Before his starring role in 2011’s Steven Spielberg adaptation of War Horse, Jeremy Irvine was just another struggling actor – unable to get cast in commercials, let alone Hollywood blockbusters. But since his breakout role playing teenager Albert Narracott, the offers have been pouring in – including a “very big and commercial movie” which Irvine turned down in favour of Mike Newell’s Great Expectations.
So what prompted him to shun the megabucks to play Dickens’ troubled hero Pip? “I decided quite early that I didn’t want to be famous so I didn’t feel under pressure to go and do these big blockbuster movies. I read the script [for Great Expectations] and thought it was fantastic.”
Screenwriter David Nicholls’ interpretation of Dickens’ 500-page classic avoids the popular comic nuances of the text in favour of a psychological study into the motivations behind Pip’s deep-rooted desperation to elevate his standing and become a gentleman. “This is a child who’s been the victim of the most awful domestic violence,” explains Irvine. “He is constantly beaten - in every hour of his life he’s been put down so in his head he comes up with this fantasy that if he becomes a gentleman that’s his way out of this life.
“This isn’t some sort of childish, whimsical idea, it's a dark, burning obsession. He’s got tunnel vision - suddenly nothing else matters and you’ve got someone who’s ruthless and callous in climbing the social ladder.”
When it came to shooting the movie, the on-set experience was a family affair – with Jeremy’s younger brother Toby taking on the role of the young Pip. “I’m away a lot so it was nice to spend time with my family. I didn’t let them watch me shoot anything because you can feel quite silly sometimes – half the time in War Horse I was talking to a tennis ball on the end of a broom!
“You get self-conscious. Your mum accidentally walking in on you in the shower is bad enough, let alone her seeing you trying to get tears up to do an emotional scene.”
But being a family member of Jeremy Irvine certainly has its perks – none greater than the exclusive after party to last year’s royal premiere of War Horse. “I got invited by the Duke and Duchess [of Cambridge] to go back to the palace for drinks. I just thought f**k, there’s no way I’m going to appreciate this so I grabbed my grandma and bundled her into a car and off we went. I can say I took my grandma for drinks with the future King and Queen of England – I get more of a kick out of that.”
And speaking of royalty, what was it like working alongside Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter and Robbie Coltrane – some of the biggest names in the industry?
“Robbie just tries to make you corpse before every scene, as does Helena. She has this playfulness – she’ll try anything and there’s no fear of getting it wrong. At the first read-through she turned up with five or six pages of notes and ideas. She’s putting this much work and commitment into every role, no wonder she’s so good.
“I really connected with Ralph. He has this real intensity when he works and he completely becomes that character, commits to it one hundred percent. We’d be about to shoot a scene and he’d say, ‘Alright, let’s improvise’ and we’d do a two or three minute improvisation and then Mike would just roll the cameras. I’m just this snotty nosed little kid – he didn’t have to do stuff like that for me and yet he was so generous and kind.
“All that stuff about being very well known disappears very quickly because you realise you’re actually just working with someone who’s bloody good at their job.”
Great Expectations is released nationwide on Friday 30 November