Daniel was not only drawn to the powerful story at the heart of My Boy Jack, but also the chance to play a character who represents such a tragic and human part of World War I history, a period he has always been fascinated by.
“The story was the first thing that attracted me to this project. It’s tragic and beautifully written. I think the strength of the story is the key thing that draws anybody to a drama. You can have a good character to play, but it doesn’t amount to anything if it’s a weak story.
“On this occasion I was lucky enough to get that combination - an amazing character to play in just a phenomenal story. I’ve also had a relatively long-running fascination with World War 1. I think this comes from growing up surrounded by films and books inspired by that time – I consumed everything including the last series of Blackadder.
“All war is, to a certain extent, beyond anyone’s imagination, but particularly what it must have felt like to be ‘in the trenches’. These were probably some of the worst conditions any human has had to deal with, certainly in the 20th century. You feel compelled to learn about it so that the people who went through it don’t just fade away into the past, and hopefully this will help ensure that people never experience those dreadful conditions again.
‘Those conditions’ were recreated to the last detail in Ireland’s County Wicklow, as Daniel and his co-stars spent six days in trenches filled with mud, smoke and rats, lashed by powerful rain machines. Over the top was No Man’s Land, scattered with explosives and eerily realistic prosthetics of soldiers who hadn’t quite made it to safety.
“To recreate the WW1 trenches was an amazing experience. The moment we drove up to this field in Ireland and opened the door, we were suddenly in No Man’s Land - it was really haunting and strange and eerie. Maybe I’m romanticising, but there’s a certain energy that develops when you’re standing, filthy and absolutely soaked to the skin, in a trench: the camaraderie that developed between everybody was so great you can only imagine what it must have been like in the real thing.
“It was actually incredibly exhilarating to be in the middle of it. We’d all be sitting there in the rain and mud chatting to each other before a take and then we’d get up and dash through explosions, which were going off on all sides of us. There were markers dotted across this battlefield where the explosions were and then we’d start filming and they’d take them away and start the rain machines, so our vision would be reduced by about 70%. Also, the rain does something to performance. Bryan Kirk, the director, says that when it’s raining that heavily there’s a level of intensity that almost can’t be gained any other way. When you have to compete with the rain and still be able to communicate with each other, the level of intensity in your performance soars. And the water in those rain machines seems a lot colder and a lot harder than the rain you get from normal clouds.
“It wasn’t so much the physical side of filming which was difficult - you just get on with it - it was having the mental stamina to deal with the cold and the rain. It was pretty intense. People were offering blankets and tea and we were loath to take them because, in a strange way, all of that cold and discomfort really, really helps the performance.
“It helps you to get into character, experiencing an element of what they must have felt. I suppose the hardest thing about it was being able to keep up with the pace of filming as well. It’s a pace of filming that I’m totally not used to. On Harry Potter, which is obviously the main thing I’ve been doing for the past seven years, we’ll do maybe two scenes a day, most likely just the one, whereas on My Boy Jack we’d be doing about five or six.
“When I was in all of them, they were very long days. But I quite like throwing myself into things and if you’re prepared and you turn up on time and learn the lines for all the scenes that day then you shouldn’t really have a problem. The only time I struggled was on one particular scene where we all had to do press-ups and Jack, as the leader of his platoon, has to do press-ups to the last while everyone falls down around him. It meant that some people would do two press-ups in a take and then fall down, some people would do five and then fall down, some would maybe get up to ten…but I had to do about 20 each take! I know that doesn’t sound like a lot but after 10 or so takes your arms are absolutely wrecked.”
Jack Kipling’s determination to join the forces in the face of adversity is what Daniel likes most about his character, especially as it has enabled him to follow Jack’s rites of passage journey with a maturity he has not yet himself played on screen.
“Jack is rebuffed twice by two different medical boards but he doesn’t give up hope. If his dad hadn’t found a way in for him I have no doubt he probably would have tried to join the ranks, although in Jack’s social class that’s probably almost as bad as not going to war at all. Jack does go through a great deal but one of the things which makes him such a loveable character is that he isn’t deterred.
“I hope people realise Jack is not just going because his father wants him to go - he is absolutely going for himself and he genuinely wants to be in the thick of it. He wants the navy more than anything because he and his father were totally obsessed with the navy but, more than that, he just wants to be out there fighting, as I think most people did. To be at home and to be viewed as unfit to fight was such a deeply humiliating experience.
