An interview with James McAvoy (Hazel)
What made you want to be a part of Watership Down?
From the deep love and terror that watching the 1978 animation put inside my bones, and then from reading the novel later in life when it blew me away all over again. I was excited by the opportunity to try to bring Watership Down to a new generation, on such a huge scale as has never been done before. I think it’s a story you can relive in any decade.
Tell us about your character.
Hazel is quite ordinary when we first meet him. He’s quite middle of the road, but he has this exceptional brother, Fiver, who is incredible and highly sensitive, to the extent he has visions of the future. When Fiver says he has a really bad feeling about something and that they’re not safe to stay at their warren anymore, Hazel trusts his brother implicitly. They then set off on this adventure to find a new home, which Hazel is at the forefront of.
Is there a moment you’re really looking forward to seeing on screen?
I’m really looking forward to seeing Cowslip’s warren in episode one, with all the melancholy, poetic, fatalistic rabbits. I just love that idea, and am excited about Hazel getting into that macabre warren.
Did you do anything to prepare for the role? How do you even prepare to become a rabbit?
No not really. I suppose, at least emotionally and verbally, the rabbits are pretty anthropomorphised. Although I did think of a couple of things, which I guess informed my performance in some way. For example, the rate at which a rabbit’s heart beats is incredibly fast - to the extent that they can have heart attacks just from being overexcited or panicked. They have this thing where they can freeze if they are overstimulated, such as when they’re in the headlights of a car. In the world of Watership Down that’s called going tharn.
What do you think it is that has made Watership Down so successful over the years?
I think that, even though Watership Down is about rabbits, it deals with things that children are interested in but don’t get a chance to explore in other forms. Usually in children’s media, whether that is TV, film or books, you don’t get anything which is so in-depth with matters of mortality, faith and the clan-based nature that society still lives by - as well as themes of war and violence. All of these themes are really big, emotive, dangerous things to talk about with anybody. As such we often don’t talk about these things with children. Children may sit down to watch this because they think it’s a nice bedtime story about rabbits, and it is but they also get a no-holds-barred, in-depth investigation into society and why, we, as animals - because human beings are animals, despite thinking that we are this enlightened, heightened creature - do what we do.
Are there any specific themes that make Watership Down especially relevant to an audience in 2018?
I don’t know if this makes it especially relevant to now, but one of the things I have always responded to was the idea of a bunch of people - or rabbits, in this case - saying "we don’t like the way society works, so we’re going to do it on our own in a different way" - and having the bravery to go and find that freedom to live in a more gentle and less structured way. As I kid I loved that, and as an adult I really love it.
Why should viewers tune in to watch this series?
Because it’s rabbits on the run - it’s brilliant! It’s a bunch of rabbits running for their lives, with an incredible cast, it’s got some of the best acting talent that Great Britain has to offer - that’s pretty special. The artwork is beautiful, and I think the animation is really cool.
Have you ever had a pet rabbit yourself?
No, because unfortunately I’m actually allergic to most animals you can keep as a pet. I’m allergic to almost all farm animals, cats, dogs, rabbits and lots more. So I can’t really work with them, let alone keep them. This is a good way of working with rabbits without sneezing!
An interview with Nicholas Hoult (Fiver)
Tell us about your character…
I play Fiver. He has visions - so he can see into the future, but he can’t always interpret what it means. At the start of Watership Down he discovers in a vision that Sandleford Warren - where his group of rabbits live - is going to be destroyed by humans building. Fiver tries to encourage all the rabbits in the warren to move - some take that leap of faith and believe in Fiver enough to follow him, but some don’t.
What first attracted you to this project?
I read the book a long time ago, and what I think is very cool about this version of Watership Down is that it is an adaptation of the book as opposed to a remake of the film. And as this is a mini-series, we have longer to tell the story.
I actually heard this was being made through James McAvoy, who told me about it when we were working together on X-Men. I was so excited by it, that he explained to the producers that we’re really good friends and have almost a brotherly relationship. James was playing Hazel, so it made sense for me to play Fiver, his younger brother.
How do you prepare for an animated role like this?
I lived in a hutch for five weeks to prepare for this role. I’ve only been eating carrots - I can see in the dark very well. I have big ears and a little tail that I put on when I’m at home. It’s rather like living in the playboy mansion, but it’s just me.
Have you met any of your fellow cast members?
