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Journey's End - Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Toby Jones and Stephen Graham interview

Journey's End

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PAUL Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Toby Jones and Stephen Graham talk about some of their experiences of making Journey’s End and getting into the mind-set of their soldiers.

They also discuss bonding with each other, how Paul and Stephen based their characters on their own uncles, and working with Combat Stress and how the experience of talking to veterans provided them with the most important part of the preparation process. They were speaking at a BAFTA Q&A held in London…

Paul, I understand you felt a real bond with your character, Osborne. Can you talk a little about that?
Paul Bettany: I based him on my uncle Theo, who was an army man, who I had nothing in common with, but who I loved very deeply. I thought he represented everything that is good about being British and stiff upper lip. He always looked after me in a way that was unsentimental and practical. So, yes, I based Osborne on him. He’s always trying to mend them and make things better.

Q. You see that in the scene between Osborne and Raleigh before they make their journey into No Man’s Land. They’re just chatting and reminiscing…
Asa Butterfield: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s vital and Saul gave us a whole day to do it and get it right, get the tone right. Originally, we wanted to play it in just one shot…

Paul Bettany: But we weren’t good enough [laughs].

Asa Butterfield: But we really needed all that time because every time we did it, it got better and better. So, hopefully we got something that was touching and moving.

Q. Mason is a fascinating character. It’s interesting when you see him move away from the main characters because the chirpiness goes and you even hear him swear… What discussions did you have about the role that Mason has in the story?
Toby Jones: Well, in a way the rather brilliant set design provided a back-stage area. It was very brilliantly designed so that the idea of performing your task with the officers, and then having a place where you could be in a space where you could have a totally different relationship with other people… Saul was very keen to animate that other space because often, in the play, that space is of-stage. The play, which doesn’t date actually… I’ve seen it a couple of times and it’s extraordinary that it doesn’t. But nonetheless, I think the film allows you to explore the different classes a bit more.

Q. And Trotter, I guess he’s the most brutally honest. He says it like it is…
Stephen Graham: Yeah, I didn’t know that Paul based his character on his uncle because I also based my character on one of my uncles – Eddie. He was a lorry driver. But he’s got this beautiful outlook on life. He just made you feel good and he always had this way about him that pulled you away from what was really going on. Originally, in the play, he’s played as a Cockney… as a Londoner and Saul and I had a little chat before filming about how to play him. But I was surprised when Saul told me that he wanted me to play him in my own accent, which was great, because that’s when I looked into the history of these men in the Forces, and then that’s where I started to base him on my Uncle Eddie. And the relationship between mine and Asa’s character was kind of our special little moment. It was kind of like Christmas Day for him. I felt really proud showing him all the stuff [in the trenches] and setting that firework off… the innocence of war through the eyes of a young man.

It was a beautiful experience, actually, this film. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, or anything, but as a group it felt like we were in it together. Some great relationships were formed. And we always felt we had each other’s backs. And that all came from Saul. You trust a director implicitly and that’s what he did: gave us that space to be able to play and find beautiful little moments.

Q. I notice Combat Stress in the credits. What role did they play in informing you about the effects of PTSD?
Paul Bettany: We had an amazing day with men from various wars and of various ages. And it was really moving and really surprising. They were incredibly generous. Talking to them about the script, it was very resonant for them. There are some very modern ideas in the script. It’s not really a three-act structure, there’s a lot of talk about food and not a lot of talk about war. And that really resonated for them. It was maybe the most important day for me, meeting them.

Q. Was there a boot camp beforehand for the actors?
Asa Butterfield: I remember our first day of rehearsals down in Ipswich… Paul was there. We were marching around in uniforms and getting to grips with the mud. So, that was the first day we all met each other. But getting used to the mud played a big part.

Q. Considering what the characters would have gone through emotionally, what did you do to try and relate to them?
Toby Jones: Well, of course, you can’t relate. It is, of course, an imaginative act, as you say. Sherriff himself, and the adaptation of his work, has done a lot of the work for you. But I was actually going to say this earlier, about the play… but particularly with war films, it’s so alien to most of us who make films; war is so hard to imagine. It takes a brilliant dramatist to resolve the bridge in experience. I think it’s one of the hardest things to imagine. The brilliance of Sherriff’s play is that it’s brought down to a very everyday hum-drum domestic activity. You can imagine it. Fear is a very general state to act. And certainly when you’re acting in something like a war film, there’s a different fear that you might in some way cheapen it or sentimentalise it. But that’s your job as an actor, to try and get somewhere near it. But you’re helped enormously by a good dramatist who manages to displace the general emotion into very specific, concrete activity.

Stephen Graham: I think one of the great characters in this film is time. Time itself is an amazing character in this film. There’s that beautiful scene between Paul and Asa in the film where you see time moving as they’re getting ready to go [on their mission]. And there’s that beautiful piece at the end where we know what’s happened and yet that letter has travelled all that distance and reached his sister. We all know the outcome, but she didn’t, and there’s something really poignant about it. So, I think that was a great piece of dramatization, bringing time in as a major character. But as an actor, you just try and do as much as you can to put some truth into it. Hopefully, we’ll never be in that situation.

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