‘1917’ cast on finding their characters and filming the WWI epic

Sam Mendes’1917” stars two relative newcomers, George MacKay and Dean Charles-Chapman who are ably supported by veterans including Andrew Scott and Mark Strong. The four actors talk candidly about how they prepared for their roles in this war epic that has strong Oscar buzz. 

Charles-Chapman discovered the essence of his character in the costume department in Shepperton Studios. He spotted a picture of three soldiers amongst a collage of WWI photography. “One of them was leaning up against the truck, his jacket undone, his shirt half hanging off, and he had his arm up and two rings – one on the middle finger, one on the little finger. And I just thought ‘I like that’ and I made him wear those two rings on his fingers.” And, he reveals, “I  knicked them from the set, actually. They’re at home in my bedroom. Little things like that add to the character and speak loudly without the character actually having to say anything.”

Strong’s character was also inspired by that same collection of photos. “I noticed a lot of the officers had these walking sticks for some reason, and nobody else had one in the film so I said to costume ‘can I have one?’ and they said ‘yeah.’ That was my thing.” He recalls notes that the first thing Mendes discussed with him about his character was that Captain Smith was one of the few in the film who was actually kind to the two younger soldiers. 

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“My character is quite pivotal to their journey. That was daunting because you only have a couple of days. You’re literally just playing your sequence in one and once it was done, it was over. It was a quick in and out, so you had to be right up to speed.” As he explains, “You had to do that difficult thing that all actors find when you’re coming into a shoot half-way through or a third of the way through and you just have to immediately get on the same page as everybody else.”

Scott, who like Strong, had worked with Mendes before on stage and on screen concurred. “You have to work alongside the camera team and all the extras but the great challenge is that you don’t want to mess it up as you’re only in it for five minutes – you don’t want to be that guy.” Scott laughs, evoking the same charm that has endeared awards voters to his turn in “Fleabag.” “But if you’re doing a scene that is six minutes long, if you make a mistake in minute four or five, you can’t just do that bit again, you have to start from the beginning, so it’s very much like live theatre. I got it in one take,” he laughs.

MacKay noted that some of the mistakes, however, ended up “kind of beautiful” and ended up in the final film – including one that involved him. “There’s a big running sequence where I’m sprinting one way and everybody else is going horizontal to me, and I just got clattered. For weeks we worked on that shot rehearsing but I still got hit and it wound up becoming something that made it in.”

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