big blockbuster movies which agents call ‘getting foreign value’. I thought that I could go and do films just because I liked the script. Now is Good is a film that I did just because I liked the script and with Great Expectations I read the script, and I didn’t know any of the other actors were going to be involved. All I knew was I read the script, I thought it was fantastic and I heard Mike Newell was going to direct it. I knew him from directing Donnie Brasco, directing Al Pacino and Johnny Depp in that and that’s the reason I took it and waited a long time to do it. In the position that I was in, there was a lot of pressure to not do that and to give in and do the things that might not necessarily be the best script.

There are two ways of reading Dickens. You can read Dickens in a way that you there’s these slightly farcical characters with funny names; there’s a woman called Mrs. Joe who’s beating a child with a stick called Tickler. Or you can read it for real which is what [Great Expectations screenwriter] David Nicholls did, which with Great Expectations makes so much more sense. If you look at it: ‘Okay, it’s not actually funny this is a child who’s been the victim of the most awful domestic violence.’ He is constantly beaten - if it happened nowadays it would make you shudder. This is someone who’s been abused in every area of his life. He’s been put down, put down, put down. In his head he comes up with this fantasy that if he becomes a gentleman that’s his way out of this life. So this isn’t some kind of childish, whimsical idea this is an obsession, this is a dark burning obsession. I’d seen a few adaptations before and I’d seen these very wide-eyed innocent Pips. I’ve seen some really good adaptations but the trap with these characters is that you become the passive character who things happen to. You’re playing the leading role so things are happening to you and the trap is to not play the character who goes out to get something. If you play Pip as this person who has been abused, he’s become hardened, he’s become rough, he’s become someone who is completely obsessed with becoming a gentleman so that when Jaggers comes to him and says that he has Great Expectations. Bam! That’s it, he gets tunnel vision and suddenly nothing else matters and if it means abusing the one person that’s ever been nice to him then fine! And if it means not marrying the girl he should marry then fine! If it means being absolutely cruel and heartless to the one or two people who are nice to him in the script, if it means abusing them then that’s what it takes and everything kind of slots into place and you’ve got someone who’s ruthless, callous in climbing the social ladder and that explains why he’s so awful to people. Because he’s not a bad person.

The image was very important at the beginning, I’d seen a lot of very nice, wide-eyed innocent boys and I thought, ‘Well actually hang on, what if you’re looking at him as someone who is rough from this life he’s grown up in. He’s a blacksmith and one of the first things I did when I got the role was go and do a load of blacksmithing and my poor dainty actor’s hands got destroyed and it’s a tough, hard job. So his image at the beginning we made sure he was quite well built; he’s got long scraggly black hair, rough and dirty, beard and unkempt, kind of a Neanderthal was the look we’re kind of going for. So he always keeps a bit of that. He’s quite violent, this real ambition that he has to go out and just take what he wants. The villain Bentley Drummle… Pip is always having to hold back to keep this facade of being a gentleman. The way that we played it was if it came to it, Pip would beat the crap out of this guy.

When did you first read Great Expectations? Had you read it before you got the role?
I don’t think I read it. I think I must’ve seen an adaptation or two but I could probably recite it to you now. I think being British you grow up being influenced by certain Dickens stories. I’m a firm believer that The Muppets will make any genre better! I did know the story so I must’ve seen something.

Were you intimidated knowing that there had been so many adaptations beforehand and so many people have played Pip over the years?
Yes and no. You don’t think about that at all. The last period movie [of Great Expectations] was made in 1946 and that was the David Lean version. There hasn’t been a period version [on the big screen] since then. There’ve been a lot of TV versions but as anyone who watches TV and film will tell they’re incredibly different worlds and the way they’re made is very different. So I felt like there was a lot of scope to bring into the new era. The David Lean version is very of the period, it’s a wonderful adaption but you have actors who are very with-held and they’re speaking to each other very, very properly and it’s all very contained. What we wanted to do was basically make a modern movie in period clothes so you’ve got a character who is so ferociously in love with someone, whether it’s reciprocated or not, and if he wants to scream at her then he screams at her. There were a couple of moments when we had that. I always thought that if it went far enough then yeah he would grab her and he would shake her because that’s what he knows. There’s no need to hold back. You’ve only got to see one bad period movie to go, ‘on period movies are boring,’ and really this is a modern movie in period costume. We did not approach it any differently apart from getting dressed up in silly clothes in the morning. Even the costumes are stylised, we didn’t wear what they wore back then, we wore very stylised versions of it, more sexy, cooler kind of clothes.

