Interview: 'War Horse' Star Jeremy Irvine Talks Steven Spielberg, 'Great Expectations', And His Dream Role

Unknown Brit actor Jeremy Irvine got the kind of big-screen debut you generally only see on, well, the big screen when Steven Spielberg plucked him out of hundreds of applicants to lead the cast of his sweeping epic War Horse. But it's plain hard work that's already allowed the young star to spin that high-profile start into an enviable career.

Though War Horse won't hit theaters until later this month, Irvine's already wrapped the cancer drama Now is Good with Dakota Fanning and is now playing literary icon Pip in Mike Newell's Great Expectations, opposite the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter. Once that's finished, he's set to play a younger version of Colin Firth in The Railway Man, about a World War II POW. Not too shabby for a guy who, as he himself puts it, "literally had to learn everything from scratch" while shooting War Horse last year.

In a recent interview with /Film, Irvine talked about the best thing to come out of his War Horse experience, the actors he admires most, and the dream role he wants to play a few years down the line. Read the full transcript after the jump.

Yeah, it's pretty much one of my first jobs as well. It's kind of intimidating.

What's been the craziest or most surreal moment for you so far?

You know, the whole thing is surreal. The whole thing still hasn't sunk in. I'm still trying to make sense of it all and work out how I managed to get that job. I don't know. I came from having no lines the theater show to suddenly being the lead in a Steven Spielberg movie so it's a little bit crazy. But you know, some of the best things that have come from it have been you know I've got to meet and work with some of my heroes and people who really inspire me to be an actor. I've also got to, being here now, having done War Horse, I've gone on to other projects that I've wanted to do. I have the huge privilege of being able to have some sort of say over what project I'm going to do and that's a huge privilege for any actor.

What really helped you get into the character of Albert? Did you find it difficult to connect with the character or with the animals?

I think the most important thing about Albert is his innocence. It's difficult to comprehend that nowadays, children nowadays are exposed to so much in terms of the Internet and television and mobile phones. There was none of that for Albert. He's grown up in a very isolated part of England and he has that sort of complete lack of cynicism and innocence that maybe you don't see so much anymore, especially in someone who's 15 as he was in the beginning of the story. I think it's finding that was crucial and working out that he's this lonely child, he doesn't have any brothers or sisters and he's only got one real friend and when this horse comes into his life it fills the role of a brother. The stakes have to be that high for him to go off to the First World War to try and rescue his childhood friend.

When you were trying to create the character of Albert, was there anything that you thought up that didn't make it into the film?

One of the things I'm fast learning is, you tend to shoot quite a lot in a movie. You film a lot. You come up with hundreds of ideas every day, and part of the process Steven Spielberg has is finding the best ones and you include the best parts of everything. I'm sure there are hundreds and hundreds of things that didn't make it. That's all part of finding the character.

In the film you work with some established actors and some rising stars. What are some things you've taken away from working with them, or that they've taught you?

I literally had to learn everything from scratch. I had some idea of how to act, but I didn't know how to act for film. I had to learn everything about acting for film from Steven Spielberg and the actors I was working with and had no time really to mess up. I had to learn on the job, learning to do that and learning to really put everything into every day. You can't make any compromises on a film because the day you make a compromise, well, that film's shot. That's done. It's around now forever. It's going to be around forever on a DVD somewhere. So you have to make sure every scene you do is the best it can be.

I know your co-star Robert Emms played your role in the stage play.

He did, yeah, yeah.

Did you ever compare notes?

We did at one point actually, 'cause Robert's one of my great, great friends. We had a scene Steven Spielberg wanted in that was in the play, where Albert tries to feed Joey a bucket of oats and Joey's not having any of it so he puts the bucket behind him and walks backwards and tries to present the bucket. Steven loved that and wanted that in the film and me and Robert had talked about that. He taught me how he was taught to do it, and then I kind of went from that.

Do you mind if I ask about Great Expectations?

Of course.

How is that experience comparing to War Horse? Do you feel a lot of pressure taking on such an iconic character?

Yes. I do. I do. But at the same time, this isn't us doing another — we're not recreating it. This is a new version. David Nicholls, who's the writer, has done a fantastic job. It's not the same script, it's a new script. I'm doing my version of Pip. I'm certainly not taking anything from any of the old versions, I'm doing my own version of what I think is true of Pip in this draft. It's probably the first job that I've done where I've begun to have some idea of what I'm meant to be doing. I feel a little bit more comfortable in my job. I think it's the first thing I've been doing where during the film, I've been going "Yeah, this could work. This could be quite good." I've got great expectations for it. I think it's going to be great.

As an actor, whose career do you most admire?

There are a few. I'm a huge fan of Ralph Fiennes' career. I also think actors like Leonardo DiCaprio have made some wonderful choices. I think it's very important to stay true to the types of roles that you really feel for. So far I've been able to choose scripts based on characters I've felt a connection to and managed to work with people that I can learn from.

Do you have a dream role that you would like to do at some point in your career?

I've always, always wanted to play Konstantin in The Seagull. I'm a huge [Anton] Chekhov fan. I find his incredible attention to detail in scripts is amazing. I'd love to do that on stage. I'd love to go back to stage and maybe do something like that. I'm not old enough yet, but in a few years' time, if I've got an opportunity to do that, that would be a dream come true.

Well, I'm sure you've got a long career ahead of you.

We'll see. Hopefully.

Do you think you'll go back to doing more stage acting?

I love film. I really do. There's things in film that you don't get in stage, there's things in stage that you don't get in film. They're two very different — I don't think I've got a favorite. I think it's very important to keep a balance. So yeah, I'm always looking for good stage scripts as I'm always looking for good film scripts.