Jeremy Irvine

British actor Jeremy Irvine will be the first to admit that the coltish trajectory of his career since graduating from The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art two years ago hasn’t, well, sucked. There was an ignominious stint in the chorus of a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Dunsinane. “My friends all took the mick out of me for that one, saying, ‘You’re gonna be the tree,’” the 21-year-old Irvine says. “Indeed, in my first scene, I was waving two branches.” “But now,” he adds, “I appreciate having lines so much.”

Irvine had to learn to contend with dialogue—and more—when he landed the lead in Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming World War I epic War Horse, an adaptation of the West End smash that scooped up the Tony for Best Play after premiering at Lincoln Center this past spring. In the film, Irvine stars as Albert, an equine-enamored Devon farm boy who voluntarily enlists after his horse Joey is conscripted, amidst an impressive cast of British talent, both established (David Thewlis, Emily Watson) and up-and-coming (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston). Though Irvine hails from the rural Cambridgeshire hamlet of Gamlingay, he was never much of an animal person growing up and had never ridden a horse before he auditioned for the movie. Soon, though, he found himself horse-besotted. Well, almost: In one scene, while the camera was trained on Irvine’s face as he whispered into Joey’s ear, the not-so-gentle beast stomped on his foot. “I’ve got to do this scene without letting anyone know that I’ve got a bloody horse standing on my foot,” Irvine recalls thinking. Soon after, Spielberg asked him over for tea. With War Horse due out in December, Irvine is now preparing to contend with Great Expectations: this fall, he is set to star as iconic young hero Pip, alongside Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes, in Mike Newell’s new adaptation of the Dickens classic.