War Horse - Jeremy Irvine and Joey
Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

Steven Spielberg has a knack for finding young actors who give extraordinary performances on screen, such as child actors Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and a 13-year-old Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun.

For his new movie, War Horse, he has chosen Jeremy Irvine to star as Albert Narracott, a boy living on a farm in England who becomes devoted to his horse, Joey. But when World War I breaks out, Joey is called to duty, becoming the mount of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). Determined to find his horse, Albert enlists and goes to the front with the mission of bringing Joey home.

The movie is based on the novel of the same name, written by children’s author Michael Morpurgo, and was made into a successful London and Broadway play in which the horses were portrayed by puppets.

Jeremy Irvine spoke of his experience making his first movie at the press day for the film in New York.

What kind of audition did you have to go through to get this?

War Horse - Jeremy Irvine and Joey
Albert (Jeremy Irvine) on his horse Joey © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

I was in a theatre show with no lines pretending to be a tree at the time when I was going up for War Horse. I was really struggling as an actor. I wasn’t getting recalls for commercials, let alone for movie.

It was probably over about two months and I was going on tape with the casting director, knowing that what I was taping in London was being shown to Steven Spielberg in Los Angeles that night.

I never even had the thought that I’d get this role. As far as I was concerned it was just good audition experience and I was getting to spend time with a wonderful casting director.

That was my main thing and, as you do when you’re struggling as an actor, you put a hundred percent into every audition, and I was teaching myself to ride and helping out at local stables.

Then one night about ten o’clock in the evening I get a phone call saying, ‘Can you come and meet Steven Spielberg tomorrow morning for tea at Claridges?’ I did what every actor would do and freaked out. It was funny.

One of Steven’s best assets I think as a director is within five minutes of being in a room with him all your nervousness is gone. He puts you so easily in your comfort zone and you feel comfortable around him and therefore you do your best work.

When did you find out that you’d gotten the role?

War Horse - Jeremy Irvine and Joey
Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

I got a phone call from my agent saying, ‘Can you come in for another audition?’ They said Steven wanted to hear my accent again. So I rushed into London, I got in front of a camera and they passed me a piece of script. They said, ‘This has got to be spontaneous.

So don’t turn the script over until we’ve [called] action.’ They [called] action, I turned the script over and I started reading, ‘Steven wants me to play Albert in the feature film!’ They got the whole thing on tape!

What kind of training did you have to do with the horses for this?

I’d never been on a horse in my life, so I had quite a lot to learn. We had two months to really have it kind of beaten into us, and for anyone who’s had to learn to ride from scratch it’s pretty uncomfortable, especially for guys.

There’s a reason John Wayne walked the way he did! It was tough but, at the same time, I think we all in a way had the most fun in those two months learning to ride.

How is the movie different from the stage play?

War Horse - Peter Mullan, Emily Watson and Jeremy Irvine
Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan, far left) surprises his wife, Rosie (Emily Watson) and their son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) with his purchase of a horse © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

What the stage show does is you’ve got this spectacle of these puppets and it’s phenomenal. You find you’re really emotionally invested in a puppet and it’s incredible.

I think what the film does differently is it focuses on the characters and the people, that’s what Steven Spielberg does best on all his movies. He focuses on the human element, the people who this horse touches.

What kind of research did you do for the film?

Nearly everyone in Britain has a relative or a member of their family who was affected by the First World War. It’s something that really does run deep in our culture and our history.

Both my great grandfathers were in the First World War and remarkably one of them had a horse who they had throughout the war in Gallipoli, and the western front.

At the end of the war he bought this horse back off the Army at an auction for nearly exactly the same amount of money as Albert, my character, does in the film, which is extraordinary.

What did you learn from doing a movie like this from working with a horse? What did they teach you about acting?

War Horse - Jeremy Irvine and Peter Mullan with Joey
Albert (Jeremy Irvine, right) and his Dad (Peter Mullan) are featured with Joey © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

That’s a great question. What you learn from working with horses is they are always present. They’re not doing anything fake, they’re always being very real. And you’ve got to raise your game to meet that.

As a human actor, there are so many distractions going on, on a movie set. And you’ve got to be in that moment with the horse.

How aware do you think people of your generation are of World War I, in particular the carnage. When you saw the finished film, what was your response to the Battle of the Somme?

I think for someone in my generation it’s incredibly difficult to relate on any level to what these boys and men went through.

People have been asking me, when we were filming the trench sequences, did you feel like you could feel what these people felt? No, of course we couldn’t. It would be insulting to say that we could. But what is so important is that we don’t forget the Great War.

This was meant to be ‘The War that Ended All Wars.’ How wrong was that?

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.