Steven Spielberg’s latest, War Horse, sees the veteran filmmaker returning to his classic heartfelt best. A tale of friendship, adventure and bravery, War Horse (based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo) is the story of Joey – a young colt from Devon who is sold into the armed forces in World War I and chronicles his incredible journey through Nazi occupied France. Jeremy Irvine – who just 18 months ago was playing a tree in the chorus of a stage production, without any lines – was plucked from obscurity by Spielberg to front the film as Joey’s first owner and trainer, Albert, who also joins the war and longs to be reunited with his horse. We talk to the 21 year old actor about his experience making this film and find out how it feels to front a Spielberg movie as a first project.

War Horse was given a Royal premier in London earlier this week – what was it like having Prince William and Princess Kate in the audience?

First of all – what an honour. I had a lovely chat with William and Kate and we all got to go back to the palace for drinks afterwards and at one point I found myself having a glass of wine with Prince William and going ‘this is so, so strange!’ They’re lovely people and what an honour that they came to a cinema to see my fat face on the screen. But we also had almost 400 service men and women turn up which really got me. I was speechless. Really speechless.

Was Joey at the premier as well?

One of the Joey’s. There were about 14 [to make the film], although I think for the good of the carpets in the cinema it was probably best that he didn’t come in to see the movie. I was amazed there wasn’t a horrific bodily accident from the horse at any point.

It is a well known fact of cinema that you should never work with animals – was Joey a difficult co-star?

I don’t think at any point were we ever not able to get something because of a horse misbehaving. These are the most highly trained animals in the world – they are acting horses. All the horses have bigger CV’s than me! One of them was Seabiscuit. I remember when I first started learning to ride with one, I’d get off and it would start doing stretches. I learnt very quickly that there has to be that mutual respect thing otherwise on camera when you’re in that close up and there is nowhere to hide, if that relationship isn’t real with that horse then it’s going to be very obvious to people who are watching so it was important to spend two months before we started filming to spend all day with them, building relationships and learning how to work with them.

Were there ever any mishaps on set where a horse did have a “bodily accident” in front of everyone and they had to shout “cut”?

Yes, of course. And they always pick the moment when you are in your most intense close up to do the biggest fart you have ever heard.

Would other co-stars, such as Emily Mortimer [Irvine’s on-screen mother], ever have that same reaction during an emotional scene?

[Laughs] No! Emily was great. I mean, she still likes to eat hay, but she was lovely.

The cast includes some terrific actors, Mortimer, David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, and to be directed by Speilberg in your first role – how does that all feel?

I never really know what to say to this. You know? It’s, like, being in a first movie and being in a Spielberg movie. I had nearly two years of not getting any work. I was auditioning and wasn’t even getting call backs for commercials, let alone for a movie.

Did you ever get close to giving up?

When you are at those really low points – and it’s quite a lonely business because you’re self employed and on your own a lot – unless you really, really want it then you are going to get to one of those points where you think of doing something else.

You quit LAMDA, right?

I did a year and then I didn’t get back into LAMDA after that, actually. But I made a decision early on that I wanted to get away from the crowd. I had a friend who was a camera man and so we went away and filmed a showreel and I went around agents myself and told them it was for professional work. I did that for eight months and nobody was interested and then eventually a lovely agent did take me on and the second audition that they put me up for was War Horse.

Are you still in touch with anyone from drama school?
Yeah, yeah, they’re all my very close friends.

Are they not seething that you landed a Spielberg film as a first job?
Of course not! They are all wonderfully talented and I’m sure they will do very well as well. But it’s one of those industries where a lot of it is about being in the right place at the right time. I owe all of this to that one lucky break. A lot of wonderful actors that I know haven’t had that lucky break and maybe never will. But it’s about being ready when that moment comes.

War Horse is in cinemas this Friday, the 13th January 2012.

Interview: Seamus Duff