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29 October 2014
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Dunkirk - Michael Legge is Private Wilf Saunders

Michael Legge is Private Wilf SaundersMichael admits that recreating one of the most extraordinary events in the collective history of the nation was a strange and often moving experience.

"When we filmed in Dunkirk, on the actual beach where the soldiers were evacuated, it was very spooky and extremely strange - just the thought that we were literally walking in the footsteps of the people we were portraying."

Private Wilf Saunders was part of a mobile wireless unit with two other soldiers - Private Clive Tonry (Richard Sutton) and Corporal Titch Humphries (Julian Kerridge).

Now in his 80s, Wilf's memories of the Dunkirk evacuation have been a crucial source for the programme.

"The writer had done extensive interviews with Wilf and I was sent a video of their meeting. It was interesting seeing what he looked like and to hear how he felt about what he was going through, being so young and being there.

"My story is almost word for word from the diary Wilf kept during the final three weeks prior to the evacuation. He wasn't religious about writing entries every day but every couple of days he would detail exactly what was happening, his first experiences of bombs dropping and how he felt.

"He was extremely honest and very open which I didn't really expect having seen other documentaries and war movies where there's a certain kind of pride and people don't want to let slip that they were terrified.

"But Wilf spoke quite bluntly about it saying, very honestly, 'we were absolutely terrified, we were fighting for our lives and ultimately it was just about survival'."

Michael also acknowledges that portraying a World War II veteran and speaking lines direct from Wilf's own diary brought with it an increased sense of responsibility to 'get it right'.

"There was that pressure. But I think a lot of it was soaked up by the director," he smiles.

"When you're on a set and when you're portraying a real person, for me personally, I try to put that to the back of my mind as much as possible and just get on with it.

"And the production team wanted the set to be quite relaxed and an enjoyable place to work, so they took the burden of responsibility from us really.

"To do a war movie is just one of the greatest things an actor can do. Sometimes I'd be shooting a scene with bombs going off to the left and right and I'd be thinking about the character saying to myself 'I'm terrified here, I'm terrified'!"

And there were no stuntmen on hand to do the action sections.

"All the explosions were real but obviously we knew exactly where they were. And we were given very specific directions about which way we should run. We also had little earplugs which were painted pink just in case of close ups but, to be honest, we ended up taking them out because the sound added to the drama of it."

But there was an element of basic gun training.

"I had to fire off a couple of shots at one point so I went off with one of the gun handlers for a couple of hours for gun training and that was fine. It was simple, just a quick hand movement," he says miming the L-shaped loading action.

Filming for Dunkirk took place on the continent in various locations in Belgium and France with the benefits including a variety of beers and excellent cuisine.

"It was great! I love Belgian beer and it's very cheap, and obviously all the lads in the hotel had a great time. We had to relax some of the time," he jokes.

Overall, it's an experience that will stay with him.

"It's really garnered a mad interest in me in history and especially the Second World War. I find myself glued to the history documentaries trying to soak up any history and renting all these war dvds.

"Having been thrown into such an intense kind of environment and from just getting a glimpse of what they went through, it is really fascinating to think that these men were thrown into a more horrific situation that you can ever imagine. They were unbelievably brave."

Filming Dunkirk represents the end of a busy year for the Newry-born actor.

He has filmed a new TV series, a movie about Omagh, "and I'm off to the Dublin Film festival next month to promote a film called Cowboys and Angels which opens there on Valentine's Day," he says.

"It's a romantic comedy and after it's released here and in Ireland, it opens in America in the summer."

So Hollywood may well be beckoning!


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