12/28/2011 09:54 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2011

Jeremy Irvine Of 'War Horse' On Spielberg, Stardom & All The Joeys

You could understand if Jeremy Irvine was feeling nervous, on edge, prickly: he's in a foreign country, bearing the burden of being the star of one of the most hyped movies of the year. A 20-year-old English kid, suddenly at the center of a passion project of one of the last half-century's greatest directors, a film that is being tipped for (and would soon be nominated for) a Golden Globe for Best Picture before it even hits theaters. But just hours before Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" premieres in New York, Irvine is all smiles, even as he's recovering from rounds of interviews and is crammed in the back of an elevator.

It's that type of indomitable optimism that must have attracted Spielberg to Irvine, that sort of pluck that made him willing to thrust him into the lead role of an English farm boy who loses his beloved horse to the British calvary in World War I but holds on to hope that he'll see him again. As we spoke a few days after our initial meeting in the elevator, Irvine is still elated from the whole process.

Everyone asks, 'Who is that guy? Who is that guy in this movie?' and then the answer is 'Well, he played a tree in a Royal Shakespeare Company production.'
I don't quite get it yet. It's still not real to me. It just feels like I'm walking around in a very surreal dream world right now. It's a long way from where I was only a year and a half ago, it's a long long away. I'm from a small village in Bedfordshire, England, and right now I'm in Los Angeles -- it feels like a long way from home.

Your character also makes quite the transition in this movie, from a young idealistic kid to someone who has seen war. Was it difficult to play an idealized, go get 'em young guy?
I made a very strong decision that I wanted to have this innocence with Albert that I don't think you really find anymore. Unlike 15-year-olds today, he hasn't been exposed to TV and the internet and mobile phones and he's only really got one friend, he probably has never left the village of Devon because he's from such an isolated area and he's in a time before cars. And when we meet him, he's 15, he's still a child really, and when we come back he's 20, and even though we don't see much of it, he's lost that innocence. When you see him at home, he sort of begins to question his father and his drinking problem and again, that comes from his naivete -- he doesn't know why his father drinks. And he goes off to war and looks into that same abyss that his father must have looked into and comes back and is wiser and understands and now he gets it.

Was it difficult not rehearsing, as per Spielberg's custom, or was it helpful?
It was a more difficult way of working than I was used to, especially in theater shows, you're used to coming to rehearsal before you actually get on stage, but it's a different way of working. What I learned very quickly is that you have to be very present and very in the moment and most of it is just reacting. What you see on film might be the first time that ever happened, and I don't know what the other actor's going to do because we didn't really talk things through or anything. You just have to be very present in the moment, and if you're not very present in the moment, you fall down very quickly. You have to be very on the ball and in a way it raises your game somewhat because there's no time for mistakes, there's not that rehearsal time where you can make those mistakes, you have to turn up that day and it has to be good because you know full well that whatever you shoot that day will probably be in the movie, and the DVD for years to come.

You must have worked with a bunch of different horses, given the different times you interacted in the film. Were there any tricks, or any horse that it was particularly to develop a relationship with?
It's great because all the horses are like the F1 race cars of the horse world. They're the most highly trained horses in the world, some of them, and hugely more experienced in the film industry than me. One of the Joeys was Seabiscuit, more credits than I have. Some of the younger horses are always much more playful and that can be great. I remember one scene, when Peter Mullen brings the horse home for the first time, and this was going to be a really serious scene, and the stakes are so high, we're about to lose our farm, we're about to lose our livelihoods, we're on the breadlines, and Peter Mullen brings this horse into what is meant to be this big high-stakes scene. And all this horse is interested in doing is nuzzling the back of Peter's coat, and if you watch it now, it's one of the funniest scenes in the film. And that's kind of great, that's the spontaneity you can tap into -- the horse doesn't care, and it's not going to be fake.

Did you talk to the people who played your character in the stage show?
The actor who plays David Lyons [in the film], Robert Emms, did play my character in the stage show. I think we spoke about one scene, but you've got to think about where the decisions from your character are coming from. They have to come from you, they have to come from a natural place and they have to come from a real place, emotionally. And that's not going to happen if you're copying someone. That's the difference between acting and imitating. I was very careful not to imitate. I saw the play before my first audition and then did not see it again.

Now you've got a whole host of roles coming, like 'Great Expectations' with Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter. How was that?
I'm just finishing filming that at the moment, we've got another two weeks left. It's the first time that I've been on camera where I am beginning to feel like I know what I'm doing. You know when you're younger and you're trying to put together your dream football team or something, it's kind of like that but with the cast. You work with people like that who are that talented and that established and it really does raise your game, you work better. And it's going great, there's a real sort of buzz on set that you're doing real solid work and I think it's going to be very different from previous adaptations. [Writer/Director] David Nichols has not written your typical Dickens set, this is more of a thriller, it's more one big event after another.

"War Horse" opened on Christmas Day, with a box office two day take of $15 million -- a major success. Irvine will next be seen in "Now Is Good" with Dakota Fanning.