At the heart of Sam Mendes’ new film, 1917, stand Blake and Schofield, two young World War I soldiers played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mackay respectively.
Set for release on Christmas Day, the film tracks one continuous take as audiences are driven directly into the trenches, trailing these brothers-in-arms as they undertake a critical mission to deliver a message that will prevent a deadly attack on 1600 soldiers, including Blake’s own brother.
Following the film’s demanding process, Chapman and Mackay’s own relationship now mirrors the close bond of their characters: here, the two actors unpick their experience.
George MacKay: Alright then, Dean?
Dean-Charles Chapman: Alright, George?
GM: It’s funny to be interviewing you.
D-CC: I know [both laugh].
GM: Where are you right now, what’s in front of you?
D-CC: I’m in my house, looking at my two dogs, Oscar and Arthur, one is deaf the other is blind. That’s it really, just chilling at home.
GM: Nice. Well obviously we met on 1917, so just give us a quick overview of the story, as best you can.
D-CC: Well the film is set during the First World War, it takes place in the year of 1917 and follows two soldiers, Blake and Schofield, who get sent on a mission to deliver a message to stop an attack that will save 1600 men’s lives, if they’re successful. Blake’s brother is one of the 1600 and the whole thing is filmed in one continuous take.
GM: Tell me a bit about what that process was like for you, what were some of the things that were really positive about it in terms of this different approach, and the fact it was shot in one long take essentially?
D-CC: I feel like it really is an actor’s dream to be able to do a film in one continuous shot because it allows you to just lose yourself in the scene. As you know, some of the scenes last up to seven or eight minutes and staying in character for that long, you can really get caught up in it and that’s a beautiful feeling. I just found myself completely immersed in the world. I found it really beneficial as an actor but of course, yeah it was tough. We did six months rehearsals together, a lot of training, working with Sam [Mendes] day in, day out, to try and figure out the script and for us as actors to be technically aware of what’s going on in every single department, because on a film like this, everybody has to be on board with what’s going on in order to pull off the one-shot.
“I feel like it really is an actor’s dream to be able to do a film in one continuous shot because it allows you to just lose yourself in the scene.”
GM: Obviously there were moments which were particularly profound to us when making 1917, but are there any other moments on previous projects that have shaped the way you do your job?
D-CC: I mean, 1917 is like nothing I’ve ever done before. With the majority of films you never really rehearse, you just turn up on the day of shooting and then you film it and then that’s it really. The only thing I can compare it to is the theatre that I’ve done, I played Billy Elliot in London’s West End when I was a kid and for that I had to train for two years. With 1917, we did six months of rehearsals, so I guess I can compare it to theatre, and for 1917 we did military training together too. It was just working together to get the choreography right before the days of filming, so in a way it’s more like theatre with the amount of preparation you have to do.
GM: Do you think that as you go on you’ll want to work that way all the time or do you think you’d like to work a bit more immediately as well? Not to sort of compare other people but like a Daniel Day-Lewis- approach where you’re in it for a year and you don’t do as many projects but when you do, you rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, just for yourself and you work it out, do you think you’d be more drawn to doing things like that?
D-CC: I liked what we did with 1917, but like I said, I’ve never done anything that required that much detailed attention to absolutely every aspect, and again it was really an eye-opening experience. It made me learn a lot really, about myself, about life, about everything. So it was definitely much more of an educational experience.
GM: What are some of things it taught you about yourself?
D-CC: I mean, in terms of the story mainly. It follows two people on such a human level throughout the whole film, and after we watched it for the first time, it made me just appreciate family, and things like that. The story is so close, it made me think of my own life, my own family and it made me appreciate everything that I’ve got much more than I did before.
GM: Yeah I felt the same. When we watched the rough cut, I sort of didn’t realise how much of an emotional journey is what the film’s about, as much as their literal journey. As you’ve already mentioned, you do have experiences like Billy Elliot that taught you lots about yourself, is there any advice you’d give to a young Dean?
D-CC: I’d probably just say… not that I did give up because I didn’t, I’m still here, but there were definitely times on other projects and even during the audition process of just wanting to give up. There was so much rejection and I’d get attached to projects before even getting the part because I fell in love with the script, with the character. I’d do five rounds of auditions and then suddenly you get let go and you don’t even get a chance to do the part. I found myself getting heartbroken over scripts. I’d probably just say to myself, “Look, just keep going and soon, you know, 1917 will come and it will all be better. Don’t stress out too much.”
GM: Obviously we’re both still young and the fellas that we’re playing in the war, in some ways they would have been much more innocent than we are in certain aspects of life and in other ways they would have been far more mature. You’re 21 now, do you think there was a moment in terms of work when you went, “Ah, I’m an adult now”?
D-CC: Yeah you’re right, I feel like in this industry… I mean we both started young but I feel like in terms of what we’ve had to do for our jobs, there’s a high amount of responsibility that we have to take on, so I think like people talk to you as if you are older at a younger age. I feel like I’ve always been spoken to as an adult, even when I was like fourteen, fifteen. Maybe I grew up miles back when I shouldn’t have, do you know what I mean? I still feel like I’m fourteen but when I was fourteen I felt like I had the brain of a 22-year-old then [both laugh].
