Jeremy Irvine

by Katie Amey

Love Him! Love Him! Love Him! Love Him!
The key to understanding contemporary British identity is to combine the three irrefutable tenants of its culture: Charles Dickens, a love of the stage, and deep, deep spirituality. So, the spirituality first: Walpola Rahula was a Buddhist monk and scholar who hypothesized that the origin of dukkha—commonly translated as “suffering,” “anxiety,” or “stress,”—is desire founded by ignorance. Theorists believe that this desire is really a craving to be something, to be a being with a past and a future. Welcome Jeremy Irvine to the conversation. Now—in step with Mr. Dickens—the young thespian’s perseverance through dukkha intertwines his desire to be: Irvine explains to us that his affinity with young Pip, of Dickens’ fabled Great Expectations, whom he recently played, starts with ambition, something this 23-year-old actor has in spades. “I think [Pip’s] an incredibly damaged person,” Irvine says over breakfast at a café in North London. “These aren’t childish dreams. It’s real tunnel vision, a burning desire that eats him alive from the inside out. And I can certainly understand his ambition, even when it turns into obsession.”

Let’s lightly obsess over obsession for a moment. Though Irvine burst onto the Hollywood stage with a vengeance following the release of 2011’s War Horse, success didn’t come easy for this down-to-earth country boy. He attended drama school at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art for one year before leaving to pursue acting on his own terms. Instead, he found himself on the post-graduate path most of America has experienced as of late: unemployment and an all-too-permanent state of residence in his childhood home. “You develop a real ‘fuck you’ attitude, hearing ‘no’ four times a week,” he says of his early, ill-fated auditions. “But you have to get to that place to work hard enough.”

During his dark period, Irvine toyed with  a variety of alternate vocational paths, everything from joining the military to building websites to becoming
a welder. “It was a tough few years,” he recalls. “I hit bottom.” He pauses for a few moments, remembering with a certain quiet sadness before thoughtfully adding, “My friends had gone off to university and were coming out with great jobs. I was literally doing nothing and it was hard to keep busy. I thought I might’ve made
a horrible mistake.”

Irvine sent out a series of “professional” demo reels to agents around London, which he’d actually recorded with a friend in his back garden. “I don’t think anyone believed me, but one [agent] humored me anyway and took me on. I went off for War Horse a few weeks later.”

Though he’s found success, Irvine’s perseverance through dukkha continues—but now that he’s mastered a certain state of being. The struggle is keeping his desire burning, notably to avoid becoming a certain type of actor. “After
I made War Horse, I was terrified that what had happened was just some lucky break,” he admits. “There was opportunity to do silly, big budget movies and I said no. I wanted to go away and prove to myself that it was more than a fluke. So, I waited and then I did a movie with Dakota Fanning called Now Is Good. It’s probably one of the movies that I’m most proud of.”

It’s through these roles that Irvine has received a greater education than he could’ve imagined. “I learned everything about acting for the camera from Spielberg. [On any film] you just have to be
a sponge…but to be honest, the learning curve hasn’t gotten any shallower,” he adds, in true self-effacing fashion. “All the people I really admire, they put an extraordinary amount of work into their projects beforehand. On the first day of rehearsals for Great Expectations, Helena Bonham Carter showed up with pages and pages of written ideas and notes. I realized that these people are good at their jobs because they put the work in, and I just find that inspiring.”

Admittedly, Irvine is still struggling to accept his mesmerizing—sometimes unnerving—brand of talent. He’s unfailingly polite, with a charming ‘aw shucks’ demeanor, and entirely self-deprecating. His graciousness is in part entirely what one would expect after watching him on screen. But where Pip loses his way, his sweet nature, and his nobility upon achieving his desired gentlemanly status, Irvine has managed to keep grounded despite his critically acclaimed roles. “I still feel like an eight-year-old boy when I step onto a movie [set],” he says. Perhaps it’s that kid-in-a-candy-store jubilation that informs his willingness to do anything for his craft. “[Filming The Railway Man], I became incredibly emotionally attached.
I lost well over 30 pounds for the role.” He brings out his iPhone to show a photo of the dramatic transformation. “We filmed a torture sequence with waterboarding and, although it was a difficult decision, I did it for real. It would’ve been insulting if [the scene] wasn’t genuine.”

He continually makes mention of some of the iconic co-stars he’s worked with and the enviable way they’ve managed to carve out distinct public and private lives for themselves. “I’ve not done any of these, but I’ve read contracts for movies where they want you to have Twitter to do it. I don’t have Twitter. A lot of my friends who are quite famous do and it works incredibly well. But it’s just not me. I think once you start [with social media], it’s difficult to stop. And all the actors I admire don’t do it. It’s a lesson that I’ve learned from people like Colin [Firth],” he says, refilling his cup of tea. “There’s so much mystery around them. If you want people to believe you as a character when they watch you on screen, knowing too much about your personal life will destroy that illusion.”

This preoccupation with illusion also spills over into the anxiety he feels interacting with the fairer sex, only in this instance, it’s the potential object of his affection that often has her own expectations of what Irvine should be. “I always think, as well, if you meet someone and they know you from whatever or they’ve seen photos of you in the magazines, when they meet you, it’s like, ‘Hi, I’m Jeremy,’ and there’s this slight disappointment. I mean, it’s not often that people are coming on to me,” he backtracks, blushing over his breakfast of poached eggs and toast, which he has drowned in ketchup. He looks down and plays with his food a bit before continuing. “I’m never going to be the guy in the nice, fancy photographs that get printed. I’m really just someone who smothers all their food in ketchup and has pretty poor social skills.”

As if on cue, he begins to apologize profusely for a sidelong glance at his phone. “I’ve got to get to work,” he explains, while insisting on picking up the check. Almost immediately, any evidence of the stress or anxiety he’s painstakingly recalled over the past hour dissipates.

Jeremy Irvine has undoubtedly reached a place where dukkha all but does not exist, a way of being that is often equated with finding a state of nirvana. He’s eager and, more than that, he’s happy to head off to work. After all, it’s on set that Irvine has found his own personal profound peace of mind: a place where desire and anxiety have been extinguished and where enlightenment can be achieved.


Photographer: Tetsu Kubota for Stylist: Christian Stroble for Hair: Michael Silva for Makeup: Aya Komatsu for Styling Assistant: Victoria Cameron.

Grooming Notes: Yokan Craft Texturizing Melt By Shu Uemura Art Of Hair.