Photography by John Spinks
Jeremy Irvine could have been just another young British theater boy with a pretty face, like many before him. Some have gone on to become outstanding awards-winning actors—Christian Bale, Jude Law, Colin Firth, Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender, and Tom Hardy, to name just a few. Others have wound up as one-hit wonders, repeatedly cast as pretty boys—Alex Pettyfer, Sam Claflin, Theo James, and Orlando Bloom. What separates Irvine from the pack? A stern commitment to craft and an insatiable curiosity. After his big-screen debut in the epic $100-million-budget movie War Horse (2011), which went on to make $177 million worldwide.
Not that getting War Horse was easy or all pure luck. Irvine started pursuing acting at age sixteen and nearly gave up at nineteen, when he couldn’t land one decent role. Then War Horse and Steven Spielberg rode into his life like, well, a man on a white horse. To clinch the role, Irvine auditioned several times a week over the course of two months. Later on, after the film opened, Spielberg revealed, “I looked at hundreds of actors and newcomers for Albert—mainly newcomers—and nobody had the heart, the spirit, or the communication skills that Jeremy had.” So much heart, in fact, that he quickly added fourteen pounds of muscle to his lithe frame by lifting weights over two months and did an intense eight weeks of horse-riding lessons. But it wasn’t in vain—the London Film Critics’ Choice Awards nominated him for Young British Performer of the Year and the Empire Award for Best Male Newcomer. It was certainly an auspicious debut, one that creates matinee idol status if a young actor has the looks for it, which he does in spades.
But Irvine resisted the urge to follow it up with big-studio movies in which he’d play a romantic lead. He appeared in a small romance flick called Now Is Good (2012); played Pip in the Mike Newell version of Great Expectations (2012); portrayed a younger Colin Firth, who was tortured by the Japanese during World War II, in The Railway Man (2013); and starred in the horror franchise Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death the year after. There were a few small movies to follow, till he snagged the lead in Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, the story of how the Stonewall riots of June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village kicked off the gay pride movement.
Perhaps this steady determination—holding out for unusual roles—stemmed from Irvine’s having been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of six, which requires him to give himself four injections a day.
As for his personal life, the modest, almost self-deprecating young actor—the son of an engineer father and local-politician mother—admits that he lies low and avoids the limelight. There’s been little documented about his relationships except for a yearlong romance with singer Ellie Goulding.
Merle Ginsberg: You got cast in War Horse when you were nineteen, before which you had only done one little part in a play. How did working on a $100-million-budget film with Steven Spielberg change your life?
Jeremy Irvine: Quite simply, I went from not getting any work to getting work. It costs a lot of money to make a movie. It’s rare for someone to put their trust in someone who hasn’t done a movie before. Mr. Spielberg took a huge risk on me. Two hours of entertainment costs $100 million—a lot of trust to put into a nineteen-year-old! I’m still figuring out why! He couldn’t be more lovely. He was an eternal father figure on-set and kept me under his wing.
MG: After War Horse, you said no to a lot of parts and didn’t work for a year. Why?
JI: I will just say this—I haven’t spoken ever about a role I haven’t taken, but there is lots of Internet speculation, which you can’t help. I was picky after War Horse. I was very lucky. I skipped the phase most actors go through, working and waiting fifteen years to get a truly great role. I wanted to take on edgy off-center films that would be very different from what I had just appeared in—you know, a smaller film that’s not so much mainstream. I did the The World Made Straight in 2015. It was a small movie but an interesting part. I did that to prove to myself that I can. I’m acutely aware of how fickle this industry can be. It’s been great to be the new guy on the scene. To be honest, I never saw myself really doing acting as a job; I just thought of it as my hobby, so I’m happy to work on my hobby. When I got War Horse, all I’d ever had before was two lines onstage in London, but even then, I couldn’t believe I was onstage at night, appearing with great British theater actors and getting paid to do that.
MG: What was your audition like for Stonewall?
JI: I read the script—you read a lot of scripts—and the good ones stand out very clearly. Sure, there are a variety of scripts, but there are unfortunately few good ones with good roles. This has been Roland Emmerich’s passion project for a very long time. It was not easy to get financed, despite him having a big name. There’s a feeding frenzy around these scripts. Every actor is looking for a good meaty role. I was filming when I read it. I found the script so incredibly moving, and Danny was such a good role. He’s both conflicted, and he knows who he is at the same time. I had one day off before I got on the plane to the audition with some notes and ideas about the role. Clearly, it went well, despite the fact that I came out of the meeting, thinking, “I’m not sure I’m going to get this part.”
MG: Your voice is so properly British. How did you do the midwestern-boy American accent? I was listening for the Brit to slip in there, and I never heard it.
JI: I’ve worked in America more than I have in Britain. Accents seem from the outside like a big part of the work, but it’s about the number of hours you study it. You do it until you don’t think about it anymore. By the time you get to set, it’s the last thing you think about. You can’t do it well till it’s rote.
MG: What did you know about the history of what happened at Stonewall in 1969? Even though I grew up in New York, I didn’t really know that much.
JI: I’m actually ashamed about how little I really knew about the whole movement, and that’s what struck me to do the film. Public consciousness can only be a good thing. There’s a slight misconception going on now since the trailer’s been out that my character started the Stonewall protest. But the movie is about the homeless LGBT community who created it.
MG: Is it still a big deal when straight actors play gay and gay actors play straight? Did any of that stuff occur to you when you got the lead in Stonewall?
JI: Not at all. It was just a great role. No, I was not at all apprehensive. I don’t think that’s a thing anymore—straight, gay. I think we’re over that.
