Great Expectations - Jeremy Irvine interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JEREMY Irvine talks about why playing Pip in Mike Newell’s Great Expectations was so important to him and why filming the Dickens’ classic also enabled him to work with some of his idols.
He also talks about some of his forthcoming roles, including playing Eric Lomax in The Railway Man and a documentary he is planning.
Q. So, when did all the madness begin? Three years ago were you living a life of relative ordinary-ness?
Jeremy Irvine: I still am living a life of ordinary-ness. The only thing that’s changed is that I can get work now [laughs]. Two years ago I’d been out of work for nearly two years and you’re kind of going off to maybe six or seven auditions a week and getting rejected for every single audition you do.
Q. How did that make you feel? Did you feel you were doing something wrong?
Jeremy Irvine: Well, it’s weird because the whole thing is that you can’t feel like that. As soon as you start feeling like that then you give up, don’t you? But yeah, there were certainly times where I thought this wasn’t going to work for me. I was getting rejected for commercials so why on earth would I get a movie? It’s odd… it’s very odd. But it gave me a real kind of ‘fuck you’ attitude and I thought: “No, I’m going to keep going and if nothing else…” Probably because I couldn’t face the shame of failure. But people would ask what I do and I’d feel very embarrassed about saying I was an actor because I wasn’t. So, I was feeling quite embarrassed. The nice thing now is that I can say I act for a living.
Q. And you’ve worked for Spielberg…
Jeremy Irvine: [Smiles] Yeah. It’s odd. It’s been a bit of a mind-fuck really. It’s funny… everyone kind of expects that you do movies and suddenly your entire life just changes. But the movies that I do… what was lovely about War Horse is that I didn’t feel I had to go and do one of those big spectacle, corporate size things. When I was about to do Great Expectations and Now Is Good I had the offer to do a very big commercial movie and it just didn’t feel right. I saw these two movies which I knew had no money whatsoever but they were real honest scripts and they were art for art’s sake and not art to make money. At the end of the day, that’s always more exciting than… if you go into acting to make money then you’re an idiot [laughs]. It’s my hobby and the fact that I’m doing my hobby for a job is mental.
Q. Back then, how were you keeping body and soul together?
Jeremy Irvine: I was doing a lot of weird things. I was building websites for acting friends of mine. I was doing lots of odd jobs. I was teaching in a little drama school, teaching little kids… anything you could do really.
Q. So, you’re a computer whizz?
Jeremy Irvine: No, not at all. I had a lot of time on my hands, so if it took nine hours to do one hour’s work, because I was having to go through every single stage of the book, then it was fine. I was still making a bit of money on the side.
Q. So, it’s not like you have your own website that you administer daily?
Jeremy Irvine: God no! I didn’t have a clue. In fact, I was doing it all on Photoshop. People were fools getting me to do it [laughs]!
Q. As far as Great Expectations was concerned, was it a love of Dickens that drew you to it or the sense that you’d be working with some of your acting heroes?
Jeremy Irvine: I was the first actor to sign up. I didn’t know Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes were going to get involved. So, I read the script and I thought the script was fantastic. I thought it was incredibly moving – so real and honest and so different from a lot of the stuff that I’d been reading that was coming out of some of the more commercial sides of the industry. It had so much depth to it. And then Mike Newell was directing it, who I knew from Donnie Brasco and things like that. He’s directed Al Pacino and Johnny Depp and that was enough for me, so I really went for it, heart and soul, and ended up getting the gig. It was only over the next couple of months, while I was working on the script, that people like Helena and Ralph got involved.
It was kind of like putting together your dream football team of actors – the British acting dream team. Sally Hawkins, Jason Flemyng, and people like that. It really reassured me because I was kind of guessing about projects. I was just choosing the scripts that I liked – that’s all I was going on. So, it was reassuring to see that these other actors, who were so established… you know, Ralph was shooting Bond at the same time and he really didn’t have time to do this… and he wasn’t going to do it. He just said: “Look, I don’t have time.” But in the end he did do it because he wanted to do this project. People like that don’t have to do little movies like this… and it’s hard work. They’re not… you’ve got to shoot it in such a small space of time. You don’t have fancy trailers. We shot this literally in a hole off the side of the A4. It was this old warehouse that was due to be demolished and we got in during the last seconds and built some sets. So, it was cold and muddy and tough. But seeing that these actors wanted to do it because of the project, I thought: “Phew! Thank God! I’ve hopefully made the right choice.”
Q. How aware were you of previous incarnations of Great Expectations?
Jeremy Irvine: Well fairly aware. Like anyone whose British, you grow up with Dickens. I’d seen a few TV series and things. But there hasn’t actually been a movie adaptation since 1946, which was the David Lean version, so it’s been 60 years. It’s very much of the period that movie. I think it’s a wonderful adaptation but it’s very much of the period – the actors are very withheld and everything is very held back and they all speak terribly properly. This is an opportunity… we’re not making a period movie here, we’re making a modern movie in period clothes effectively. This is one character who ferociously loves… whether it’s reciprocated or not if he wants to scream at her, then he should scream at her. So, this is kind of bringing that modern visceral-ness and that rawness and that edgy sexiness… sexy is a word that Mike kept using a lot and getting that back. These are teenagers and it should be incredibly erotic at times. It should be. It’s not like we’re the first generation to invent sex! You’ve only got to read Shakespeare to know that people are… you know, there’s nothing new!
