Irvine surpasses all expectations

First published in Celebrity Interview

Jeremy Irvine made his film debut in Steven Spielberg's War Horse in January. He's now playing Pip in a big-screen adaptation of Great Expectations, released on Friday, November 30, and is about to play a younger version of Colin Firth. He tells Kate Whiting about his incredible year.

 

Jeremy Irvine is having the year of his life. No sooner had he made his film debut as the lead in Steven Spielberg's War Horse in January than he found himself being asked by director Mike Newell to play Pip in his adaptation of Great Expectations - then Colin Firth wanted him to play his younger self in upcoming war drama The Railway Man.

"Sometimes you read a script and spend a long time saying, 'Oh well, maybe it could work this way', but this was just such a 'I've got to do this movie' moment," the 22-year-old says earnestly, when we meet at The Savoy.

"I met Colin Firth and had dinner with him and he was the one that actually got me the role, which was nice..."

Irvine plays the young Eric Lomax, a British army officer who was sent to a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War Two and forced to work on the infamous 'Death Railway' from Thailand to Burma. The film is based on his memoir of the same title, and Firth plays the older Lomax.

"We kind of share the movie and he was so generous," says Irvine. "We'd rehearse in his living room and I was thinking, 'My God, this is the kind of acting masterclass you can only dream of when you're at drama school'.

"At the time, you're just working with someone who's really good at what they do and really interesting, and of course afterwards you go, 'Wow, that was really kind of him'."

Between the two war films, Irvine's branched out, starring in indy weepie Now Is Good with Dakota Fanning and now taking on the central role of Pip in Great Expectations.

Adapted for the big screen by One Day author David Nicholls, it stars a who's who of British acting nobility, including Helena Bonham-Carter as Miss Havisham, Ralph Fiennes as the convict Magwitch and Robbie Coltrane as Jaggers.

After War Horse, Irvine insists he wasn't daunted by bringing to life another well-loved book.

"Obviously, I was terrified, but it wasn't the fact it was well-known, because this was David Nicholls's script and yes, there's been a few TV adaptations but there hasn't actually been a period movie adaptation since 1946, so I felt there was scope for doing something new and interesting."

Great Expectations was most recently tackled by the BBC last Christmas, with Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham and Douglas Booth as Pip. "He did a great job," says Irvine, graciously.

"It takes 20 hours to read Great Expectations cover to cover, and we had just two hours. In the BBC one, they cut stuff I couldn't imagine losing and I'm sure we did too. [Adaptations] will never be the same, it's like shuffling a pack of cards, they'll never go in the same order twice."

For anyone who's not read Dickens's masterpiece, we first meet orphan Pip as a 10-year-old living with his sister and her blacksmith husband, Joe, on the marshes in Kent.

A chance encounter with escaped convict Magwitch is followed by a visit to the house of Miss Havisham, who employs him to entertain her beautiful ward Estella. Ten years later, Pip learns he has been given a huge fortune by a mysterious benefactor and must abandon his lowly life in the country to live as a gentleman in London.

Irvine was picked by Newell for the role because of his youth and good looks. He hides his face in embarrassment when Newell says: "He's dark, so I thought he would look good in the forge, against hot iron."

But it was more than that, adds Newell. "At some point Pip would be guilty about the way he'd behaved in his savage climbing of the social ladder and I was interested in how my intuition told me he would play guilt."

Irvine comes across as more mature than his years. He's also extremely passionate about the roles he's chosen and defends the character of Pip, who's mortified by Joe's country ways when he comes to visit him in London.

"You can't ever see someone as being a terrible person. Pip's been put down his whole life and he's incredibly unhappy. Becoming a gentleman is his one way of getting out of this awful life, so it's not some sort of childish whimsical idea, it's this real, deep, driving ambition."

He's similarly fired up about doing justice to the story of Eric Lomax in The Railway Man. "I actually got to meet him and his family a little bit and felt a huge responsibility to that story. Unfortunately Eric died two weeks ago [aged 93], but he knew the movie was being made.

"He was such a wonderful person that I really wanted to try and do it justice."

Irvine lost two stone for the part by not eating for two months. "I really scared myself and certainly my mum. I don't think I'd put myself through that again, but this merited it," he says.

"A man died for every single sleeper laid on that track, it's extraordinary, but we don't seem to know about it."

The actor grew up in a Cambridgeshire village, the oldest of three sons to Bridget, a local politician, and engineer Chris.

His 13-year-old brother Toby played the young Pip. ("The one thing I didn't vouch for was that my mum would be on set the whole time," adds Irvine, laughing.)

After discovering a love of drama at sixth form, he went on to study at Lamda and had played a tree for the RSC and appeared in a Disney sitcom when Steven Spielberg cast him in War Horse.

He's acutely aware that "fame is a fickle thing" and says he won't be counting his chickens just yet, but also doesn't want to be typecast: "It's amazing; as soon as one movie works you read six scripts that are exactly the same."

And while he may have been spotted recently ice-skating with singer Ellie Goulding at Somerset House, he's not keen to live the celebrity party lifestyle.

"I realised very quickly that I didn't want to be famous, so I don't go to Mahiki, I just go down the pub with all my mates."

Right now, there's a poster advertising Great Expectations - featuring Pip - at Irvine's local tube station, which he finds very strange ("I go to huge lengths to avoid it," he says). Chasing public adoration isn't top of his priority list.

"When War Horse came out, I had maybe a month of people stopping me in the street, then it died down. I try to ignore all that and pretend none of it exists.

"We're only acting. The work my mum does, a lot of it is re-housing homeless people, that's a real job. I play make-believe and dressing up for a living!"


Extra time - Book adaptations

:: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Release date: December 13) - Peter Jackson couldn't resist making the prequel to The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, starring Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins.

:: Life Of Pi (Release date: December 20) - Yann Martel's Man Booker Prize winner about a boy and a tiger on a boat will be brought to life by Ang Lee.

:: Jack Reacher (Release date: December 26) - Where there's a crime thriller franchise, you're likely to find Tom Cruise. Reacher's a former Army major-turned-drifter from the novels by Lee Child.

:: Midnight's Children (Release date: December 26) - Another Booker Prize winner, this time from the pen of Salman Rushdie.

:: Les Miserables (Release date: January 11, 2013) - Expect tears and Oscar nods aplenty when Victor Hugo's love story set against the French Revolution is brought to the big screen, starring Anne Hathaway with songs from the musical.

:: Cloud Atlas (Release date: February 22, 2013) - David Mitchell (author not comedian) wrote this book of six nested stories, being given the Hollywood treatment in a film starring Tom Hanks.

:: Great Expectations is released in cinemas on Friday, November 30

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