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Casting the Two Main 1917 Soldiers in Sam Mendes’ World War I Epic

Another important aspect of Sam Mendes’ 1917 besides the amazing camerawork to make it all a single shot is the two soldiers that the story follows. The two 1917 soldiers include Schofield, played by George MacKay, and Blake, played by Dean-Charles Chapman.

MacKay is the better known of the two actors, having co-starred with Viggo Mortensen in the 2016 movie Captain Fantastic, plus he plays the notorious Australian criminal Ned Kelly in the upcoming True History of the Kelly Gang. Chapman isn’t as well-known, although he did appear on a little show called Game of Thrones as Tommen Baratheon, and he played the best friend Matt in the recent Gurinder Chadha movie Blinded by the Light.

Casting the Two Main 1917 Soldiers in Sam Mendes’ World War I Epic

Last week, Universal Pictures held a panel for 1917 at New York Comic Con and during the panel, both actors spoke about their characters.

“I play the role of Blake, and he’s a Lance Corporal,” Chapman began. “He hasn’t been there very long, and he’s not as experienced as a soldier as much as Schofield is, but he’s very good with maps and navigations, and he’s a sweet kid. Suddenly, he’s thrown into this mission to save sixteen-hundred people’s lives, and on top of it, his brother is one of the sixteen-hundred. For Blake, it’s not just an order to save people’s lives. It’s a personal mission for Blake.”

“I play Schofield, who is a bit more experienced as a soldier, but is quite English in how he carries that,” MacKay told the audience. “There’s a beautiful thing with this film about the big and the small and understanding something very big via very intimate relationship with characters and a very intimate experience of watching it. I can only speak for Schofield but I very much see him as his own man, but also, an embodiment of many of the soldiers that served.”

“I was writing these two men, but I didn’t know who was going to play them because they’re so young,” Mendes told in an interview after the panel. “The young actors that I’d worked with… I still think as Ben Whishaw as a young actor and he’s 40. He’s not a young actor anymore. I think of Benedict [Cumberbatch] as a young actor, I think of Tom Hiddleston as a young actor – they’re all in their bloody 40s now! Oh, you mean they’re not young anymore? I needed to find actors in their 20s, which is a whole different ballgame, it’s a generation down.”

“I didn’t know Dean at all until he came in,” the director continued about finding the two actors. “He has a sort of openness and sweetness. He felt very young, and he still feels very young. It was how young they were when a lot of these men or boys got sent out to the front. A lot of them lied about their age, so he had the sweetness, and there’s sort of a slight class difference. [Blake] was a slightly more working-class character. Schofield is what I call a class English grammar schoolboy, quite well-educated, slightly recessive, a bit more buttoned-up, a bit less emotionally articular but with a deep well of passion. I wanted someone a little bit more soulful and quiet to play Schofield, and George had that. I’d seen him before, but it was the way he behaved and the way he read when he came in with the script that made me go for him.”

Chapman was busy filming his first leading role in the Irish independent film Here are the Young Men, which almost kept him from auditioning for 1917. “I was focusing on that and then I got an Email from my agent about the audition for 1917, and I kept pushing it back ‘cause I didn’t have the time to come into London. I was in Ireland and didn’t have the opportunity to go in the room,” he told us after the panel. “Then about two months after that first Email, I finally went in the room and met Sam and then I met George and was lucky enough to get the part.”

“We did a lot of military training,” MacKay told us later about preparing for the rigorous aspect of the shoot. “We had such a long rehearsal process for the film in terms of choreographing the story, so to speak, the journey that these men go on, that we had months of rehearsal. Part of that rehearsal was that every morning we’d do military training to understand our weapons and our kit, and physically get in shape. We went to the gym as well. We basically did everything that these men did in the story.”

Chapman confirmed what MacKay said. “Me and George, we had a personal trainer that we’d use, and we’d get our fitness up and build a little muscle to make sure that we were strong enough to do it. And then we worked with a military advisor who actually served in the British Army. He was brilliant. He gave us military training and all sorts of advice, things that we wanted to question that he could answer for us, even knowing how to salute properly, hold the rifle properly in different positions with the gun. We did all that, it was fun, loved it!”

During the panel, MacKay talked about how shooting the movie in one shot made it a unique experience. “It was an amazing lesson, given the one-shot venture that you’ve got to be so technically-aware in the construction of everything, in the construction of the story and the execution of the takes. By the same token, you’re doing these really long scenes and shots so you can get lost in it. In a way, it’s acting at its essence in terms of all this technical learning put together to make something unconsciousness, so it was an experience to have a whole film that embodied that was amazing.”

MacKay would elaborate to us after the panel, using how new war technology was being introduced during World War I as an analogy for working with the new technology used by Roger Deakins to capture the story in a single shot. “I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but I guess in a way our experience of making it echoes that in terms of we were pioneering equipment. Ari was developing a new camera that was built to shoot this film, and there’s a rig called the Trinity rig, which is a form of Steadicam that can be put on any angle, so it can move unlike any Steadicam, and we were using gear that’s never really been used before and doing things that have not been done before. In a way, the making of the film echoed the historical context and the changes that setting was going through.”

“The rehearsals were tough,” Chapman agreed when asked about some of the toughest stuff they had to do. “The thing about this film is that there never was an easy day. Every day seemed to be getting harder and harder. There never was a scene or day that was easier than another. It was all the same, but it was probably the physical aspect. When we were shooting, I had shin splints, and there’s a sequence in No Man’s Land where we’re running through the mud, and my shins were in agony. That was probably the hardest thing for me, was trying to be physical and have shin-splits at the same time.”

“What was fascinating about this is that unlike any other film, you have to be aware of the camera,” MacKay said about being aware of all the technical stuff mentioned earlier. “It’s almost like a dance, because the way the camera works is not showy at all in this. You’re just with these men, and therefore, what the camera sees is usually what you see. There’s an invisible link between these men and the camera all the time. The camera influences how you move and you influence how the camera moves, so it’s this amazing dance which I’ve never been as aware of on any otherjob. It was a real lesson, actually, in sort of working in harmony with the camera.”

“The sets were real trenches, none of it was really pretend, even down to the mud,” Chapman said about one of the legendary aspects of trench warfare during World War II. “The mud was so horrific. The only way I can describe it is like walking on ice, that’s how slippery it was, and moist. You really had to think of how to walk, let alone run, in the mud.”

MacKay is convinced that the realism put into creating those battlefields greatly enhances the viewing experience as well. “There’s a fever-dream quality– perhaps “psychedelic” is the wrong word – but there’s a dreamlike quality to the film, and the journey of experiencing and watching it is so immersive that coming from the research that Dennis Gassner, our production designer, did. The landscapes that these men go through are so other-worldly because of what’s happened to them. I think you’ll see a lot that is not your typical understanding of the first World War.”

It turns out that Chapman had another connection to World War I that he pulled into his portrayal of Blake, something he mentioned during the panel. “I read a book called The Western Front Diaries, and it’s collections of soldiers’ diary entries, and I actually found that my great-granddad had a diary entry in there,” and apparently this was something he never even had told Mendes either before or after getting the part. “He was part of the cavalry and he got shot and wounded and he survived later in No Man’s Land for four days, and then after he survived, and he worked in a Poppy Factory until the day he died. I read that and it inspired me to do it.”

1917 opens on Christmas Day in select cities and then will expand nationwide in January.

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