Despite what its trailer might suggest, there’s a lot more to War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s latest epic undertaking, than just a horse. The horse is a vessel, in fact, for some very human stories: as he makes his unlikely way through a variety of different spaces (both geographical and emotional) during World War I, the film’s true subjects become all the different people who care for him, united by both the horse and their experiences of war.
One of the film’s sweetest vignettes centers on a French girl, Emilie, who lives with her grandfather and finds the horse tied up in her barn after a couple of German boys try unsuccessfully to defect from the army and leave the horse when they’re captured. She’s only with the horse a short time, but it’s long enough to fall in love. Emilie is played—in a beautiful countryside setting—by Celine Buckens, an impossibly poised 15-year-old British actress we were lucky enough to catch on her recent trip to New York.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: How are you enjoying your stay in New York? Are you having fun?
CELINE BUCKENS: Yeah, we love it, it’s great. We visited a few museums . . . the Guggenheim, and MoMA—there’s a wonderful de Kooning exhibition. We walked around, and visited Central Park.
SYMONDS: Is it your first time here?
BUCKENS: Yeah, yeah, my first time in America.
SYMONDS: That’s so exciting. And how long are you here?
BUCKENS: We’re leaving tomorrow. Short stay.
SYMONDS: Well, I’m sure you’ll be back.
BUCKENS: I’m sure I will. [laughs]
SYMONDS: What was your acting experience like before being booked in War Horse? Had you done mostly theater work?
BUCKENS: Yeah, I hadn’t done any films at all, it was my first film. And all the theater work I had done was in school, so nothing professional. It was a leap for me.
SYMONDS: I’m sure! It’s kind of the biggest leap you could make, from school theater to Spielberg.
BUCKENS: It was definitely a challenge, but I loved every minute of it. I couldn’t have hoped for better, really.
SYMONDS: About how long did it take, your filming?
BUCKENS: My chunk took about two or three weeks.
SYMONDS: Wow, it must have gone by so fast.
BUCKENS: Yeah, it went past quicker than I could say. [laughs]
SYMONDS: Had you been a big fan of any specific Spielberg films prior to starting?
BUCKENS: Yeah, yeah. Well, everyone knows Steven Spielberg. [laughs] All the Indiana Jones I had seen, I had seen Schindler’s List. He’s done so many!
SYMONDS: And what was it like to be directed by him? Was there anything specific you remember?
BUCKENS: No, I just—he was so helpful. He was very understanding. Since it was my first time, obviously there were challenges. So he helped me. Whenever I had a question, because I often did, because it was all so new to me, he would help me. I wasn’t afraid to ask, because he was approachable.
SYMONDS: I heard that you learned a French accent for this role. How did you go about it?
BUCKENS: Well I had coaching from Sandra Frieze, who’s a dialect coach. I had a base, because all my cousins and everyone [speak French].
SYMONDS: You have a French name.
BUCKENS: My parents are both Belgian-born, and so am, I actually. I’m bilingual, so I had experience with French. So it was easier than some would imagine, because I did have that background. I was helped by Sandra Frieze.
SYMONDS: How did you get into the character when you were preparing to shoot for a day? It must have been something of a transition.
BUCKENS: I think it was, because the set is absolutely amazing. None of it is green screen; all of it is real. It’s a beautiful, very real set around you, and you’re wearing a costume which is so beautiful and very period. All these little details really help you get into the time and period. I knew the story of War Horse very well, I had read the book even before I did the auditions. I’m a big fan of Michael Morpurgo. I knew the character of Emilie quite well.
SYMONDS: So you had an idea of who she should be?
BUCKENS: I had an idea. And I quite liked her. The absence of her mother and father, firstly, it strengthens her relationship with her grandfather. Niels Arestrup, who plays my grandfather, he is amazing. I really worked well with him, so we had a wonderful relationship established. I think she is naïve about some things, but she’s wise in different ways. I’m not sure if that’s conveyed. I think she’s a clever girl.
SYMONDS: She has a simple life, right—the things she does from day to day.
BUCKENS: Yeah, she makes jam.
SYMONDS: But then she has these complicated concerns going on in her life. Did you know a lot about World War I before you started the movie?
BUCKENS: I did. I actually love history. I’ve devoured book after book of stories from World War I and World War II. They’re really two sections of world history that really interest me. I knew very extensively a lot about World War I.
SYMONDS: If you were to do another period piece, do you have a dream era you’d like to portray?
BUCKENS: I wish I lived in the ’60s, because I’m a big fan of the Beatles.
SYMONDS: There are a lot of movies about the ’60s right now.
BUCKENS: I love them. I love the fashion, I love the music.SYMONDS: Did you have much experience with horses? Did you have animals growing up?
BUCKENS: We learned to ride. And we did grow very close to the horses, because we spent a lot of time with them. We went to riding lessons two to three times a week for a very long time. I did personally know all the horses that I rode, because I’d learned to ride with them and I’d done a lot of work with them. All the trainers, the horses—we grew very close to them. All of the actors that worked with the horses did. But I didn’t really have experience before that.
SYMONDS: What about since? Have you kept up at all?
BUCKENS: Well, we actually went riding in October. We were invited by friends to Egypt, and that was fabulous. We went galloping in the Sahara.
SYMONDS: I guess it’s good you learned to ride, then!
BUCKENS: Right! Since I’m at boarding school I don’t have that many opportunities to ride. But as soon as I can, I get onto a horse.
SYMONDS: What’s next for you? Obviously you’re in school, but are you going to try and balance that with more acting?
BUCKENS: Of course. I loved the whole experience, and it’s made me hungry for more. We’re waiting to hear back on a few things, as well.
SYMONDS: Nothing that you can tell me about?
BUCKENS: Unfortunately not!
SYMONDS: Are you thinking about history, or academia, as well?
BUCKENS: I would like to study history at university eventually. It’s a dream.
SYMONDS: Is that something you would put on hold for acting?
BUCKENS: I’m not sure at this point. I’ll take it as it comes.
SYMONDS: You have two and half more years before school starts, right? That’s a lot of time. Anything could happen.
BUCKENS: Yeah. I might decide history isn’t what I want to do and go in a completely different direction.
SYMONDS: I also heard that you’re very interested in fashion. You have a great style.
BUCKENS: Well, I love clothes. I love going to little boutiques. We used to living in Notting Hill, in London, where there’s lots of little boutiques of less known brands and unique little pieces. And I love doing that. I love mixing and matching. I’ve also got favorite designers. I really like the French style because it’s very close to my roots. I really love Comptoir des Cotonniers, and Maje.
SYMONDS: Have you thought about incorporating fashion more into your career? Would you want to be the face of a company?
BUCKENS: Yeah! We haven’t had that yet, but if it comes.
SYMONDS: Are there any brands you would particularly love to represent?
BUCKENS: I love Irwin and Jordan. I’m not sure if you know them. They’re an English brand. We tried on some of their clothes for events for War Horse events. I love everything they have. It’s gorgeous. At the premiere, I was wearing an Irwin and Jordan jacket. I’m not sure if there were any pictures of it. The dress was Luisa Beccaria. I love her. I love BCBG, I love Alice and Olivia. I’m quite open—I’m not very specific.
WAR HORSE IS OUT IN THEATERS DECEMBER 25.