Interview with Buried Child star Jeremy Irvine
Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play begins performance at the Trafalgar Studios later this month, fresh from a highly acclaimed run in New York. Described as a dark, macabre and painfully funny family drama the play stars the multi award winning international star Ed Harris as Dodge opposite Amy Madigan as Halie who are barely hanging on to their farmland and their sanity while looking after their two wayward grown sons.
Jeremy Irvine stars as Vince, the grandson of Dodge and Halie who returns to his family home following a period of discovery in the big city. In his West End debut, Irvine comes to the London stage with a string of hit film credits including 'Stonewall', 'A Night in Old Mexico', 'The World Made Straight', 'Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death' and his breakout 2011 film War Horse which was directed by Steven Spielberg.
We caught up with Irvine mid-rehearsals for Buried Child to hear more about the production and his experience working on this powerful contemporary classic play.
Dom O'Hanlon: Jeremy, thank you for finding time to talk to us. You've just landed in London after rehearsing with the company in New York – how has it all been going?
Jeremy Irvine: It's been great, I feel like it's every actor's dream job really. It doesn't get much better than doing Sam Shepard with actors such as Ed Harris and Amy Madigan – it's been great.
DOH: Buried Child is such a fantastic yet challenging play - how familiar were you with Sam Shepard's work before you were cast?
JI: He's probably one of the most famous American playwrights, he's like our Harold Pinter in a way. Obviously he's somebody you study at drama school and obviously he's got a big movie career too. He was very much someone who was in my consciousness. The director was very clear that we were going to go with realism and play everything for real. It's very dark and slightly surreal script and so the only way to make that really emotionally hard hitting is to play everything for real. That was one of the first things that director Scott Elliott said on the first day of rehearsals – that's how we've been treating it with the most naturalism that you can. It's a highly emotional play, but it's also very fun. You'd describe it as a very dark comedy but you know it also has a strong emotional core. Finding that I think is the key to all these kind of plays, if you can make it hit emotionally with the audience then they're going to be invested then the jokes are funnier and the darkness is darker.
DOH: Buried Child marks your West End debut – is stage acting something you've always wanted to break into?
JI: Theatre was all I wanted to do when I discovered acting at about 17. Then I went to drama school and all you're really taught to do is how to act on stage, I don't think I quite got around to the camera part of the course. That was always drilled into me as being the dream. I was very lucky at the age of 20 that I had a very small role with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to me that was as big as it got. The last five years have been movies but my real love has always been in theatre. It's been great fun to have a rehearsal process. I think that's what a lot of people don't realise about the film industry is that there is zero rehearsal. You show up and what's on camera is the first time you've ever done that probably. It may also be the first time you meet that actress who is playing your girlfriend of ten years who you're having to break up with. In a lot of ways film can be a lot harder, but theatre from a creative point of view is much more fulfilling.
DOH: You're working with such a talented company – what have you learned from rehearsing alongside Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in particular?
JI: It's amazing. Sam Shepard has written a lot of this for Ed Harris so there is really no one better in the world to do it. It's like watching a masterclass in front of your eyes. It's been great, they put on what I think is going to be a very different version than what they did on Broadway – they have already done this before but when you get into rehearsal room with them you really wouldn't know. Every time we run a scene it's completely different – Ed is trying out all of this stuff and you never know what he's going to do next, it really keeps the life in it. It is like watching an acting masterclass on a day to day basis. He's good fun too, he's a lovely guy.
DOH: Has it been a difficult play to rehearse because of the content and the text?
JI: It is a comedy in a way as well, there are a lot of good gags in it, but I don't think any of us are playing to the jokes – that was one thing we're trying to stay away from. Sam's writing is so good that the jokes come out anyway. I'm more playing the darker side of it, I think the audience can laugh but we can't. It does have a very dark edge to it – every time we finish a run we end up feeling emotionally drained.
DOH: How much preparation did you do before rehearsals started?
JI: I'm far too anxiety ridden to not prepare. My way of keeping up at least a modicum of calm is by rehearsing and doing as much preparation as I can before hand. I actually had the whole script down on the first day but then the director said we're doing a complete overhaul of the script, we're combining two versions. I'm horrendously dyslexic so that was a couple of stressful nights for me.
DOH: In terms of your method, are you the type of actor who throws themselves into background research about the character, context and situation or do you let the text speak for itself?
JI: I've had a bit of good luck because I've done quite a few movies now in middle and southern America, so I've actually spent quite a bit of time in the sort of places where this play is set. A lot of American films are shot in those states, so I've been around it a lot over the past few years. You go through the usual things, who does this character want to be, do I know anyone a bit like that, that kind of stuff. You do as much as you can but you've also got to be very willing to throw that out of the window as soon as you get in the rehearsal room, you can't just show up with your rigid ideas, you've got to see what the director wants and what the other actors are doing. It's got to be a very fluid thing. Even know it's still changing all of the time.
DOH: Buried Child looks at America in a very specific context, a time of recession and great political unrest. Have you discussed the obvious contemporary parallels as a company, and do you think it adds anything to the drama?
JI: I don't think it's ever been voiced in the rehearsal room. I don't think it's something that we've consciously looked at the political climate and tried to be clever to match that, but you're right, it is very relevant. It's kind of a similar political environment to the one that was around when Shepard was writing this play. By chance it is very relevant. It was odd being out there until the very final moments in the election, rehearsing in New York. Scary times...
DOH: That said, do you think the play will resonante with a London audience in 2016?
JI: Absolutely – it's a play about family more than anything else. The main thing this play is about is a dysfunctional family, and addiction. We're all dealing with alcoholism and addiction in our own way – it's a fucked up dysfunctional family which I think anybody can relate to. There are bits that I think anyone can relate to, no matter what their background. As Brits, we like a darker comedy, we're not so into the obvious humour and I think that'll really play into the British audience. It's a very smart intelligent play, it doesn't patronise and audience at all and I think British audiences will really appreciate that.
DOH: What have you particularly enjoyed discovering about your character Vince?
JI: Vince is someone who got out of where he grew up, moved to the big city, tried to follow his dreams and it didn't work out for him. He's failed, and he's chasing what he wanted to do. He's now returned and realises he can't get away from his family. I think anyone who has gone into acting has had that fear that they've maybe made a terrible mistake. There's a lot that any actor can relate to.
DOH: Of course your own acting career has been quite a story in itself. What advice could you offer other actors in a similar position in terms of breaking through?
JI: I would feel arrogant giving tips to other actors. The way I got my first film War Horse was by going out and filming my own stuff and making a show reel. I do all of my auditions on my iPhone – these days everyone has the equipment to film and edit their own work, it's free to download from the internet and there's no excuse any more really to not be making your own work if you're not getting it. It's something that certainly worked well for me!
Buried Child runs at Trafalgar Studios from 14 November to 18 February 2017.