GM: Yeah, kind of back to front, but there are good things about both sides, I guess. I remember we’d talk a lot on set about De Niro, discussing him as an actor. Are there any other actors that you look up to? Or filmmakers you’d want to work with, past and present?
D-CC: I mean, definitely De Niro, I fucking love him. Also Leonardo DiCaprio, if you look at the films they’ve done and the work they’ve put into their careers, it’s unbelievable. Every single performance by both of those actors has just been so bang on, and I could watch their films repeatedly. So they’re two guys I’d definitely want to work with, and also Martin Scorcese, I think he’s a genius.
“I think a really good director is someone who comes up to you and says maybe one little thing that puts a thought in your brain that can change the whole thing.”
GM: How do you find directing affects you and changes your approach? Some directors will perhaps give you really detailed notes and others will let you figure it out on your own.
D-CC: I’ve worked with so many different directors that approach actors completely differently. Sam, for instance, is very particular and detailed in what he thinks, and he’ll have a conversation with you if you think that something should be different, he’s willing to talk it through. I think a really good director is someone who comes up to you and says maybe one little thing that puts a thought in your brain that can change the whole thing. That’s what Sam did for me. Every day in rehearsal I felt like the scene was always changing because so much would be added and taken away, and you learned more about the characters as you went along. But even when it got down to the day of shooting, Sam would just say an idea of a thought that Blake would think during his journey and it would just completely change my whole idea of who Blake was.
GM: It’s directing without telling you what to do, it’s offering a direction that you can go into, which makes you feel like it’s more of a collaboration. They’ll suggest an idea and then allow you to interpret it, so then you have some ownership over it, which is really cool.
“…even when it got down to the day of shooting, Sam would just say an idea of a thought that Blake would think during his journey and it would just completely change my whole idea of who Blake was.”
GM: We’ve spoken about 1917 and you have so many projects coming out soon, in terms of keeping track of real life, what’s important to you?
D-CC: In real life, normal life, just family. I think family are the most important thing, and when life is so short, you’ve just got to make sure that you spend time with people you love and who love you. Family time is crucial.
GM: I agree, more and more it comes back to family. And what’s the most rewarding part of your job? Whether a specific example to do with one job or just in general as an actor?
D-CC: The most rewarding part? I feel like there are so many rewarding things that come along with my job but also so many ups and downs. I think it comes back to what I was saying before about getting let down in the audition process and getting attached to a project before you’ve even got the part, and then suddenly you get that phone call that it’s not gone your way, and then you’re absolutely gutted. So I think the most rewarding part is when you get the phone call to say that you’ve got the part. When I found out that I got 1917, it was like, “Hallelujah, praise the lord.” [laughs] I just couldn’t help but be like, “Yes!” and have a little celebration to myself, because I was so pleased. It really is like a dream come true. I think that’s the most rewarding part. I’d say watching the film once it’s all done, but I’m one of those people who just hates watching myself, so I can’t say that.
GM: I remember when we came out of our last audition together, we were in Covent Garden both on the phone like, “Oh, I really don’t know, I just can’t tell, it’s either a definite yes or a definite no.” And here we are now…
D-CC: On the phone again [both laugh].
GM: One of the main things I took from 1917 was the physicality, because these men are on the move all the time. How do you find physicality plays into roles, even like the costume, if you’re wearing the right gear and being in the scenario, how much do you think that informs your performance? There was an element of all this technical work going on around us but having to switch that off and exist in the scene.
D-CC: I’ve had that feeling before on jobs where the sets and costumes are really good, but never to the detail of 1917. The war was over 100 years ago and it’s something we can’t see in person this day, so to be able to re-build that world is completely unbelievable. We did months and months of research, looking at pictures of trenches, and then you look around and you’re actually standing in a trench that they’ve dug and it’s all becoming real. As you say, with the costumes we had so many layers, woollen socks, jumper, it does bring it to life, even like the smell of the clothes. It’s all about what we prepare beforehand, you bring that to the table and then suddenly you’re working with an actor and you’re reacting off them, and you were so fucking good at that. You give one hundred million percent with everything you do, so that made me do the same.
GM: Thank you, that’s really lovely. Having had all these experiences, is there anything that you’re looking to say through your work, or perhaps a genre you’d love to do?
D-CC: I just love stories that you can see on a real level, that make you feel something and you can relate to. That’s a really powerful thing when you read a script that makes you feel something. I would love to do a Western.
GM: We’d have to get cracking on 1817 to do that [both laugh]. And what’re your ambitions for your career, what’re the things you really hope for?
D-CC: Just to keep working on projects that appeal to me. It’s hard to tell the future, you just take it in your stride. Working with people I want to work with, making good films, and doing what I enjoy. What about you, what sort of stories excite you?
GM: Same thing. It’s tricky to say until they’ve been thought up. Similarly, I enjoyed how all-encompassing 1917 was, so it would be great to do something with a similar approach. I’d love to do a play to have a rehearsal process and strike that balance between research and also the immediateness of theatre. In all honesty, it’s down to you and how much you put into a role, I guess. Any role can become all-consuming when you really throw everything at it. But it’s also about trying to find a balance between work and the other side of life, and family. It’s about striking a balance, that’s what I want.
1917 is out now.