With "War Horse" receiving all manner of accolades this awards season, I got to thinking: Did the extras on the set of that film have a similarly special experience? So I got in touch with Graham Curry, London-based production professional and supporting actor extraordinaire. Graham played three characters over the course of his one-month stint as an extra in "War Horse," and has also appeared in "Hugo," "Captain America" and "The King's Speech," among other films.
Graham filled me in on what it was like to work on the "War Horse" set, a place filled with beauty and danger (in the form of Styrofoam explosions -- and equine bodily functions).
I have nothing to compare it to, but something tells me a Spielberg set is different than any other. I definitely agree with that. I've done about six big Hollywood blockbusters in the last year, and it was a completely different experience. And Spielberg is actually my favorite director.
So how does being a professional extra work exactly? I've actually got six casting agents. You just kind of get in with every single one of them and they just take a commission out of your paycheck.
Your IMDb page says you played a Scottish Highlander at auction in "War Horse" -- what exactly did your role entail? I played quite a few things. I was a Scottish Highlander first, and we had to wear kilts, which was another experience -- out in the cold wilds of England. Wearing that at Christmas wasn't too fun, but it was a lovely outfit -- the detail of all the costumes was incredible. Spielberg is so on those little details. I don't think I've seen anyone else be that involved in it. He was coming out: "Oh this isn't right," "Is this the right era?" and things like that. We got a lot of face time with him and he was really with us, whereas some other directors basically sit in a tent all day with a microphone, shouting at us.
What other roles did you take on? I also got to play both a 1914 and a 1918 German soldier. The very last shoot day was just one scene of us all marching as 1914 soldiers -- soldiers going to war -- but for the previous month we'd been shooting as 1918 soldiers, all the ones getting killed in the battle camps and things like that. So I got to wear all these outfits. And I also got the opportunity to have gas burns under one eye, so I got the full prosthetics treatment as well.
There were generally about 300 of us on set on the big battle days. We shot for an amazing period of time on this set in a big airfield in Surrey, just south of London. They had created the whole no man's land -- about two American football fields, size-wise -- of all these dead trees that looked burnt. There were the actual trenches, so we got to climb over the top on ladders, and run through fake barbed wire. And there were fake dead horses everywhere, which were quite freaky when you stood on one -- you actually thought it was real. And then we got to run with the explosions going off. Proper stunts. You couldn't help but act, because you just felt like you were in there when they're firing these Styrofoam rocks at you.
Did they give you any preparation or were they just like, "Hey, try to avoid all those fake cannons with exploding shrapnel!" Oh no, they were very good on the health and safety -- we did do a two-day boot camp. They had proper army personnel that took each group and showed us all the maneuvers -- how to hold a gun, how to put bayonets on, things like that -- so it was good training. But yeah, those days they just kind of pointed out where all the explosions were going off. These were big explosions filled with polystyrene. All this dirt was going up. That was probably the hardest bit: you did get real dirt flying in your eyes and down the back of your costume. So you felt absolutely filthy by the end of it.
They had a lot of assistant directors in the crowd with us, and they dressed them up in the costumes as well, and they all had earpieces, so they would kind of just crop up and give you a bit of direction. But it did all come from the top, because Spielberg is one of those people who really see every minute detail. He came out a lot to talk to the actors who were in the scene, and we were all very respectful. I think everyone was just so proud to work for him. The one thing I remember from my scene in "War of the Worlds" -- and there were probably 1,000 of us there that night -- is that they still put us all through full hair and make-up. I thought that was really astounding attention to detail for a bunch of extras who would hardly appear on camera, especially because the scene took place at night. And they split us up into groups led by production assistants who had signboards labeled A through J, and we were assigned a PA, and we stuck with them all night -- it was such a well-oiled machine. Yeah. That's exactly my experience as well. We definitely had our regiments, we all had our team captain who took us around. We were in a platoon, basically. Regiment A, Regiment B, Regiment C -- so it was very tightly run, it didn't feel like we were wasted. I see a lot of films where so many people just sit around doing nothing.
Do you have any interesting Spielberg stories? First day we arrived, we were working on the ridge of the no man's land in silhouette. They positioned us around this little fire. I sat with about 20 people, and Spielberg came around the corner with his iPhone out and he says, "You guys are going to laugh at me, but I've got to do a little video message to my granddaughter." And so he stood right in front of me, and he starts filming a little voice message of him and he said, "Hi, it's Pappy, I'm just down here on the set of 'War Horse.'" And we all start laughing, and he started filming us on his phone and says, "Ah look -- they're all laughing at me now!" So I'm actually in one of his home videos, which is just mind-boggling for my first day of work! And then he said, "I'll be flying home to you in four weeks. I'm going to be on a plane." And he started swirling around making plane noises, like "Weeeee," and I just sat there going, "What the hell is happening here? This is my hero!"
Sounds like he's exactly like you'd expect him to be, based on the films he makes -- this really heartfelt, genuine, child-like man. Yeah, absolutely!
So I want to know more about the details of the sets -- what were those fake dead horses on the battlefield made of? Were they made of Styrofoam? Yeah, I think most of them were. They also had some rubber soldiers that they put into costume and just had them lying in the mud so they looked dead. It was actually the training day that we were first going through and we were so adrenaline-rushed that you weren't really looking where you're stepping. And I hadn't seen these props yet, and I just went to step after a puddle and literally just saw this dead horse under my foot and it made me jump -- I nearly fell over.
What was it like watching the horse that played Joey interact with his handler in the movie? I was really amazed by the stunts he pulled off -- I didn't even know horses could be trained to do some of that stuff. They were so well trained. They actually used about 12 different horses for Joey. There was one I remember called Abraham, I think. He was the one in most of our scenes where Albert [Jeremy Irvine] has his eyes blindfolded and he's whistling. They'd actually shout, "Mark!" and he'd run up and stand on his mark!
So you shared screen time with the main actor in the film -- Jeremy Irvine. How about Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch? Jeremy Irvine at the time was an unknown, so we would just hang out with him thinking he was a supporting actor. He was a cool guy -- nice to everyone. I actually didn't see Tom Hiddleston at all, which is surprising, and Benedict Cumberbatch -- I literally saw them on the red carpet and that was the first time I saw them. The biggest star was the horse, and we were in most of the scenes with the horse while we were filming.
But I did grow a bit of a fear of horses, because we were around them so much and, although they're lovely animals, they are quite imposing things. You've got old army trucks driving past, you've got tanks going by, you've got explosions going off. They just said, "March behind the horse" and I went, "What if it kicks out?" They're quite unpredictable. When a gun is shot or an explosion went off, they did make noises and rear up sometimes. The thing about the horses that's funny is they go to the toilet a lot. So they ruined quite a few takes going to the toilet. And one thing I didn't know -- they actually fart as well. I wouldn't have thought a horse could make a fart noise like a human, but ...
So you were dealing with two very different types of explosions on the set of "War Horse"! [Laughs] That's right, you can quote me on that!