Jeremy Irvine Image Credit: Supplied

Jeremy Irvine admits that he had never liked horses, let alone ridden one, until he was cast as Albert, the farmer's son who cares for Joey, the red bay at the centre of Steven Spielberg's latest epic, War Horse. The movie doesn't open in until December in the US but already it is being seen as a major contender for next year's Best Film Academy Award.

"I was really minding my own business and then suddenly I'm in the middle of a Steven Spielberg film," said Irvine, 20, who found himself acting alongside not just Joey the horse, but top British stars like Benedict Cumberbatch and David Thewlis, with Peter Mullan and Emily Watson playing his parents.

The young actor had been playing a spear carrier in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Dunsinane at Hampstead Theatre when he was sent on a series of auditions for a role in the DreamWorks film.

The movie is based on Michael Morpurgo's bestselling novel about the colt with the remarkable white cross emblazoned on his forehead who gets sold to the Army and winds up on the Western Front in the First World War, where he pines for Albert.

"I'm not a huge animal person," Irvine confessed, and I didn't grow up around horses. In fact, I'd never ridden a horse."

Albert, his film character, had been raised with horses, though, so Irvine had to at least look like he was comfortable around them.

He underwent a two-month intensive horse-training course, along with Tom Hiddleston, who plays the British Army officer who first catches sight of Joey, and Cumberbatch and Patrick Kennedy, who play fellow officers.

"It was beaten into me," Irvine joked.

The production flew in stunt riders and horse trainers, plus what the Americans call Liberty trainers — some might call them horse whisperers.

"The horses have no tack on, and you communicate with them using body language," Irvine explained.

"You get them to run around you, run behind you. You'd take your shoes off and the horse would run off with the shoes. The purpose was to become as comfortable as possible with the horses."

There were 11 horses, used to play Joey at various stages of his life. Then there were the horses that Albert tends when he runs away to join the Army, so he can find Joey.

"I had been a struggling actor for two years, so to go from that to being on the set of a Steven Spielberg film, where he treated me like part of one big family, was amazing," Irvine said.