The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get the part?
Jeremy Irvine: Beforehand, I was in the chorus with the Royal Shakespeare Company, quite literally playing a tree. I hadn't worked for a year, going off to audition after audition, and signed with a new agent after finishing with the RSC. I signed on a Friday night and went into the "War Horse" audition Tuesday morning. I had a couple of months of going in to audition two or three times a week, sometimes doing videotape and knowing it would be shown to Steven. I met Steven very, very late in the process. The weird thing was going on tape during the day, doing these situations, knowing it would be shown to Steven Spielberg in the evening! It was quite intense. I was getting called back so much it was astonishing and I never thought I'd get it. Then I got a call at about 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., saying, "Can you meet Steven for tea in a hotel in London tomorrow morning?" I did what any actor would do: I freaked out. I don't think I slept most of that night. I went into this meeting and within about five minutes Steven and [producer] Kathleen Kennedy — we just sat having a chat. His greatest skill is his ability to put you at ease and make you very comfortable. You feel like you can make mistakes and that's a perfect environment.
THR: When did you learn you got the job?
JI: It was all very secretive. I was at home building a go-kart for my brother and they asked me to come and tape and gave me a piece of script and said, "Steven wants this to be spontaneous and he wants you to just turn over the sides and start reading them to show you can do the accent." And I start turning over the sides in my agent's office — and it was some fake script, and I'm just reading, "Steven Spielberg wants me to play Albert in 'War Horse'!" I have the whole thing on tape. I was asked to wait and not tell anyone. I didn't tell my friends and family for a few weeks. It's amazing, when you have come from literally nothing to being offered a Steven Spielberg movie, it's amazing what you can do!
THR: Did you go through boot camp?
JI: Not really. We got into it quite quickly, but we had two months of intense training with the horses and some came to us untrained because they were so young. I'd never ridden a horse before — and I had it really kicked into me by these horse masters. There's a reason why John Wayne walks like he does! We all waddled around for two months before we got into it. I'd spend hours in the stable with this young horse until it became comfortable with me, then by the end we had it running around the fields, playing with me. They were some of the best moments. I thought, "I've never been an animal person. I'm not going to be a sucker for that and fall in love with the animal." And within a week I was as bleary-eyed as everyone else.
THR: What was the hardest part of the shoot?
JI: The stuff we filmed in the trenches: Steven was very keen to have as little CGI as possible — there's only about three moments of CGI in the whole film, and that was for the safety of the horses. We'd be on the set and all these explosions that you see were real explosions going off; all the guns had ammunition. My rifle was a real rifle used in the First World War, and all the machine guns as well. There's a scene with all the machine guns, and they were all real machine guns used in the real world. I actually collect old First and Second World War memorabilia. I got some nice souvenirs!
THR: What did the battle scenes involve?
JI: Long nights in soaking wet trenches up to our knees in mud and water. I would say for some of us they were the toughest in terms of just being physically and mentally exhausting. You are having to play that heightened emotion for a very long time. And what's incredible is how heavy all your uniform and tackle gets. As soon as your big woolen uniform gets wet, the weight is unbelievable, and you'd be running across no-man's-land, right through the mud and dirt. There were sequences where explosions would take place next to me and three or four stuntmen would fly through the air — and then there'd be other scenes where you're just soaking wet. I got trench foot [a medical condition contracted through lengthy contact with dampness]. The soldiers used to get it all the time. And then there were the rats. They released about 20 rats — but there's constant shouts of "Can someone get me a coffee?" But there were moments where I would be running off and explosions would be next to me and three or four stuntmen would fly through the air. I guess we spent about three or four weeks [in the trenches]. It was tough but also enjoyable.
THR: Did it make you identify with real-life soldiers?
JI: I don't think any of us could even begin to say we could in any way relate to how they felt. That would be insulting.
THR: Did you have a favorite scene?
JI: One of my favorite scenes was one I'm not in, when they do this cavalry charge. This was my first film, so whenever I wasn't filming I was going down to watch the other actors to desperately learn how to do it — and I remember watching this and they were doing this big cavalry charge and as they get close, they had about eight of these real, genuine machine guns and they just opened up — and to be there on the day was humbling and moving.
THR: Was there anything bad about the experience?
JI: They produce free food and the catering is amazing, and as an actor you stock up for a week, and I'm stuffing my face and they say, "Is there anything special you want?" I put on a stone [14 pounds] in three months! Then when the film came out, I'm thinking, "Great, all my friends are going to see me in this movie" — and I woke up and had about 15 texts, each one saying, "Jeremy, did you eat the bloody horse?!"
– The Hollywood Reporter