Q. Was it a book you did at school?
Jeremy Irvine: No. It’s a shame it’s done at school. School for me, especially… I’ve always been fascinated by history and I collect Second World War memorabilia because I’m kind of obsessed about it. But I was forced to drop history two weeks before my GCSEs because my results were so bad. I remember being able to spell ‘FUDGE’ with my results. But now I’ve written a history documentary, which I’m hoping to get made…
Q. Is that about the Second World War?
Jeremy Irvine: It’s about a fighter pilot in the First World War, a guy called Albert Ball.
Q. The VC?
Jeremy Irvine: Yes. Oh God, the story of that is… I was looking for a movie and there hasn’t been a movie and I couldn’t believe it. This story is… the more I researched into it, the more… I spent about a year and a half researching it. And the more you do, the more you think ‘no, I’m reading a script… This has got to be…” But it’s real. It’s incredible. This guy died before he was 20 and it’s an amazing love story as well. I’m looking forward to getting into that.
Q. And that’s a going project…
Jeremy Irvine: Yeah, it’s something I’m working on a lot at the moment. We think we can get a movie now.
Q. A documentary?
Jeremy Irvine: Yes, a documentary. I’d thought about making a script and then it’s almost so unbelievable that to make a film, people would just think: “Oh, you’re taking licence with the story.” But it’s so extraordinary that I kind of want to tell it for real. But that’s something that I have to fit in around movies and things. It’s something I’m very keen on.
Q. You’re also telling another extraordinary true story in The Railway Man by playing the young Eric Lomax…
Jeremy Irvine: Yes. Now that is… he passed away two weeks ago, which is sad. But that’s a story that… it’s one of these things that you read. Sometimes you read a script and you just know that is something you just have to do. It’s one of the most moving… it’s being a told in a very modern way. The director, Jonathan Teplitzky, is using… he did a movie called Burning Man, which I don’t know if you’ve seen, but he’s quite a stylistic director and this is all about a man who was tortured horrifically and how he suffers afterwards. He’s really done a very kind of… it’s very psychological and it’s very dark. If it works, I think it will be quite cool.
Q. How much of a burden of responsibility did you feel about playing a character like that? And did you get to meet him?
Jeremy Irvine: I felt a huge responsibility because I’d met him and I’d met his family and got to know them, and that was a huge responsibility. I lost a lot, a lot of weight for that movie – far more than I should have done because I just felt that this was something that… we’ll never do that story justice, ever. But the responsibility to these people to try, because we’ve met them… I’ve never put myself through that sort of stuff for a film but it felt worthwhile. For example, in Australia there is a specific day to remember the tragedies that happened on the Burma Railway and then forward to Singapore. In England, soldiers on their way home had to sign a form saying they wouldn’t talk about it and not only that, that they were of A1 health, which meant that they could never go to the Army for help for their mental and physical ailments afterwards.
In a way, it’s the most disgusting abuse by the British military of people… most of these men went to their graves very early, never speaking about it because they thought that they couldn’t. A man died for every sleeper of railway that was laid between China and Burma. It’s truly colossal and something that people just don’t know about, or don’t seem to know enough about. I certainly didn’t know enough about it. And we shot in the actual cuttings that were carved by these men by hand and met survivors and things. I think it’s something that needs to be done and it needs to be done well. All these things like weight loss and stuff like that, it’s just the sort of commitment that you have to do for something like that. There’s nothing pretentious about it, there’s nothing trying to be earnest. It would be insulting not to.
Q. Is part of the fascination of men in war and British men in war in particular, the thought that especially given their age and your age, is the thought that had I been in that situation would I have survived?
Jeremy Irvine: I think the idea of conscription to some of my generation is just so alien. People were forced into it. We’re all about our rights, our rights… well OK, imagine being forced to go off and fight, especially in the First World War where one in three were either injured or killed. I just find it fascinating. And what’s so lovely is being able to do movies that you feel incredibly passionate about. This movie [Great Expectations] I felt very passionate about and I did a movie recently, Now Is Good, about a girl dying of cancer. Having done War Horse as my first film, it’s nice just to be able to choose projects based on that and not based on ‘oh, well if I do this movie, it’ll make me…” I don’t know. Agents call it ‘foreign value’ [laughs]. You become this product that you can sell. But it’s nice not to feel forced into that and to be able to do projects because they’re intelligent and new and exciting.