It’s an interesting process doing this, as a lot of the time you’re on your own in a booth. Luckily, for the relationship between Fiver and Hazel, I know James McAvoy very well. I’ve worked with Olivia Colman recently, and I’ve worked with Gemma Arterton. There’s a really stellar cast, and if you’re lucky they have recorded their side of the scene first - so you get to hear them and use that to prompt your responses.
Should we be scared?
The story is scary at times. Particularly for me, watching Fiver’s nightmares, as they are fairly terrifying. But it’s all there for the story, and not unsuitable for your children to be watching with you.
Do you have anything in common with your character?
I don’t really share too much with Fiver… he doesn’t even really have my voice, because when we started recording this we realised my voice sounded too old and not young enough compared to James’ character. I have to pitch my voice up a bit and try to sound younger. It’s quite difficult at times.
What’s been one of your favourite things about working on this project?
One of the fascinating things about this - and also what makes it quite difficult - is that there’s a wonderful language in Watership Down that the rabbits use to describe human things or words… like hrududu, which means car. That’s a word you obviously don’t say every day, so that’s made it challenging at times. It’s one of the many things that I think is wonderful about Watership Down.
An interview with Gemma Arterton (Clover)
Who do you play?
I’m playing Clover. She's a hutch rabbit, so she’s not like the other rabbits who all live in the wild. Clover’s quite different - even visually she looks quite different to the other rabbits. She’s cute and fluffy. She’s never been out into the wild. She meets Fiver and Hazel when they free her so she can join them on their expedition. Clover's quite naïve at first, as she’s been very protected all of her life, but she has a desire to escape and see the world. She’s definitely got a fighter’s spirit - she’s quite a rebel. She ends up falling in love, too.
What first attracted you to the project?
Watership Down is such a classic story in British literature. I remember seeing the 1978 animation when I was very young - and being petrified by it. Having revisited the story as an adult, it’s so pertinent, especially for these days and these times. Also the team behind this are people that I’ve known and people that I’ve worked with so, although it’s a huge project, it felt like a family. I thought it would be brilliant to be involved in the new, contemporary take on Watership Down and bring it to a younger audience.
How do you prepare for an animated role like this?
This is the first real animation I’ve done where my voice is recorded first and then they animate around it. It’s bizarre to be working on something which hasn’t been visually realised yet, but it’s great because you get to be really creative with it. Noam the director wanted everyone’s essences to really be present in the characters. You’d think you’d have to do a special rabbit voice but he told me to just use my accent and voice. The book and the script inform your performance, and although the characters are rabbits the main thing was to bring out the humanity of them.
Have you met any of your fellow cast members yet?
It’s such a great, eclectic mix of the British film industry. Some of them are people who I’ve worked with before like Sir Ben Kingsley, who I did The Prince of Persia with. It was one of my first films around ten years ago. Sir Ben played a baddie and I played a princess, so it’s funny as we’ve a similar sort of dynamic in this. And Nicholas Hoult and I did a film years ago when he was a baby called Clash of the Titans. It’s quite a small world, the acting world!
I also met John Boyega years ago, before he was known. He probably doesn’t even remember this because now he’s such a huge star, but he interviewed me once when he was starting out. I think it was for his school magazine or something like that. I remember he was so sweet because I was doing a play and he came to meet me before the play and gave me some flowers. It was really sweet. He’d just done Attack The Block with my friend Jodie (Whittaker) - and she was the one who set up the meeting. And now he’s such a huge star. It’s funny. I wonder if he remembers that, I bet he doesn’t. I remember it!
Does Clover have any of your features?
She’s a white and ginger rabbit with blue eyes - so I don’t know if she looks like me. But they also film us in the studio when we are doing the dialogue and apparently often a lot of the movements come from us - so the way our eyes or noses move… There’s been a few times where I’ve had to do a rabbit sniff. Maybe the shape of her face is a little bit like mine - it’s quite round.
Can you tell us about any preparation you’ve done before recording?
I read the book when I started working on this. Ours is a really close adaptation; it’s really detailed, and because we have four episodes there is much more of Richard Adams’ story in there.
The main thing was to meet the team, the animators and get an idea of what the world was going to be like. Our animation is different to the 1978 film's animation, which was very 2D. This one has a lot more texture to it, so it was really helpful for me to understand the world that it takes place in.
How is working on a voice role different to working on a live action one?
When you are working on a live action film, you are giving everything in that moment - the physicality, the way you move, the script, the voice - everything is happening in that very moment. With an animated series, all you’re doing is giving the voice and then everything else is added in afterwards. For Watership Down, it’s such a long project - it’s taken over three years to make. I started recording it a year and a half ago and then you come back in and you record another bit. It’s layering, rather than shooting something for two months and it then being done. There is a much longer period of time where you can really layer it up. It’s a completely different process.