“Obviously we can’t speculate too much as to Jack and Rudyard’s relationship, but my impression is that Jack looked up to his father and was proud to be his son, not for his celebrity but for who he was with Jack. There’s a line in the film where Jack says he’s never read The Jungle Books, which are his father’s most celebrated works. I suppose he just took it for granted that he was his dad and that was that: being a writer was just his job.
“Equally, though, I think Jack felt suffocated by his dad and by their house. He just desperately wanted to get away and prove to himself that he could become his own man. On one level you’re tempted to say that Jack and Rudyard are very similar but on another you feel that Jack really wants to break away from those similarities.
“There’s something very appealing about the character of Jack. He’s very likeable: he wasn’t particularly academic at school but he was very, very charismatic and he was a really great leader. I had to work hard though to get into Jack’s skin because the concept of a teenager didn’t really exist then as it does now. I think you were either an adult or you were at school. But Jack’s in quite a unique place in that he suddenly goes from being a boy, who is a great supporter of his father, to wanting to become his own man. He certainly becomes a man, commanding and leading men a lot older than him, and I had to show how he suddenly developed that maturity and make it believable.
“That was quite hard for me because I still haven’t grown up to the extent that Jack has in the film. I had to act older than I am, which is much harder than acting younger I think. But when you like a character, no matter how hard it is to get under his skin, it becomes a lot more enjoyable because it’s a pleasure getting to know him better. As long as I keep doing work like this and having a good time doing interesting things, I think you’ve got to give everything a go and just see how you fare. Sometimes it will come off and it will be great and sometimes it won’t and it’ll be horrible but at least I’ll have tried. I think, and hope, this is in the former category though.
“Although Jack was still really only a boy, he could command real authority. That’s just the way it was then. If you were of a certain class, you went to military college and you’d be expected to be an officer by the time you were about 18. I don’t know about the military today but presumably it’s pretty similar. You still have 18-year-old boys leading men and going to war. It’s fairly shocking, but equally that’s the way it was then and I suppose nothing changes in war, so it’s to be expected in a sad way.”
As well as being a challenge, My Boy Jack also gave Daniel a greater understanding of war, although he admits he will only ever understand a fraction of what it means to those in the thick of it.
“War, especially the First World War, is such a huge experience that no one now can hope to have a true understanding of what it was like. Even now, having done this film, I feel a closeness to WW1 and to the people who fought in it, but I don’t think I could ever have a real understanding of what they went through.
“I tried to think my way into Jack’s head but there’s only so far you can go. There was a moment during filming where it did suddenly occur to us that the film is so relevant, given the current situation. And so I hope it will be able to touch people and move them. We don’t point the finger at Rudyard for sending his son to the front, we just show that terrible paradox within any family during a world war. No one ever wants anyone to have to go to war, but then if no one ever does, what terrible powers could rise up?
“There is no wrong or right answer, unfortunately. But I think the story will certainly resonate with people, people possibly serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m not sure there are any countries which have not been involved in wars at some point in history. I think somewhere along the line young men from every country around the world have gone off and died for whatever cause, so I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t appeal to people in America or Australia or Japan or Canada or anywhere else.”
The amount of research that went into the film’s characters, the closeness between the leading actors, and the fact that Daniel did the very same walk Jack Kipling himself did when he left Bateman’s to go to France, made the experience all the more real.
“I think what David (Haig) has done is just amazing - it’s a labour of love and he has been labouring at it for such a long time. He knows every character, particularly Rudyard, inside out, and I have to say he was an absolute pleasure to work with. Especially when we’d suddenly look at each other and realise we could actually pass for father and son.
“The amount of research Kim (Cattrall) did since becoming involved could possibly even rival David’s - she was amazing. But the best thing was that there was a genuine family atmosphere between me, David, Kim and Carey (Mulligan), which was lovely to be around as it made the whole experience feel very, very real.
“On the last day of the shoot we filmed the scene where Jack leaves home to go to war, which we filmed at Bateman’s on what would have been, had he lived, Jack’s 110th birthday. To be filming that scene on the day he was born was amazing. What was more significant was to do what would have been the same walk Jack did up the same pathway to leave for war. In the archway of the door of the house, Jack had inscribed his initials and every time I walked out of the door to do a take, I walked right past them. That was a particularly moving moment for me. To see those initials was so sad and poignant, especially knowing what we know now.”