Like Drew Barrymore and Christian Bale before him, Jeremy Irvine is a beneficiary of Steven Spielberg’s keen eye for actors, however little known. While studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Irvine tried out six times before he won the lead role of Albert Narracott in Spielberg’s War Horse. Albert enlists in the army during WWI in part to find his horse, Joey, who’s been auctioned off to the cavalry. This being a Spielberg film, you know that Albert’s devotion will ultimately win out. Irvine chatted with Vulture about loving horses, playing innocent, and changing his last name from “Smith.”
What’s been the best part of this experience so far? Or the part you least expected?
You know, I made the mistake while I was filming War Horse of eating all the food. You see the craft-service food the production sets out and you make full use of it. The food was so good, and there was so much of it! You stock up for a week. So I went from being thinner to putting on a stone [fourteen pounds] in three months! I was telling my friends that I was doing the movie, and when the press came out with the first images of me as Albert, I got about fifteen to twenty texts from my friends saying, “Jeremy, did you eat the horse?” [Laughs.]
Actually, you can eat the horse now, here in the U.S. Even PETA supported lifting the slaughter ban, because it saved the horses from being sent on horrific train journeys to countries where slaughter was legal.
Right. Hmmm. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I like horses! I wouldn’t want to see any animal in pain, no matter what. I don’t know the ins and outs of that, but I certainly wouldn’t want any animal to be inhumanely treated. Who would?
Your character Albert really loves his horse …
In my head, Albert has this innocence that people just don’t get anymore: a complete lack of cynicism. Kids nowadays are exposed to so much, so to have someone who is completely innocent is so rare. At the same time, he’s so lonely — no brothers or sisters, no real friends. So when the horse comes into Albert’s life, it’s like his brother. That’s what I imagined. I have two younger brothers, so I saw Joey as Albert’s younger brother, and I imagined how I would feel if one of my brothers was taken away from me. That’s how I went about it.
You actually have some sort of family connection to World War I, don’t you?
So many people across Britain and Europe do. Two of my great-grandfathers were in the war. The fact that I had relatives in the war is not extraordinary. What is extraordinary is that one of them had a horse! He kept a horse throughout the First World War, and at the end of the war, he bought it back off the army at an auction, and for nearly exactly the same amount that Albert does in the film! I’ve got the receipt. It’s astonishing. What a coincidence!
At one point, before you became an actor, you loaned your body out to science, for medical research on an artificial pancreas.
I’ve been diabetic since I was 6, and the medical research team had done so much for me, it was a no-brainer to give back. I wouldn’t say I was partly responsible for kids living longer lives, though. That would be very arrogant of me. There were brilliant people working every day on this, so I’m only a tiny, tiny part of it.
Your last name back then was Smith. Why the switch?
All actors have to change their name. [Laughs.] That’s the law. That’s how Equity works. You can’t have two actors with the same name, and there was already someone named Jeremy Smith. My grandfather passed away while I was looking for a stage name, so I took his first name, and that seemed to be a quite nice solution.
You just wrapped Great Expectations. Did the exercise of exploring Albert’s innocence help you in subsequently playing Pip?
No. This Pip is plain and simply ambitious. That’s where it all comes from, this ambition to get out, to get away from his family life of extreme domestic violence. And he thinks being a gentleman is the best way of getting the girl that he loves. And it’s not just little, silly, schoolboy love — he really loves her. So he sacrifices his relationship with Joe, who is basically his father figure, to get what he wants. That’s a big deal. And when he discovers that all of it has been for nothing, his life kind of crashes around his feet. Great Expectations is one of the greatest stories. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of doing a Dickens film that’s all fun and jokey. This isn’t that. This is a heartfelt, violent, dark adaptation. I mean, Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham? I’ve got great expectations for it.