Q. How soon after you signed to War Horse did you notice the change in quality of the scripts you were being offered?
Jeremy Irvine: Well, they went from nothing to suddenly [laughs]…. I was actually shooting War Horse when I was offered Now Is Good and that was a no-brainer for me. But then I finished War Horse and I’d been offered Now Is Good and I was offered a few things and I turned everything down for six months… I didn’t work for six months because I wanted to make Now Is Good and Great Expectations as my next movies, which was – looking back on it – incredibly arrogant and probably quite stupid [laughs]. But now I’m so glad I did. There was a lot of temptation, I think, and I think I quite early realised that being famous wasn’t something that I wanted to do. I’d never gone into acting to make money. So, it was quite nice to be able to really piss off my agents and say: “I’m going to hold out and not do anything.” I think these type of movies are the ones that have credibility. They are the movies that I’d like to watch.
Q. Are they presumably trying to pack you off to America to do stuff?
Jeremy Irvine: There’s some great stuff over there. I’ve just come back from America, shooting a movie with Robert Duvall, which is cool. Again, it’s a tiny little movie, a cool little two-hander but the chance to do a little two-hander, kind of road movie with Robert Duvall is amazing. It’s called A Night In Old Mexico. I’ve certainly not got anything against America. I think some phenomenal stuff comes out of there. It’s about finding scripts that have a truthfulness. I often find that you read a script and as soon as it starts to be made to make money, it’s like poison to it. You start to see stuff and go: “Oh, they’ve added that line to appeal to the 16-year-old girls, or they’ve added that line to appeal to the mothers, or that line so we can get as many people into the cinema as possible.” Whereas, these sort of movies are being made because they want to tell a story.
Q. What about the change in going to your local Odeon or seeing yourself in a trailer or on a poster?
Jeremy Irvine: It’s really weird I was walking down the street and saw myself on the side of a bus yesterday, which really freaked me out. I try not to think about it. I try to ignore it and block it out.
Q. The only way you can avoid it is to get on the bus…
Jeremy Irvine: [Laughs] Yeah! I don’t know. It’s weird. I still get the Tube and get on buses. The only thing I’m worried about is sitting down and not realising that there’s a big poster next to me and somebody going: “Are you sitting next to your own poster?” So, I completely consciously avoid them. There’s one at my local Tube stop at the moment and I deliberately take a different route around it, so I’m not in a situation ever where somebody goes: “Oh look…”
Q. Do you get clocked?
Jeremy Irvine: It’s weird when people are just staring at you because the thing is, people are not quite sure… I get a lot of: “Are you off the TV?” It’s funny. I don’t and I don’t get to the sort of clubs where people expect to see you. It’s just not a problem for me.
Q. Whereabouts in London do you live?
Jeremy Irvine: North London.
Q. Is that where you grew up?
Jeremy Irvine: No, I grew up in a little village called Gamlingay in Cambridgeshire in the middle of nowhere.
Q. I read a quote from you where you said that your friends used to take the mickey out of you for acting. I think you were referencing a role in which you were waving sticks on stage. What do they think now?
Jeremy Irvine: Yeah, I was playing a tree. I did War Horse and I wanted to look a bit younger. So, I thought maybe I should eat a little bit more but, of course the food on the set was incredible… Steven Spielberg had his own chef and things. So, I just went mental and put on about a stone and a half [laughs]. I really got quite fat! And I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone that I got the role and I actually didn’t tell any of my friends I was doing it until we had started shooting. And finally, it came out in the press and they released some photos and all I got was about 15 texts… I expected them to go: “Oh fuck, you’re finally doing a movie!” But all I got was about 15 texts saying: “Jeremy, did you eat the bloody horse?” [Laughs] But they’re cool. Good friends stay true to you.
Q. What about your nearest and dearest? Are they all very proud?
Jeremy Irvine: Yeah. I’ve got my little brother in this one. He plays the younger me. And it was incredible because the producers didn’t know he was my brothers. The casting director didn’t tell them because he wanted him to get the part because he was good enough – and he completely did. It fucking annoyed me! He was sooo good and without seeming to try. I’d sit down and rehearse and I’d be reading Miss Havisham’s scenes with him and he’d just be… there’s something about kids, they’re not marred by vanity. They’re just being, they’re just having fun, they’re playing make believe… it was great to have him on set. What I didn’t realise was that my mum would be there on-set with me and it was quite sunny at the beginning. I kept saying: “I’m really focusing. I like to focus when I’m on-set.” And my mum kept coming up and saying: “Do you have any sun cream on? Have you put enough on? Have you eaten your lunch?” So, maybe that backfired a bit.
Q. Does he want to follow in your footsteps? Does he like the bright lights?
Jeremy Irvine: He came down the red carpet with me at the London Film Festival and he came to Toronto with me and I was a bit worried that… as a kid, I think you can end up believing that stuff… you can end up believing when you get out the car and everyone is screaming “Jeremy! Jeremy!” But he didn’t fall for it and I was quite impressed really. I asked him if he wanted to go and do more stuff but he was pretty nonchalant about it. He just wants to go and play hockey and go to school and play cricket.