Watership Down has a reputation for being quite scary - should we be afraid of this?
I think in a way Watership Down is supposed to frighten people. On one level it’s a harrowing, wake-up call to get us to look at what we are doing to our environment and our society. I think without there being those elements, it wouldn’t have the impact that it has. I remember watching the 1978 film as a kid on telly and thinking it would be a lovely bunny rabbit film - and it’s not. That’s what stays with you. It’s a very epic, beautiful story - but it’s filled with tragedy as well. That’s why it caters for so many. You can read Watership Down as a kid or as an adult and it will impact you at different points in your life for certain reasons.
An interview with John Boyega (Bigwig)
Who do you play?
I'm playing Bigwig. A rabbit with a dark past - a lot of wars fought, a lot of scars to show for it. A rabbit who is tough, stern and has a really deep sense of family. He’s a great character to play and, for me, the strongest and the coolest of the bunch.
You must have been excited to join the project?
I was excited because I had no clue as to what the production team were going to do with this. When I first heard about it through my agent I didn’t know it was going to be CG, and I didn’t know that it would have this amazing British cast attached. Actors like James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, and Daniel Kaluuya - all great actors who are doing really well at the moment and, for me, it was a great opportunity to join them. I was also curious as to how they were going to do this, because the 1978 film was in 2D and it was devastating. I was devastated, I can’t lie. It was too much - it was bloody and looked a bit strange and as a kid taking that in was very scary. But this version, whilst still animation, looks a lot more real now, and it’s so interesting to take that approach. With CG you can add a sense of reality, which increases the emotional stakes for those watching it.
How do you prepare for a role like this?
You have to have a deeper sense of imagination when performing, because you’re in a booth - you're not there on a set, and you’re not able to react off anything. And in Watership Down the characters are consistently constantly moving, so you have to imagine whether at any one point you're running through a lake or crossing a road when a big car comes by, for example.
For me, it’s playing. There are certain types of roles in which you can just play, and for me this is one of those roles. You just use your imagination. So I’m pretending to choke in a snare, or if there’s a scene where Bigwig’s eating I'll get a bowl of grapes and do the scene with lots of grapes in my mouth. I try as much as possible to re-enact what the character’s going through.
And on top of that, it all happens with the animators. They do all the magic, and our voices breathe life into the magic they do.
How does Bigwig differ from other roles you’ve played?
I’d say that I always seem to be playing characters who haven’t found their path just yet. You meet them at a point where the film starts and they haven’t found their part or their place. Whereas with Bigwig he kinda knows where he belongs, but he just discovers more about himself through his connection with Hazel and the other bunnies. He finds his leadership, but has to go through a whole journey to discover that. It’s quite a bit different to the other roles I’ve played. Finn: Stormtrooper. Jake: Jaeger pilot. Bigwig: rabbit. I'm versatile, man!
What attracted you to Watership Down?
I wanted to be part of a great animation. Animation is something that I’m quite passionate about, and this for me was the chance to be part of a sophisticated story with a great team - and also to be part of a story that I remember growing up with. I like to be a part of things that have had an effect on me growing up. That’s why I’m part of Star Wars and Pacific Rim - it’s my way of being a part of that again.
What sets this adaptation apart from any previous ones?
I think because this Watership Down is told across four episodes you’re able to really discover and get to know the intricacies of the characters in a really intimate way. It just allows the audience to really get into that world. And the TV format makes you excited about watching the next episode of something. This is accessible to everyone on the BBC, and it's a new version of an old story with an obviously phenomenal cast. It gives a great new take on an old tale.
Why should BBC One viewers tune in?
It’s a nice opportunity to sit down with the family for an evening of Christmas animation, which is also something a little bit serious. There’s a great balance there. The whole family can watch it and all get something out of it. If I had kids I’d definitely sit down to watch Watership Down with them. To watch them cry…! No, I’m joking. It’s a fun family adventure - it’s got great VFX and a great cast of actors with recognisable voices, and it’s something I think everyone will enjoy.
What’s made the story of Watership Down so successful over the years?
I can only speak from the British perspective on this one. If you go out to the countryside, you'll see a hare or a squirrel roaming around, and for me anyway there was always that curiosity of what’s it’s like for them in day to day life. I think the journey they’re on intrigues a lot of people. The story is timeless, too. Yes it’s a story about rabbits, but actually what they’re going through resonates on a human level.