Ed Speleers: “An actor gets to delve into a world’s view he doesn’t really expect to find himself in”

British actor Ed Speleers (b. 1988) played the title role in the 2006 dragon epic and blockbuster “Eragon” which was made when he was barely seventeen, after his high school drama teacher had urged him to audition. “It was the start of a rollercoaster,” Mr. Speleers said, “I was taken out of school and flew off to Eastern Europe where I worked for about six months on a hundred dollar movie.” The film eventually grossed $ 75 million in the U.S. and $ 250 million worldwide.

“Yet you don’t know the world at that age, as you have a very jarring perception of the world,” he continued. Only after his next feature five years later, the crime thriller “A Lonely Place to Die” (2011), set in Schottish Highlands, with Mr. Speleers playing one of the mountaineers who discover a kidnapped girl, he became more confident about his acting and really enjoyed what he was doing. He then joined the cast of the highly praised award-winning TV series “Downton Abbey” (from 2012-2014, as Jimmy Kent), and became a leading actor in various films and TV shows, and he appeared on the stage. His subsequent films include “Plastic” (2014), “Howl” (2015), “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (2016), and “The House That Jack Built” (2018). Lately he has been appearing in the TV series “Outlander” (credited as Edward Speleers), playing the character of Stephen Bonnet.

British actor Ed Speleers during his visit to Brussels as a guest at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival in 2019. Photograph: © Leo/Film Talk

Last year, Mr. Speleers was a guest at Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival to attend a screening of his latest feature “Zoo” (2018, a.k.a. “Death Do Us Part”), a zombie horror genre film, where I had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about his work as an actor.

Mr. Speleers, when I first saw “Eragon,” I thought, ‘What are the odds that a young man of seventeen gets to play a leading role in a blockbuster, opposite Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich.’ How do you look back now to your first film?

It wasn’t something I could never have expected. Even now, looking back, the whole moment was a whirlwind. It was pretty much two years of my life, I was a young kid, I was still at school minding my own business—passionate about acting and drama—but I had no experience in front of the camera. And then within two weeks after a couple of auditions, I was suddenly off to Eastern Europe, thrusted in this world of a hundred dollar movie, horseriding every day, working with Jeremy Irons, an Oscar-winning actor. It was strange, because the whole thing was so surreal, it daunted to me quite recently in life that it went with such a pace, it was such a juggernaut, and I never really had the time to take stock of what it all meant. I never expected to be in that position. Looking back—and you should never look back with too much regret—I think I could have done things differently, knowing what I know now. But we say that in life anyway. The choices I could have made as an actor… I didn’t know anything about being in front of the camera, it was a very exposing position, and an incredible position. Without going through that, I couldn’t have continued to be working in the film industry, and I wouldn’t have gone on my journey which is a fun path. But I do believe—or I wish—I had a little bit more diligence in my approach. I was a young kid then, and it was tough at times.

[The trailer of “Eragon”]

But the chemistry between you and the camera was obvious, it was there from the very start. The camera picked things up right away.

I appreciate the compliment very much, but, I don’t now, I don’t see that. For me, when I’m watching other actors that I admire, also in films that go back to the 1950s right through to today, I have always been fascinated by that. I mean, what is it that an actor is doing to turn on that magic between the camera and his performance? It’s always good to try and strive to make things seem as real as you possibly can with minimal effort. If you look at Judi Dench, I think she’s probably one of the best in the world at that. There’s a huge amount of technique that goes into her work, but you don’t see it. You only see this natural, wonderful performance. I think that’s what we all strive for as an actor. I don’t know if I have that, I have no idea. But it’s interesting for me to see “Eragon”: I know there are things I did that are okay, but it was so big and on such a huge scale, there was no room for maneuvering. I think that a lot of young actors, coming out of the U.K., might go to drama school and do their first couple of TV jobs, like an episode on “Casualty” or “Eastenders” or one of these TV kind soap of things, do a couple of episodes of something else, then they might get the chance to do an independent film, and then comes the incremental step up the ladder. For me everything was so big right from the beginning, it was very overwhelming. But I look at it in a funny way, after all it was a golden opportunity and I wish we could have done more. But I’m hugely grateful for the chance I was given back then. Moving forward, I hope I learned from that experience. And back to your question, I appreciate the compliment, but I think there’s work to be done when I look at that film or anything else that I have done [laughs].

Elliott Gould once said to me, ‘All actors are insecure.’ Do you recognize that, does that sound familiar to you?

The thing about acting, which is different to other forms of art, everything is just you. You can’t hide behind the music or anything else, because everything from an acting point of view is your physical being, your emotional being. So an actor has to find a way to manage his insecurity, and that’s something I’m working on. One day, I might wake up full of confidence, I can take on the whole world, turn up on the set to do my best job and nothing can stop me, while the next day, I feel like I’m incapable. You almost have to remove yourself from the acting world in order to work on the insecurity. Interestingly, I thought that the insecurities would get less as I worked more: the more experience I gained, the more confidence I would have. Or—and I don’t know how you measure success—the more succes you’d have, the insecurities would simply melt away. But I don’t think so, because then the pressure starts building, there are expectations of what you can do or can’t do. So the battle in some respects becomes harder [laughs].

