BWW Interview: Actor Jeremy Irvine Talks BURIED CHILD
Jeremy Irvine got his big break as the lead in Steven Spielberg's War Horse. His other screen credits include Great Expectations and The Railway Man, but he's now back on stage alongside Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Charlotte Hope in Sam Shepard's Buried Child, currently in previews at Trafalgar Studios.
What was your first theatre experience?
I remember seeing The Seagull with Ian McKellen - it was a standing performance, and I didn't even notice I was on my feet for three hours. But I was quite late to acting, about 16 or 17 - I'm definitely not one of these stage school kids. It was rebellion. I wanted to do something different to everyone else - I hated school and I didn't want to go to university. I had a great drama teacher who went to LAMDA, where I ended up going - he made out it was this really tough boot camp: 6,000 apply, 30 get in, and they beat the shit out of you. I liked the idea of that challenge.
And the people really drew me to theatre. I worked backstage as a tea boy at Her Majesty's Theatre and had a great time. It's a myth about Hollywood and the theatre industry that it's full of divas and drama queens - 99% are really nice. I wasn't around nice people in my day-to-day life at the time, so that definitely appealed.
Is it true you'd also applied to the army?
Yes, at 17 - and I'm very glad that didn't work out! That was the mood I was in. Typically rebellious teenager.
How long did you study?
I did a year at LAMDA. I'd probably had enough of education by the time I arrived there. I think drama school is one of those things that's what you make of it - I'm still not convinced you can teach someone to make an actor, but it's a great environment for you to figure yourself out. I spent my weekends with friends trying to film scenes for a show reel, which I then told agents was professional work. One humoured me enough to take me on. Then I got the lead in War Horse, which was pretty unreal.
And you were playing a tree before that?
Yes, in Dunsinane for the RSC - I was in the chorus. But I really thought that was as good as it got; I was always taught that that's the height of what an actor can wish for, and I still think that really. To be with acting greats, who are respected all over the world, and working in that incredible environment is pretty special. I've been really pining to get back to theatre. Then I heard about Ed Harris doing Buried Child, and knowing Sam Shepard wrote a lot for Ed, I thought it would be a once in a lifetime experience just to see the production, let alone be in it.
Was it an easy transition coming back to the stage?
I kept doing play readings while I was making films. And the first day of rehearsals I thought "Oh yeah, this is why I got into acting." That collaborative process, you just don't have time for a rehearsal period in films. In cinemas, you're probably seeing the first or second time an actor's done that scene, and they only met the actress in the make-up trailer that morning.
What do you enjoy about Shepard's writing?
It's so good - the deeper you go, the more you discover. Like all great playwrights, you never stop finding new things in their work. Ed and Amy [Madigan] have done the show on Broadway, but in the rehearsal room you wouldn't know it - every single time they did it differently. It'll be the same with performances: each one will be magical and unique, and that's very exciting for audiences.
Did you do much preparation?
I did, but no matter how prepared you are, you have to be able to throw it all out the window and completely alter your performance nine, ten times a day. It doesn't work unless you can be fluid with whatever the director and other actors throw at you. There wasn't a shred of ego from anyone on this.
What's it like working with Scott Elliott?
He's an incredibly well-respected director, but he has this brilliant balance - all the enthusiasm of a first-timer but with a wealth of experience. He's extremely thorough and doesn't let you get away with anything. For a split second you think you have, and then he'll stop you. He's a tough cookie when it comes to perfection, but that's great - it raises the bar for everyone. Same with Ed and Amy. Their standard is so high that it raises everyone - if you can't keep up, you're a bit screwed!
How well did you know the play?
I'd read a lot of Shepard, but never actually Buried Child. And when I first read it, that was a very different experience to what we're actually putting on. It's very accessible. You can read into the play as much as you want and find all these interpretations, or you can take it at face value as a gripping play about a dysfunctional family with a dark secret.
What I didn't appreciate at first is the comedy. It's dark with a capital 'd', but the comic moments are fantastic - we've really hit on those. It's not all doom and gloom. Scott's big on us finding the emotional truth and making it real, and that actually makes the comedy better too.
Tell us about your character
So the family are all dealing with difficult things in their past that still have a grip on them, like addiction. My character Vince moved from rural Illinois to New York to follow his dreams of being a musician and living a liberal life, but this darkness is still waiting at home for him. You can't escape your past. It's pretty intense - at the end of every run, I'm wiped out! But it's also very exciting. I get butterflies every time, and that's what energises you. You spend an act in tears, go through a complete psychotic breakdown, but it's a great play with great actors who keep fuelling you. And it's better to go through this stuff on stage than in real life!
The play feels eerily resonant given what's happening in American politics right now
We deliberately didn't voice that in the rehearsal room. Scott made a smart choice not to get too bogged down in the metaphors. We want the play to have a hard-hitting emotional core, we want people to care about these characters, and if they do get deeper messages from it, that'll make them far more effective than if we're openly preaching.
What's next for you? More theatre?
I've always had that love of theatre, so I was just looking for the right thing to do - when a project like Buried Child comes along, you just scrap everything else! I'll definitely look for more plays like this. It's been a real opportunity to indulge in the creative process. I've also got some more films: The Professor and the Madman with Mel Gibson, This Beautiful Fantastic with a brilliant British cast - people like Andrew Scott, who's one of my favourite actors. And Billionaire Boys Club with Kevin Spacey.
What attracts you to a project?
I just want to do anything that's different. And a good script - they're surprisingly few and far between. When a good one comes along, there tends to be a feeding frenzy.
Any advice to budding actors?
Well, I'm still working it out. I'd say make your own work - there's no excuse not be filming your own stuff, making a show reel. That helps you get better. I fell into a bit of a trap going to some funny little acting classes, where I wasn't surrounding myself with the best people. You need to have people you can learn from around you.
Photo credit: Serge Nivelle