What was it like working with your brother [Toby Irvine] as the younger Pip? Were you protective about bringing him in?
Yes I was very protective. I was at one of these ridiculous afterparty things; I don’t particularly like going to them so I brought my Mum along because she gets a kick out of them. The casting director was there and she was saying, ‘I’m having trouble finding a younger version of you.’ My Mum just kind of went, ‘Well I’ve got one at home.’ We sat down and went over the script and he just got it. It was fucking infuriating because there was no vanity, he was just playing for real and the casting director didn’t tell the producers that he was my brother because she wanted him to get it because he was good enough. It was a lovely thing to do. I’m away a lot so it was nice to spend time [with him] and have my family there. What I didn’t count on was the fact I’d have my Mum asking me if I’d had my lunch every day.

What’s it like having your family turn up to work?
I didn’t let them watch me shoot anything. You can feel quite silly sometimes, especially when half the time in War Horse I was talking to tennis ball on the end of a broom! There’s an atmosphere on set and it’s kind of an unspoken thing, you have to feel very comfortable because what you’re doing effectively is being an eight-year-old and playing make believe and dressing up. So it’s a very odd, weird thing to be doing. It was lovely having them around but I didn’t want my family watching me do it because you get self-conscious. It’s bad enough your Mum accidently walks in on you in the shower let alone seeing you try to get the tears up and do an emotional scene. My Mum loves it; I get invited to a lot of these silly, star-studded things. When I went to the premiere of War Horse I got invited by the Duke and Duchess to go back to the palace for drinks - mental! I thought, ‘Oh fuck there’s no way that I’m going to appreciate this.’ So I just grabbed my Grandmother and bundled her into a car and off we went! That in a way is so much cooler that I can say I took my Grandma to Buckingham Palace for drinks with the future King and Queen of England [laughs].

What was it like sharing scenes with some of the big actors? Did you pick up tips?
Robbie’s great, he just tried to make me laugh before every scene he just tries to make you corpse - as does Helena actually! They’re just playful kind of people. Helena especially is just such a laugh to work with and she has this kind of playfulness, she’ll try anything and there’s no fear of getting it wrong. I was blown away because obviously these are huge names in our industry and they’re very famous I guess. Of course you’re intimidated to start off and then I’d be doing scenes with Ralph. I really connected with Ralph I think - he has this real intensity when he works, he completely becomes that character, completely commits to it 100% and when he’s on set he’s still committed. We’d be about to shoot a scene and he’d be [adopts Magwitch voice], ‘alright, let’s improvise.’ We’d do a two or three minute improvisation and then Mike would just roll the cameras and we’d go into the scene. Ralph didn’t have to do that, I’m just this snotty-nosed little new kid, he doesn’t have to do stuff like that for me and yet he was so generous and open and kind. You felt like you should feel, like it’s a collaborative effort and all that stuff about someone being very well known disappears very quickly because you realise you’re actually just working with someone who’s bloody good at their job. Helena on the first read through just turned up with five or six pages of notes, ideas and things she’d come up with. You think, ‘This is Helena Bonham Carter and she’s put in this much work and commitment into every role. No wonder she’s so good!’

What did you think of the recent BBC adaptation of Great Expectations?
I only saw a bit of it. I think it’s good; it comes from a very different place than ours does. They’ve cut a lot of stuff that I was quite surprised they cut and they included things that we didn’t include. It takes 20 hours to read Great Expectations cover to cover - we had two hours, they had three hours. The vast wealth of material in that book is enough for 20 adaptations a year. As I said, TV is a very different medium; it’s done in a very different style, very different way. Yeah, I thought it was good. I thought that Douglas Booth did a great job. It’s difficult - my idea of Great Expectations is so different from their idea of Great Expectations so it’s difficult to see the two as the same thing in a way in my head.

Great Expectations is in cinemas 30th November.