There’s this story of Rex Harrison who once was preparing for a scene, getting in character, and when Humphrey Bogart noticed it, he told him, ‘Just say the damn lines.’

There’s a similar story to that of Laurence Olivier when he did “Marathon Man” [1976]. Dustin Hoffman was running around the lot near his trailer and Larry Olivier saw him and said, ‘What are you doing, dear boy?’ [Laughs]. And Dustin Hoffman said, ‘I’m in character, my character has to run, so that’s what I’m doing.’ And Olivier said, ‘Just try acting, dear boy.’ [Laughs.] I admire method actors, but I don’t know if I have any methodology because I didn’t have the opportunity to go to drama school. I’m spending a lot of time training now, working with coaches. I’m also quite interested in [acting teacher] Sanford Meisner [1905-1997]. Your imagination is an incredible powerful tool, it’s something we have in abundance as children, and I think as actors it’s a big muscle you have to train. If you have an open mind whenever you’re looking at a script, you can try to find how you can correspond or how you can relate to your character, find and use what is on the page to relate yourself. So I think imagination is your biggest starting point. I like doing a lot of research, and borrow ideas here and there, or read how Robert de Niro approaches something and maybe I’ll use a bit of that. So for me personally, I don’t think there has to be any steadfast blueprint for how I approach work. It’s just about understanding how I can relate to this character, and I like to take my time with it as well. I’m at my least comfortable when I have to rush to get my character together. A character is an interesting idea in itself, it all comes from you, so you’ve got to put yourself into the role. You try to mold things to this person on the page, and I’m quite open to how I approach things. Of course, every job is different, you can be playing a certain kind of character, or you’re popping in to do a few scenes in a TV show where you’re not going to be in much, but you’re on the mark and you have to be able to adapt to your surroundings as well. Some directors will want you to work in a very specific way so you need to know what you do. But as long as you come in with a good baseline of how to approach your work, and you know what you do, then imagination is key to be as prepared as you possibly can. One of the great things about being an actor—altough it’s not really a proper job [laughs]—is that you get to delve into a world’s view you don’t really expect to find yourself in. You get to explore human beings, that’s what we do, in all walks of life, in all parts of culture. That’s a fascinating joy to have, you’re kind of a jack of al trades.

What about directors that you like to work with? Is there anything they can do to get the best performance out of you?

I think it’s very important as an actor to come with your own ideas. However there’s a reason the director is there [laughs], and I like being directed. I always liked it, even when I was a young kid playing a lot of sports, with the sports coaches who were coaching you, I always liked having that bit of structure. So when you make a film, you get all these different human beings with their own ideas and their own intellect, and basically it’s all about trust. And if you and your director have mutual respect for one another, then I think you’re halfway there. But I’m always very open, and I have been very lucky with the directors that I have worked with. They all have different ideas and different approaches. I like that very much.

You made “The House That Jack Built” [2018], dirtected by Lars von Trier? Can you tell something about working with him?

He’s a fascinating guy to work with. There was almost no rehearsal, there was this play-like nature to it. He is all about the actors. You also have the cinematographer who is operating the camera, but the set is there, and everything is one fluent movement, because the camera will follow you. There are no barriers, which for an actor on a film set is incredibly liberating. You don’t have to worry about having to look a certain way or having to stop at a certain point, or keeping your voice up because the microphone is over here or up there. He also had this sign all over the set that basically said, ‘I want it sloppy, make it sloppy, make mistakes.’ He wants to see you try things out to a point, and if they don’t work, then you come back and make it interesting in a different way. Nothing doesn’t work, there’s no right or wrong, and that allows you as an actor to explore and play. You’re not thinking about anything else other than your fellow actor. So he treats everybody the same. If anything, the actors are given the room to do what they want to do. I imagine it must be tough on the crew at times, but it felt like we were given the space to do what we needed to do. I only had one scene in that film, but he certainly didn’t make me feel any less of an actor or person than [leading actor] Matt Dillon.

Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, Brussels
April 12, 2019

FILMS

ERAGON (2006) DIR Stefen Fangmeier PROD John Davis, Wyck Godfrey SCR Peter Buchman (novel by Christopher Paolini) CAM Hugh Johnson ED Roger Barton, Chris Lebonzon, Masahiro Hirakubo MUS Patrick Doyle CAST Ed Speleers (Eragon), Jeremy Irons, Sienna Guilleroy, Robert Carlyle, Djimon Hounsou, Garrett Hedlund, Joss Stone, John Malkovich, Rachel Weisz (voice only)

A LONELY PLACE TO DIE (2011) DIR Julian Gilbey PROD Michael Loveday SCR – ED Julian Gilbey, Will Gilbey CAM Ali Asad MUS Michael Richard Plowman CAST Alec Newman, Ed Speleers (Ed), Melissa George, Kate Magowan, Garry Sweeney, Holly Boyd, Douglas Russell, Alan Steele

