Jeremy Irvine: From War Horse to The Railway Man

Jeremy Irvine in The Railway Man Colin Firth suggested Jeremy Irvine to play the young Eric Lomax in The Railway Man

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War Horse star Jeremy Irvine is keen to play meaningful roles, but the 23-year old says his latest film, The Railway Man, alongside Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, demanded more focus than any other.

Based on a best-selling memoir, the big screen adaptation of The Railway Man tells the true story of Eric Lomax, a British Army officer and railway enthusiast who became a prisoner of war at a Japanese labour camp during World War Two, aged just 21.

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (Burning Man 2011), Irvine plays a young Lomax who is captured by the Japanese, tortured and forced to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway, branded the Death Railway, after the Japanese defeat of the Allied forces in Singapore in 1942.

Fifty years after the war, Lomax (Firth) now married to Patti (Kidman), discovers that the Japanese interpreter he holds responsible for much of his torture and post-traumatic stress is still alive and he sets out to confront him and his own troubled past.

Firth suggested Irvine for the role of the young Lomax - a decision Irvine "didn't have to think twice about". Playing alongside Firth was a "privilege" but Irvine also found The Railway Man an "incredibly moving book" when he read it as a teenager.

"It really stuck with me," he says, adding: "It's a period of history we don't know much about in England. I felt it was a story that needed telling."

Irvine lost more than 30 pounds in weight for the film and agreed to endure waterboarding torture - when a cloth is placed over the mouth and nose while water is poured over the face, to give the victim the sensation of drowning - to bring "authenticity" and "realism" to the role.

'Grasping at straws'

"It wasn't really a difficult decision to make when I agreed to do those scenes for real, as much as possible.

"I don't want to sound pretentious. I could stop it whenever I wanted. I hate it when actors say 'I suffered for a role'. But that stuff was very important for me. I thought we owed it to the real people," he says.

After meeting Lomax, who he describes as a "remarkable man", Irvine admits: "I did a lot of things I wouldn't normally do for a movie. When I read the script I was very aware that this wasn't just a character a writer had come up with in his bedroom and there's a great sense of responsibility that comes with that.

"I was grasping at straws because there was no way on earth I could imagine what it was like for Eric. I did everything I could possibly do, to get those little glimpses of his life.

"I spent a lot of time - about two months - getting myself prepared [for the part]. I isolated myself. I moved back to my parents house in the [English] countryside and spent a huge amount of time on my own, walking around fields with my script, not eating.

"I think for this type of movie you really need to focus. I became very emotionally attached to the movie," he adds.

Jeremy Irvine in The Railway Man Irvine says it was "great" to share playing the same character with Firth

Lomax died in 2011 aged 93 while The Railway Man was being made. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also penned the screenplay to the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, said the fact he didn't get to see the movie "was probably a mercy".

"Eric Lomax's greatest achievement was to find an ending to his story, and leave it behind. Why would he want to revisit all those nightmares in Dolby Stereo and Technicolor?"

Irvine agrees: "I don't think Eric wanted to see the movie but his wife, Patti, said he would've been happy and that's really what matters for us. That's what made all that stuff that was tough, worthwhile."

Set in Scotland, Australia and Singapore, the film's storyline switches between Irvine and Firth to illustrate the punishing conditions on the Thai-Burma railway line experienced by the young Lomax and his failure to deal with them in later years.

The actors worked together in preparation for their shared role, "throwing ideas around" at Firth's house.

"Playing a younger version of someone was nice," reveals Irvine.

"Often as an actor in movies it's a lonely process. It's not like theatre where you get to work with all of the other actors in a room for a couple for months before the show.

"In movies, you get sent the script, you go off and do the work on your own, and then you turn up on the day and you do it. But I got to share that a little with Colin. We'd rehearse and phone each other up with silly ideas and I got to share that process, which was great."

Steven Spielberg and Jeremy Irvine at the War Horse UK premiere Irvine was not long out of drama school when he won the lead human role in War Horse
'Silly movies'

After minor roles in stage plays, Irvine catapulted to fame after starring in Steven Spielberg's 2011 epic war drama, War Horse, as World War One soldier Albert Narracott.

He went on to star in Ol Parker's teen drama Now Is Good alongside Dakota Fanning and as Pip in the 2012 remake of Great Expectations.

He is currently filming The Reach opposite Michael Douglas and will star in British director Tom Harper's forthcoming horror, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, the follow-up to the Daniel Radcliffe hit.

He admits he thinks "hard" about each role he is offered, preferring quality over quantity.

"I was offered some big silly movies after [War Horse] but I waited six months and did Now Is Good, a script that I read and loved. Every time I've made a decision for that reason it's been one that I've been very happy with.

"A movie has a life long after the film has been made so if it's something you took for the wrong reasons and didn't love it's going to stick with you for a long time. You have to think hard about it because it's going to affect you, probably in more ways than just your professional career."

Despite Irvine's success, his good fortune still comes as something of a surprise.

"I can't believe I'm still working," he says.

"Three years ago I was walking the streets of London and couldn't get an audition. It all could have been so different. I went from being desperate and taking anything to being able to have a say in where my career is going and that's the biggest privilege you can have as an actor."

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