“This has been an absolute trip,” says Edward Speleers. “These last 18 months have been surreal.”
If any other 18-year-old made that statement, you’d notch it up to youthful exuberance. In this case, it’s an understatement.
After an audition process that made “American Idol’s” look skimpy, Speleers was plucked from his British boarding school to play the title character in “Eragon,” the $100 million despot-and-dragons epic that debuts tomorrow.
Not only was it his first film role, but Speleers had to act most of his scenes with a chimerical creature that would be added later with special effects.
“I remember the first day, Stefen (Fangmeier, the director) taking me onto the set and saying, ‘This is Saphira,’” says the youngster, a native of Chichester in southern England. “I look up and I see this orange tennis ball. I thought, ‘How am I going to act with that?’ I felt like curling up in a ball and crying.”
To make the performance work, Speleers was forced to fall back on the rich imagination that he had cultivated as a rather solitary child.
He grew up with two half-brothers who were considerably older. “The oldest one is 35 and has two children,” he says. “Before I ever go clubbing with him, I’ll be clubbing with his kids.”
His parents divorced when he was 3. (“Between them, they have seven marriages and six divorces,” says Speleers.) A few years later, he was sent to his first boarding school.
As a consequence, he learned how to amuse himself. “I used to put myself in imaginary situations to keep myself occupied,” he says. “I used to dream of being a movie star or a famous footballer or whatever. I’d think about it a lot, just sit there dreaming.”
At the precocious age of 10, he discovered a sense of purpose. “The first drama thing I really got stuck into was `A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” he recalls. “I played Puck. That’s when I said, ‘I want to be an actor.’ “
It was a school drama teacher several years later who alerted Speleers that a massive search was being conducted to cast the young hero in the film adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s best-selling fantasy.
More than 180,000 applicants were screened before Speleers went up to London to meet with Fangmeier.
Speleers was worth the wait. Not only is he a strikingly poised and articulate young man, but his looks suggest a robust helping of Heath Ledger, with a little Tab Hunter thrown in.
“I don’t think I’m ugly, but I never thought I was that special,” he says modestly.
After cutting his teeth on school productions of Shakespeare and the odd Gilbert & Sullivan jape, Speleers found the scale of a big-budget film overwhelming.
“It’s chaotic. I never in my wildest dreams expected 60 people to turn up for a scene with two actors,” he says. “That’s what amazed me: How much time and effort goes into making a movie. I can’t believe that all that work will end up as 1 hour and 45 minutes or whatever of film.”
For a novice, it was also intimidating to be surrounded by such a distinguished supporting cast: Jeremy Irons, Robert Carlyle, John Malkovich, Djimon Hounsou and others.
“When I was in the preproduction office getting training in sword-fighting and stuff, I knew all those guys were about to arrive,” says Speleers. “In my mind, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God. The big guns are coming.’”
The veterans quickly put him at ease. “When I met Jeremy, for instance, everyone could see I was nervous. He walked right up to me and asked, ‘Are you Edward?’ He gave me a big hug,” says Speleers. “Then he took me in his trailer and we sat down and started talking about school, about everything, really.
“He spent a lot of time with me, encouraging me. We had a lot of fun. We were in a restaurant one night and I started impersonating him. He found that quite funny.”
The production spent 4½ months on location in Hungary and Slovakia. Then everyone moved back to England to the legendary Pinewood Studios for two months of special-effects scenes.
It proved to be an acrobatic interval for the young dragon-rider. “I wasn’t on top of a dragon at all,” he says. “I was on this kind of mechanical bull 15 feet in the air. I used to sit on top of it all day long, for two months.” Afterward, Speleers flew to Vancouver, British Columbia, to shoot some final scenes.
Months later, as he sits in a stately hotel conference room in Philadelphia during a promotional tour, he’s still visibly chuffed by the whole experience. “At the end of the day, this is what I’ve been wanting to do for so long,” he says. “OK, essentially ‘all my life’ hasn’t been that long. But for as long as it can be in a short life like mine, I’ve wanted this.”
The film is projected as the first installment in the Inheritance Trilogy - that is, if “Eragon” performs well at the box office. Speleers is signed on for the entire ride. But having seen how time-consuming the process is, he’s hoping that the sequels will be shot in tandem in the manner of “Lord of the Rings” or “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“I would prefer it if we made two and three together. I’m scared of being, like, 26,” he says laughing, “and still having to make the third one.”
Even with his active imagination, Speleers, who turns 19 next week, can’t quite envision being that old.
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