MG: Were you at all nervous about doing the sex scene you have with Jonathan Rhys Meyers?
JI: Not personally, no. If you’re going to be a straight guy doing a gay sex scene, he’s not a bad choice! I could have done a lot worse! He was really cool. He really put me at ease. Sex scenes are sex scenes—gay, straight. They’re not a whole lot different from each other when it comes to being relaxed. On a film set, it doesn’t much matter who you’re doing it with. There’s just not much sexy about a sex scene. You’ve got a story to tell. My character is quite a vulnerable guy way out of his comfort zone. Danny thinks he’s falling in love with this somewhat older guy, who’s working to change the views of gays in a more diplomatic way, but that doesn’t turn out to be quite the case.
MG: You have to take your shirt off a lot in this movie. Did that make you feel self-conscious? But did you have to work out a lot?
JI: I’ve already gotten used to changing my body for a part. The gym was necessary for this role, but I don’t really like it. I played a tortured World War II soldier in The Railway Man, and I had to be emaciated. I mean, really emaciated. I lost thirty pounds and barely had any muscle at the end of it; I really was skin and bones. At the end of the movie, they had to take me on a wheelchair to the plane because my legs collapsed. I posted a picture of my before and after on Instagram, and my mother got really upset! I didn’t do any specific big work for Stonewall. I went to drama school in London, and they always drummed into us, “What kills a good performance is apprehension about the body. Just worry about the role.” If you have to take your top off, sure, it’s a little difficult, but you’re playing a character. Life is too short to get all hung up on any of it.
MG: You’ve already got a reputation for being a heartthrob, and I think Stonewall is just going to enhance that.
JI: Really? A heartthrob? I don’t think any of my friends would say that! They’d laugh about it. You take scripts when they move you—do something to you. It’s all about good work, not trying to look cool. I’ve learned very quickly that the most difficult thing in this business is finding opportunities to do really good work.
MG: How do your parents feel about your career taking off to such an extent?
JI: My parents are very supportive. I give them credit. If my kid said they wanted to be an actor, I’m not sure how I’d respond. I’d probably be very nervous. They were even supportive when I thought I’d be sleeping on their couch the rest of my life. Now I live in north London.
MG: It looks from the Internet that you’re sometimes out and about on the London scene—clubs, fashion shows, whatever—even though you claim to be shy and low-key.
JI: Oh, the London scene … I do it because my mum loves fashion stuff. I know nothing. I always ask if I can take my mum, and she goes with me. She loves it. The fashion world goes more hand and hand with the film world these days, you know? I introduced her to Colin Firth. I think it was the highlight of her year. I introduced her to Samuel L. Jackson, and she said, “Hello, Mr. Johnson.” I said, “No, no, mom!” She’s hilarious.
MG: Haven’t you had some pressure to move to Los Angeles?
JI: Oh, I’ve spent some time in LA. Sometimes it’s even half and half. Maybe if I didn’t have such strong family ties in England, I’d move out there. I don’t want to miss out on the whole family thing. You can have a balance. I’ve gotten quite good at falling asleep on the plane as it takes off. I don’t mind going back and forth.
MG: You contracted diabetes as a child—at age six—and, of course, it never goes away. How does that affect your worldview?
JI: Yeah, diabetes—I’ve always thought things could be a helluva lot worse. Sometimes I couldn’t go out and play with my friends. But I didn’t let it affect me. It’s an inconvenience on-set sometimes. As adults we can deal with it.
MG: You’re only twenty-five, but you’ve done ten movies. Do you have a plan in place for your career—a big picture, as they say?
JI: A plan? Yes, definitely now, I do. My plan is to keep doing new projects, trying roles I haven’t tried. Hopefully, that will allow me to keep working for a while. A lot of people last five minutes and get thrown out again.
MG: You are represented by CAA. That’s a good way to ensure getting the best material. How closely do you work with them?
JI: Yes, CAA. I know it’s very powerful. It’s a small world in that business. I have the same agents in the UK as I’ve always had. We’re all best friends now. Every decision I make goes through them all. Sometimes we disagree. I didn’t know what CAA was when I signed with them. I had all these agents flying over to meet me. I think I met thirty or so. We all got drunk in a hotel bar, the CAA people and me. They’re good people.
MG: So you’ve finished a few new movies.
JI: New movies, yeah. I think the next one is called The Fallen, based on the best-selling series of novels. This is a big change in direction for me—the whole young-adult genre. It’s nice to be part of a movie that already has a fan base. It’s big over here too. There have been fans camping out on our sets. It adds some pressure as well.
MG: From the movies you’ve done, it does seem like you’re drawn to different kinds of extremes.
JI: I don’t chase that—extremes—but I don’t know. In a way, it’s quite fun having a challenge; that makes it real. People are quite quick to use words like “method” about actors. You’re really clutching at straws the whole time. In The Railway Man, I play tortured and starved. Nothing in my life relates to that. It can’t all come from memory. A lot of it comes from intuition and imagination. If anyone has figured out the right away to do it, I’d like to know. Each role is an experiment, really.
MG: And your next projects?
JI: I have two films that I am meant to do [one is Mary Shelley’s Monster, in which he would portray the poet Shelley], but sometimes you get cast in a movie, and you just hope they get financing. I did just finish filming This Beautiful Fantastic. It’s a lovely fairytale script like Amelie with Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, and Jessica Brown Findlay from Downton Abbey. Andrew is one of my favorite actors. He plays Moriarty in Sherlock, and I’m a fan of his from his theater work. He’s also in the new Bond film, Spectre.