LOVE BITE (2012) DIR Andy De Emmony PROD Robert Bernstein, Paul Ritchie SCR Ronan Blaney, Cris Cole CAM Tat Radcliffe ED Dan Farrell, Matt Platts-Mills MUS Nick Green CAST Jessica Szohr, Ed Speleers (Jamie), Luke Pasqualino, Timothy Spall, Eloise Smyth, Rona Morison, Kierston Wareing

PLASTIC (2014) DIR Julian Gilbey PROD Chris Howard, Daniel Toland, Terry Stone, Frank Mannion, Lord Kirkham SCR Julian Gilbey, Will Gilbey, Chris Howard, Sacha Bennett CAM Peter Wignall ED Julian Gilbey, Will Gilbey MUS Chad Hobson CAST Ed Speleers (Sam), Will Poulter, Alfie Allen, Sebastien De Souza, Emma Rigby, Thomas Kretschmann, Graham McTavish

HOWL (2015) DIR Paul Hyett PROD Martin Gentles SCR Nick Ostler, Mark Huckerby CAM Adam Biddle ED Agnieszka Liggett MUS Paul Edward-Francis CAST Ed Speleers (Joe), Shauna Macdonald, Sean Pertwee, Elliot Cowan, Rosie Day, Calvin A. Dean, Sam Gittens

REMAINDER (2015) DIR Omer Fast PROD Natasha Dack, Malte Grunert SCR (adaptation by Omer Fast; novel by Tom K. McCarthy) CAM Lukas Strebel ED Andrew Bird MUS Dirk Dresselhaus CAST Ed Speleers (Greg), Tom Sturridge, Nicholas Farrell, Cush Jumbo, Sasha Frost, Arsher Ali, Adrian Schiller, Rocky Marshall

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016) DIR James Bobin PROD Tim Burton, Joe Roth SCR Linda Woolverton (characters created by Lewis Carroll) CAM Stuart Dryburgh ED Andrew Weisblum MUS Danny Elfman CAST Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Ed Speleers (James Harcourt), Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Barbara Windsor, Michael Sheen

BREATHE (2017) DIR Andy Serkis PROD Jonathan Cavendish SCR William Nicholson CAM Robert Richardson ED Masahiro Hirakubo MUS Nitin Sawhney CAST Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Ed Speleers (Colin Campbell), Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander, David Butler, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Camilla Rutherford

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018) DIR Lars von Trier PROD Louise Vesth SCR Lars von Trier (story by Lars von Trier, Jenle Hallund) CAM Manuel Alberto Claro ED Jacob Secher Schulsiner, Molly Malene Stensgaard MUS Victor Reyes CAST Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies, David Baillie, Ed Speleers (Police Officer Ed)

ZOO, a.k.a. DEATH DO US PART (2018) DIR – SCR Antonio Tublen PROD Alexander Brøndsted CAM Anna Patarakina MUS – ED Antonio Tublen CAST Zoë Tapper, Ed Speleers (John), Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Jan Bijvoet, Lukas Loughran, Klaus Hjuler, Danny Thykær, Robin Gott, Patrik Karlson

FOR LOVE OR MONEY, UK title THE REVENGER: AN UNROMANTIC COMEDY (2019) DIR – SCR Mark Murphy PROD Alan Latham, Eric Woollard-White CAM Joan Bordera ED Dragos Teglas MUS Simone Vallecorsa CAST Robert Kazinsky, Samantha Barks, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Edward Speleers (Johnny), Tony Way, Ivan Kaye, Anna Chancellor, David Hargreaves, Charley McDougall, Tanya Reynolds

TV MOVIE

WITCHVILLE (2010) DIR Pearry Reginald Teo PROD Mike Callaghan, Amy Krell, Brad Krevoy SCR Diane J. Wright, John Werner, Amy Krell CAM Ginnin Cheung ED Jayme Wing MUS Neal Acree CAST Luke Goss, Ed Speleers (Jason), Myanne Buring, Andrew Pleavin, Simon Thorp, Sarah Douglas, MyAnna Buring, Ian Virgo, Gillian Tan

TV MINI-SERIES

PARTNERS IN CRIME (2015) DIR Edward Hall PROD Georgina Lowe SCR Claire Wilson, Zinnie Harris (novel by Agatha Cristie) CAM David Higgs ED Jamie Pearson MUS Tim Phillips CAST David Williams, Jessica Raine, James Fleet, Matthew Steer, Paul Brennan, Johnny Phillips, Clarke Peters, Ed Speleers (Carl Denim)

WOLF HALL (2015) DIR Peter Kosminsky PROD Mark Pybus SCR Peter Straughan, Hilary Mantel CAM Gavin Finney ED Josh Cunliffe, David Blackmore MUS Debbie Wiseman CAST Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis, Claire Foy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Joss Porter, Bernard Hill, Hannah Steele, Jessica Raine, Richard Dillane, Saskia Reeves, Ed Speleers (Edward Seymour), Jonathan Pryce, Joanne Whalley