Jeremy Irvine: ‘Movies are great, but you should always come back to the theatre’
There’s a long line of young British actors who, having trained at British drama schools and launched their careers on the London stage, have migrated to Hollywood and become film stars.
Over the last decade, these have included Andrew Garfield, Tom Hiddleston, Felicity Jones and Andrea Riseborough, to name just a few. All of them, however, had significant break-out roles on stage first.
Not so, however, for Jeremy Irvine, whose first job after graduating from LAMDA was in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Dunsinane at Hampstead Theatre in London in 2010. “I was literally playing a tree,” he says. “I came on with two branches, and I had two lines.”
But days later, his life changed: “I managed to get a lovely agent, who is now retired. He signed me on a Friday night when I was with the RSC, and I went in for an audition for the film of War Horse on Monday morning.”
That, of course, was directed by Steven Spielberg, and catapulted the unknown actor into a film career that has occupied him fully for the past six years.
Until now, that is, as we meet in Manhattan, where he is rehearsing a new production of Sam Shepard’s classic Buried Child, ahead of bringing it to London’s Trafalgar Studios.
It is a revival of director Scott Elliott’s Off-Broadway production, starring Ed Harris and his real-life wife Amy Madigan, newly joined by British actors including Irvine.
“The theatre is what I fell in love with in the first place,” he says. “Movies have been an amazing experience and great fun, and if I can keep doing movies for the rest of my career, that would be great; but I think I will always come back to the theatre and I think you should. I’ve learnt more over the week on rehearsals with Scott than I would do in six months on the movies. They’re both equally difficult in their own respects – I wouldn’t say one was more difficult or worthy than the other – but in terms of a learning experience, you can’t get away with anything in theatre. In film, you show up having done all the work yourself, it’s such a lonely process.”
Q&A: Jeremy Irvine
What was your first job? Dunsinane for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I also set up a company with producer James Fulcher, Racing Heart Film, to do commercial stuff. We’re based in London and he runs it day-to-day.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? When I was doing press for a movie called The Railway Man with Colin Firth, he told me to treat it like a big romp. With a lot of British actors, there’s a real cynicism ingrained in us, and if you get big success, you’re supposed to go ‘yuck’ to all the red carpet stuff. But, actually, if you treat it like a laugh, it’s kind of fun and a bit silly. I wish I’d seen the brighter side like that a bit more.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Watching other actors. But as a result, I don’t find watching films very relaxing. I’m always critiquing them. So I watch hours of nature documentaries now – I don’t care what penguins are doing.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Go in not giving a fuck. If I go in at least trying not to care whether I get it or not, I have a good time.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I would love to have been in set design, something that’s creative but less critical of you personally. I’d love to paint sets all day.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I annotate my scripts like nobody’s business – that’s really a comfort blanket, because I never look at those notes.
Irvine says he wasn’t intimidated by appearing on stage with Harris, who has worked extensively with Shepard. “He’s an actor I’ve grown up with, but it is just a wonderful learning experience. In the rehearsal room, you have to put that to one side and all be equal and on the same level – ultimately, I’m with someone who is incredibly professional and very good at their job, so you just try to learn as much as you can from them. Ed knows Sam’s work so well – something came up the other day, and he was able to say what he thought Sam meant. You have a true masterclass going on every day.”
He’s happy to be returning to the theatre: “For the past two or three years I’ve been missing it horribly. But it’s been about finding the right thing to do. And then when I heard about this… for an actor, it’s a dream as far as theatre goes. It’s a no-brainer.”
What attracted him to the role? “Vince probably has the biggest turnaround in the play. We go from seeing what appears to be quite a sweet, young guy coming back to meet his family again, to very quickly discovering the really dark monster that lives within him and full-on confronting his demons. It’s a nice chance to do something a bit darker, and there’s real scope to go as far as you want.”
Jeremy Irvine’s top tips for an aspiring actor
• There’s no excuse not to be making your own work now. Everyone has a camera on their phone, so make your own showreel – that’s what I did and it got me my agent and my first job.
• Everyone will tell you no, but don’t listen to them. If you really believe in yourself, it won’t matter.
• I used to go to a lot of acting classes that were very bad. I was around a lot of bad actors, and being taught by failed actors is not necessarily very good. It’s a real hole to fall into and I had to untrain myself. So make sure you are around good people. As soon as I started working with other good actors, it just filters in.
Plus he’s enjoying the fact that his performance will have room to grow and change. “Ah man, that’s the thing; I complained about this to Scott when we first met, that every time I finish a movie I go: ‘Oh shit, I wish I could do that again – oh fuck, that’s what I wanted to do, now that I’ve figured it out.’ That usually happens about two weeks after I’ve finished the film. It’s probably going to be the same with this play, but at least I’ve got more time to do it.”
What about the experience of being a British actor in such an American play?
“There are bigger things to do with that character than just accent and place, but it’s very important. I’m quite lucky to have spent a lot of time in America doing films. I’ve spent a lot of the past three or four years in those States with people like that. This play has a wonderful sense of place, and in UK we’re going to really understand that. I think it could be pretty much set anywhere in a rural, isolated family.”
Meanwhile, he’s happy to be among a theatre family again. “I was very nervous coming into it, but as soon as I was back in the rehearsal room, I thought: ‘I remember how this machine works.’ ” It’s been a big gear-shift from film acting, though: “I can’t stress enough how different they are in terms of craft. Technically, they require very different things. Quite often in film you’ll just finish a scene and then have to go back and do it again and cry again. In theatre, you get a chronological run of time, at least.”
CV: Jeremy Irvine
Born: 1990, Cambridgeshire
Landmark productions: Theatre: Dunsinane, Hampstead Theatre, London, for the Royal Shakespeare Company (2010)
Film: War Horse (2011), Great Expectations (2012), Now Is Good (2012), The Railway Man (2013), The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2014), Stonewall (2015), Fallen (2016)
Agent: Creative Artists Agency (US); Independent (UK)
Buried Child runs at the Trafalgar Studios, London, until February 18