War baby

British actor Jeremy Irvine got his break early in Spielberg’s War Horse and stars in the moving second-World War drama The Railway Man. He talks to Donald Clarke about trauma, forgiveness – and fame

Jeremy Irvine (centre) in The Railway Man. “I was 17 and being rebellious. I wanted to piss off my parents. So I tried to join the army. I tried lying about my diabetes first”

Jeremy Irvine (centre) in The Railway Man. “I was 17 and being rebellious. I wanted to piss off my parents. So I tried to join the army. I tried lying about my diabetes first”

Fri, Jan 10, 2014, 00:00

For most actors, news of their big break remains a misty memory. But Jeremy Irvine, irritatingly handsome English dreamboat, has the whole thing on tape.

A few years back, recently released from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Irvine found himself struggling desperately for work. Then he caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, who was preparing his adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. A seemingly endless series of auditions – at least one with an actual horse – and rigorous filmed readings followed.

“Then my agent called me in for another audition,” he remembers. “They said Spielberg wanted me to do a ‘cold reading’ to camera. I practised my accent and turned over the script. It had me talking to the horse, Joey. The first line was: ‘Joey, Steven Spielberg wants me to play in the film of War Horse.’ I have the whole thing on DVD.”

With one leap, Irvine found himself ensconced in the latest Brit Pack. Then barely into his 20s, he recalls being elbowed towards corners by eager agents on his first visits to Los Angeles. Modestly posh, possessed of the fluffy hair that plays well in Jane Austen adaptations, he chose his films cautiously in the years that followed. He was excellent as Dakota Fanning’s boyfriend in the underrated weepie Now Is Good. He was strong as the adult Pip in Mike Newell’s Great Expectations.

Now he turns up in a moving, superbly acted study of suffering and forgiveness entitled The Railway Man. Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax, a middle-aged man struggling with the psychological damage imposed on him while he was a prisoner of the Japanese during the second World War. Raised in Edinburgh, Lomax eventually travelled east to confront one of the soldiers complicit in his torture during the building of the Burma Railroad.

Mr Lomax (ironically, a railway enthusiast) died in October of 2012 and Irvine, who plays him as a young man, was able to speak to the veteran and his wife before the cameras rolled. “I spent as much time with them as I could,” Irvine says. “They were very funny, very sharp, very witty people. They were as interesting as anybody I have ever met. It’s tough. Eric was suffering from night terrors every night up until his death. It’s not something you ever recover from.”

That’s a chilling thought. Seventy years after torture and ritual humiliation, Lomax still lived daily with the trauma. We got used to this sort of thing after the Vietnam War. But men of Lomax’s generation were less able to speak of their suffering in the earlier conflict.

“We barely touched on what Eric went through in the film,” Irvine explains. “The true horrors went on for four years. If we’d included everything, people wouldn’t want to watch it. He was a ghost of himself. It would be unbearable if we attempted to show the whole experience. So we concentrated on his early experiences and the waterboarding he went through.”

Yes, this is interesting. The term “waterboarding” has entered common parlance only in recent years. But, as The Railway Man reveals,
the Japanese regularly used it in the interrogation of prisoners.

Perhaps accidentally, the film makes a practical argument – the moral argument is surely implicit – against the use of such inhumane practices. Eric, falsely suspected of communicating with the enemy, ends up telling them the lies they want to hear.

“Well, I can only speak for myself,” Irvine says. “I have heard people say it’s not torture. I have heard it being described as drowning on dry land. It’s infinitely worse. I could manage only about seven or eight seconds. I can’t quite express strongly enough how sickening it is.”

Yet Lomax managed to reach an accommodation with Takashi Nagase, his former captor. Amazingly, the two men became friends and remained in communication until Nagase’s death in 2011.

“It is the part of the story I can’t understand,” Irvine says. “He spent 30 years of his life thinking about it. There’s a lovely line in the film: ‘I have nursed myself to sleep on their screams.’ The only way I can explain it is that it shows the very best in human nature in the very worst of circumstances.”

If earlier interviews are to be believed, Jeremy Irvine almost ended up in the army himself. Raised in Cambridgeshire, son of an engineer dad and a mother involved in local politics, he was noticed by a drama teacher at school, but he initially rejected the notion of training as an actor. The story goes that he made a slightly feeble attempt to enlist, but was turned away because he has diabetes.

“Yes, that’s all true,” he says. “That was just because I was 17 and I was being rebellious. I wanted to piss off my parents. So I tried to join the army. I tried lying about my diabetes first.”

He only did one year at LAMDA and, though he enjoyed his time there, he remembers being frustrated that the students were forbidden from auditioning for professional roles while studying. Once the year was over, of course, he found himself flung onto the marketplace with several hundred equally hungry young actors.

A bright, restless guy, Irvine decided to grasp the means of production and began shooting little films with a friend. By the turn of the last decade, it looked as if he was going nowhere and he began to entertain offers from his dad to train as a welder. Eventually one of those homemade reels made it to an agent.

“I’d spent a year making those things and telling my friends it was proper professional work,” he laughs. “Then one made it to an agent and they decided to humour me.”

Shortly after that, the long procedure of auditioning for War Horse began. Already adapted into a hit play on the West End, Morpurgo’s young-adult novel was a hot property. So, there was a lot of chatter as to who would play the farm lad cast into the chaos of the Western Front. Irvine remembers any number of variations on the standard audition.

“There was one instance when I went to the stable and stood there with a horse,” he says. “I was doing this audition to a horse. Ironically, the horse stamped on my foot. So, I spent the reading doing my best not to cry. Yeah. I wonder if they knew.”

There are few more dramatic ways of launching a career than promoting a Steven Spielberg film in the heady days of awards season. Some actors rather warm to the interview circuit. Many more find it the least pleasant part of the job. Yesterday you were unknown. Now everybody wants to know about your favourite doughnut.

“Oh, I don’t know a lot of actors who despise it,” he says. “If you are promoting something you are passionate about, then it’s fine. You are in a fancy hotel. It’s a baptism of fire. I’d never done an interview and suddenly I am on Letterman and the Ellen show. I did end up with a nervous disposition. But it was an experience.”

He still lives in North London. But there must be a temptation to go where the work is. Every actor of any note will experience pressure to move to LA. “It’s fine if you are there as an actor,” he says. “It’s hilarious. If you go there and you have a film out, everyone is begging to meet you. There are meetings with producers every hour of the day. Go out the next month and it’s dead. You suddenly realise, oh, it’s because I don’t have a movie out. It’s a very fickle industry that way.”

Happily, young Mr Irvine has another film coming out. Later this year we will see him in the sequel to the hit ghost story The Woman in Black. Tom Harper’s The Woman in Black: Angel of Death moves the action forward to the second World War. There are many reasons for Irvine to be excited about the project. But he seems proud to be working for the reconstituted version of a top British studio.

“Yes, it’s a Hammer horror film. I’m a Hammer horror star. Who ever thought that would happen?”

yyy The Railway Man opens today and is reviewed on p13