Though Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany are garnering most of the attention for their performances as a ship captain and his doctor, respectively, in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” Max Pirkis, 14, also makes a startlingly strong debut in the film as Blakeney, a midshipman whose arm must be amputated after he gets hurt in a particularly violent battle. (A.O. Scott in the New York Times called his performance “especially fine.”)
All actors have to start somewhere, and Pirkis found his acting legs in a school production. His stage credits, however, don’t go much further than playing “one of the gang” in “Lord of the Flies.” “I was also in a 1930s horror spoof thing called ‘Curse of the Werewolf,’ which is a good one,” Pirkis says by phone from his North London home. “I played a mad Irishman called Ramsey. It was a good entertaining part — he thought he was a werewolf.”
Like most child actors, Pirkis wasn’t discovered playing King Lear to a sophomore girl’s Cordelia. Instead, film scouts came to his school looking for youngsters, and after a series of auditions he got the part. “It all came very much out of the blue,” Pirkis, who now goes to boarding school, explains. “Obviously, every young boy dreams of possibly becoming an actor.”
But for now, the acting career is on hold. “I think it’d be nice to pursue, but it just depends on what comes up in the future. If I was going to take it seriously, I’d like to mix between stage and film, but I’ve got exams.”
As a movie buff — he most recently saw “Love Actually” with his parents — Pirkis found the process of making a film fascinating. “It was strange to see how it all works and knowing that’s how they did that,” Pirkis says. To achieve the amputee effect, for example, Pirkis had to keep his hand by his side and wear a prosthetic arm. “I had never experienced anything like it before. You see something and you think it’s two hours and you think that’s it, but actually there’s so much that goes into it.”
Though he’s gotten to attend all sorts of flashy premieres for the movie, Pirkis insists he doesn’t get star struck —“It’s quite cool seeing all the stars and stuff but it’s not like wow, amazing” — and he found Crowe to be “pretty normal” and “quite cool.”
By the time all of his school friends see the movie, which they won’t be able to do until Christmas break, things may start to change. “I hope no one makes too big a deal of it,” Pirkis says. “It hasn’t taken off in England yet, but everyone knows about it. It gets annoying because it’s the same questions the whole time — ‘How much did you get paid?’ or ‘What was Russell Crowe like?’ And people are making the same jokes all the time and it’s not that funny anymore. Just like ‘Oh you lose your arm’ or quoting things from the trailer,” he goes on.
“But obviously, there’s no point in being rude to them, so I just nod along and smile.”