In a rather plush hotel room, surrounded by a mob of journalists, Jeremy Irvine (who plays Pip in the new Hollywood version of the Charles Dickens novel) holds court, playing down his newfound success in response to a question about being able to pick and choose scripts. We got to sit down with the British rising star to discuss his new movie, Great Expectations which is our in UK cinemas now.
If you’ve missed the rest of our coverage, check it out here but before you do, scroll down and read the interview with the main man himself below.
“I had the opportunity to go and do a movie that was a very big movie and very commercial but I’d read a script called Now is Good while I was filming and I knew that wouldn’t be for another six months and then I knew that I had the opportunity to do Great Expectations with that. It meant that I had to turn down everything for six months after filming War Horse – I didn’t work for six months – because I wanted to do those two movies.
“The temptation was huge to go and take all these things but I think I decided early that I didn’t want to be famous and so I didn’t feel under pressure to go and do these big blockbuster movies which agents call “getting foreign value” if I do these films and I didn’t feel the pressure to do that so I thought that I could go and do films just because I liked the script. Now is Good is a film that did just because I liked the script and with Great Expectations I read the script – and I didn’t know any of the other actors were going to be involved – all I knew was I read the script, I thought it was fantastic and I heard Mike Newell was going to direct it. I knew him from directing Donnie Brasco, directing Al Pacino and Johnny Depp in that and that’s the reason I took it and waited a long time to do it. In the position that I was in there was a lot of pressure to not do that and to give in and do the things that might not necessarily be the best script.”
As he continues, Irvine delves into the subtext of the Dickens story, which was the real appeal of the role,
“There are two ways of reading Dickens. You can read Dickens in a way that you there’s these slightly farcical characters with funny names, there’s a woman called Mrs. Joe who’s beating a child with a stick called Tickler. Or you can read it for real which is what [screenwriter] David Nicholls did which with Great Expectations makes so much more sense.
“If you look at it, “ok it’s not actually funny this is a child who’s been the victim of the most awful domestic violence.” He is constantly beaten, if it happened nowadays it would make you shudder. This is someone who’s been abused in every area of his life. He’s been put down, put down, put down. In his head he comes up with this fantasy that if he becomes a gentleman that’s his way out of this life. So this isn’t some kind of childish, whimsical idea this is an obsession, this is a dark burning obsession.
“I’d seen a few adaptations before and I’d seen these very wide eyed innocent Pip’s. I’ve seen some really good adaptations but the trap with these characters is that you become the passive character who things happen to. You’re playing the leading role so things are happening to you and the trap is to not play the character who goes out to get something. If you play Pip as this person who has been abused, he’s become hardened, he’s become rough, he’s become someone who is completely obsessed with becoming a gentleman so that when Jaggers comes to him and says that he has Great Expectations, bam! that’s it, he gets tunnel vision and suddenly nothing else matters and if it means abusing the one person that’s ever been nice to him then fine! And if it means not marrying the girl he should marry then fine! If it means being absolutely cruel and heartless to the one or two people who are nice to him in the script, if it means abusing them then that’s what it takes and everything kind of slots into place and you’ve got someone who’s ruthless, callus in climbing the social ladder and that explains why he’s so awful to people. Because he’s not a bad person.
“The image was very important at the beginning, I’d seen a lot of very nice, wide-eyed innocent boys and I thought, “well actually hang on, what if you’re looking at him as someone who is rough from this life he’s grown up in. He’s a blacksmith and one of the first things I did when I got the role was go and do a load of blacksmithing and my poor dainty actors hands got destroyed and it’s a tough, hard job so his image at the beginning we made sure he was quite well built – he’s got long scraggly black hair, rough and dirty, beard and unkempt – kind of a Neanderthal was the look we’re kind of going for. So he always keeps a bit of that. He’s quite violent, this real ambition that he has to go out and just take what he wants. The villain Bentley Drummle… Pip is always having to hold back to keep this facade of being a gentleman. The way that we played it was if it came to it, Pip would beat the crap out of this guy.”
With this version of great Expectations out barely a year after a successful TV adaptation, it was inevitable the question of revisiting a role performed so many times before would come up. For Irvine, who had wrapped long before it screened, the real point of comparison was the 1946 David Lean version,
“The last period movie was made in 1946 and that was the David Lean version. There hasn’t been a period version since then. There’ve been a lot of TV versions but as anyone who watches TV and Film will tell they’re incredibly different worlds and the way they’re made is very different. So I felt like there was a lot of scope to bring into the new era.
“The David Lean version is very of the period, it’s a wonderful adaption but you have actors who are very with-held and they’re speaking to each other very, very properly and it’s all very contained. What we wanted to do was basically make a modern movie in period clothes so you’ve got a character who is so ferociously in love with someone, whether it’s reciprocated or not, and if he wants to scream at her then he screams at her.”
This modern style freed Irvine up a great deal, allowing him to really get to grips with Pip, and very nearly Estella as well,
“There were a couple of moments when we had that. I always thought that if it went far enough then yeah he would grab her and he would shake her because that’s what he knows. There’s no need to hold back. You’ve only got to see one bad period movie to go, “on period movies are boring,” and really this is a modern movie in period costume. We did not approach it any differently apart from getting dressed up in silly clothes in the morning. Even the costumes are stylised, we didn’t wear what they wore back then, we wore very stylised versions of it, more sexy, cooler kind of clothes.”
With his brother playing the younger version of Pip, and requiring a chaperone on set, Irvine found himself in the unusual, and not entirely comfortable, position of having several family members on set,
“I didn’t let them watch me shoot anything. You can feel quite silly sometimes, especially when half the time in War Horse I was talking to tennis ball on the end of a broom! There’s an atmosphere on set and it’s kind of an unspoken thing, you have to feel very comfortable because what you’re doing effectively is being an 8 year old and playing make believe and dressing up. So it’s a very odd, weird thing to be doing. It was lovely having them around but I didn’t want my family watching me do it because you get self-conscious. It’s bad enough your Mum accidently walks in on you in the shower let alone seeing you try to get the tears up and do an emotional scene.”
But while he won’t let his family watch him work, his success has allowed them to join him in a few rather unusual places,
“My Mum loves it; I get invited to a lot of these silly, star-studded things. When I went to the premiere of War Horse I got invited by the Duke and Duchess to go back to the palace for drinks – mental! I thought, “oh fuck there’s no way that I’m going to appreciate this.” So I just grabbed my Grandmother and bundled her into a car and off we went! That in a way is so much cooler that I can say I took my Grandma to Buckingham Palace for drinks with the future King and Queen of England.”