Meet Jeremy Irvine, who debuts in Spielberg’s War Horse

Rare is the actor who doesn’t mind being upstaged, especially by an animal. After all, animals, like children, don’t have to work at it. They just have “to be” – cute, cuddly, loyal.

Circumstance has made 19-year-old Brit Jeremy Irvine that kind of rare actor. A complete unknown, he was cast by Steven Spielberg to star opposite Joey, the title character in his new film, “War Horse.” Not only was Irvine more than happy to play second fiddle to a horse, he was thrilled just to audition to play second fiddle to a horse. During the audition process, which took two months, he was appearing onstage for the Royal Shakespeare Company without saying a line. He played a tree.

 “At the time, I thought the last audition I did was the last audition I’d do,” Irvine says of trying out for his first film. “I couldn’t imagine that I would get the part. Even when I met Steven” – over tea at Claridge’s – “I thought, ‘Great, I’ve met one of the greatest directors of our time.’ I never thought I was getting close. I didn’t have a body of work to show him. It’s quite a risk to cast someone who he hasn’t seen.”

“I’m a veteran of foolish casting choices,” Spielberg says. “I have no anxiety in casting someone to carry a movie if they’ve never done a movie before, because if I think they’ve got it, I can work with whatever they bring to me. And Jeremy had it. He’s affable. He made a tremendous connection with these animals, even though he didn’t ride until he made ‘War Horse.’ There was something about the spirit of his naivete, being a young actor in training but never having been given the break. It reminded me of Joey. He had never acted before either.”

The film, which is based on the best-selling book by Michael Morpurgo that was adapted into a Tony Award-winning play by Nick Stafford, follows Joey’s odyssey from the bucolic English countryside, where he is raised by Albert (Irvine), to the horrors of World War I France, where he is ridden into battle by a dashing captain (Tom Hiddleston). He then passes into the hands of German soldiers, then to a French farmer and his granddaughter, then back to German soldiers again before meeting his ultimate fate in No Man’s Land.

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