“What a gift that was, to have this job given to me, the first time,” Ed Speleers said during a recent Dallas interview. The eighteen-year-old British actor was talking about making his movie debut–indeed, his professional debut–as the young dragon-riding hero in the big-budget fantasy film “Eragon,” based on the best-selling first installment of the series of books by the equally youthful Christopher Paolini.
Speleers’ recollections about getting the role were a mixture of amazement and matter-of-factness. When reminded of news stories about how many candidates had been auditioned for the part, he simply said, “To me, it’s just a number. If it had been just me at the audition and I got the part, fine. If it had been ten people, a hundred thousand people, it doesn’t bother me at the end of the day–it’s just a number.”
But turning to the actual process, the handsome, articulate Speleers still seemed astonished at his good fortune. At the time he was playing Hamlet in his school production of Shakespeare’s play. “I’d read the book–a young guy in my school passed on the book [to me], I should have been studying–and my drama teacher came up to me and said, this casting director, who’d had me up before for ‘Narnia’ and had me up before for ‘Young Hannibal,’ said look, there’s this opportunity coming up and we think you’d be perfect for it, come and give it a shot. I said, okay, whatever–typical schoolboy stuff.
“I went along, met the director, Stefen [Fangmeier], met with Wyck Godfrey, the producer, and the casting director. There was some kind of vibe that came out of the audition. It wasn’t like ‘you’ve got the part’ or anything, [but] you know when there’s a warmth and a feeling there. I could see something, but I didn’t really expect what happened over the next ten days. I went away for a bit and went in for a second audition, and that went quite well. And then I was playing Hamlet in school, night after night doing that, and finally there came this phone call saying ‘You’ve got the part.’ I casually walked out into the common room in my boarding house, and that’s when it really came home, and I just started jumping around, almost naked. I’ve been on the same euphoric high since then.”
Since production was scheduled to begin almost immediately, Speleers left school for the project–he hasn’t yet been able to finish his A-levels because of call-backs and re-shoots–and spent the next few months working on special-effects sequences in England or live-action scenes in Eastern Europe.
Of the numerous scenes he spends riding and conversing with the dragon Saphira (voiced in the final film by Rachel Weisz), Speleers recalled, “We actually spent two months at Pinewood Studios, in this huge studio which is just blue screen. The whole thing was like the size of an aircraft hanger–you’d come out at the end of the day, and your eyes would be just spinning, there’s too much blue. And we had this mechanical bull which was about fifteen feet in the air. The guys at WETA [Weta Digital] and ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] would come up with all these computerized moves, how they’d want the thing to move, and then the mechanical bull would simulate that, but I’d be sitting on top of it. We would be doing a fast riding movement where we’d break right and then come back up, then bank left and go down, then lean up–I was doing all of that, basically. So I was following the dragon. Which is good fun. It was stunt work, it was tiring, but it was good fun. Any exhaustion doesn’t actually kick in till you get back to your hotel room in the evening.”
Then there were the dialogue sequences with the then-unrealized Saphira. Interacting with special-effects is “a completely different experience” from conventional performance, Speleers said. “I think it’s going to have to be introduced in drama school. You’ll have done your Shakespeare the day before, and then the following day you’ll go in and they’ll put a big blue screen on the stage. I started off looking at this orange tennis ball, and literally Stefen said, ‘Okay, this is Saphira.’ The tennis ball is the dragon. But eventually I thought, well, I’ll get over this; I’ll put in my own image of Saphira. I’m working with this thing for five months, let’s create my own dragon. So I did. I let my imagination do the work. Hopefully, that helps the performance.” As to the dialogue, Speleers wasn’t yet working with Weisz, who “came on later in the project. At the time, I had the first assistant director filling in for that part. He’s a charming man, but he’s no Laurence Olivier.”
Of course, not all of “Eragon” involved acting against a tennis ball. Speleers also recalled his amazement at his human co-stars. “To me–it sounds corny, it sounds cheesy–it’s a dream,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be an actor, I’ve always wanted to make movies, and to be taken from basically doing nothing professionally, to go off and make this big picture with Jeremy Irons and Robert Carlyle, it’s an amazing experience for me.” Speleers spoke especially warmly of Irons, whom he noted was generous with acting advice and even effectively served as his horse-riding instructor.
Though Speleers has been reading scripts, he hasn’t been able either to finish school or take on any new acting roles because of responsibilities for call-backs, publicity tours and contributions to the recently-issued “Eragon” video game. But he does hope to continue his career, both in possible sequels and with other projects. As to what he’d like to do next, he said, “It literally has to be a case of an exciting script–it’s got to take me away from Eragon and entice me to show different sorts of acting skills. It doesn’t matter if I play a monk or a heroin addict, as long as it’s something that’s going to make me show I can act a bit.”
And though Speleers didn’t have the opportunity to meet author Christopher Paolini before or during filming “Eragon,” he has since. “He promised me he wants to bring me up to Montana and do some fencing classes with him,” the newly-minted star said.
And he added with a smile, “And I’m going to teach him how to ride a dragon.”