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The Family
One of the early decisions regarding the script was reducing the head count of cousins from four to three. In Rosoff's novel, Osbert was the eldest but he hasn't made it to the big screen, leaving Edmond -- now Eddie -- not only the first-born but also freighted with the silent, enigmatic characteristics possessed in the book by his twin Isaac, who is now his younger brother. But the most fundamental dynamic in How I Live Now hasn't altered and that's the love story between Daisy and Eddie.

Finding a leading man to play Ronan's on-screen soulmate generated an exhaustive search. The casting net was flung far and wide, hundreds of schools were visited, Macdonald began to worry they might not find what they were looking for. But four young actors were eventually picked to read with Saoirse; and the director and producers went for MacKay, who's had starring roles in Defiance, The Boys Are Back and Private Peaceful. "It was clear that Saoirse responded to him far more than the others," says Macdonald. "I didn't want a smooth-skinned Twilight pretty boy, I wanted somebody who felt like they were a country boy, and who had the awkwardness and mystical quality that Eddie is meant to have. They've got real chemistry together. He's also a very good actor."

"George has been acting for a long time as well and he's a similar age to me," says Ronan, "so it's nice to have someone like that to work out scenes with and really go for it together. We get on really well and have been having a laugh the whole time, so when it came to shooting the intimate scenes, it's been fine."

Eddie might keep to himself, spending much of his time with the trained hawk he dotes on, but he's also attuned on a core level to the feelings of other people, not least Daisy, and to the natural world. "He's so sensitive towards everything around him that it makes him quite insular and socially awkward," observes MacKay. "He sees straight through all the barriers that people put up, which is why he and Daisy fall in love: he sees the person behind all the pain. That's the first time anyone has seen that in her and that's what makes their connection so personal and so strong."

MacKay entrusted himself to Macdonald's judgment in terms of how internal to make Eddie, and enjoyed the semi-improvisational approach the director applied to many of the scenes. "The way Kevin shoots is quite free and organic," says MacKay. "In scenes where there are more than two of us, he'll often roll the cameras as we're sort of joking around and mucking about before the scene's started. That means it all feels very natural."

Helping everything run smoothly is the strong bond that the five young actors share. "We rehearsed in London before we started shooting so by the time we got to the set, we had gelled into a natural group," says MacKay. "Tom's a real joker, Danny's very sweet, Harley's wicked and Saoirse's lovely. Every day, someone would latch onto something that they found funny and we'd all hop in on the joke."

"We've been making a lot of noise for the last six weeks," echoes Ronan. "My throat's sore from too much singing and laughing! I didn't expect it to be as lovely as it has been. We've all gotten very close and I think it's allowing us to do things that will make the film quite special."

Of Daisy's two male cousins, Isaac is the more boisterous and happy-go-lucky, a jolly, spectacle-wearing 14-year-old who flashes a smile at Daisy even at her most prickly. "He's a funny kid," says Holland. "He's bubbly and bohemian, he wears wacky clothes, he's very caring. He puts on this act to show everyone that he is this lively character when I actually think he's quite sad. When he has to say goodbye to his mum, he puts on a brave face, saying everything will be okay, but he's unsure. He's still a very young kid, which was really nice to play."

Holland's acting break came when he played Billy Elliot in the West End for two years (he was chosen from the various boys who alternated the role to play Billy in front of the show's composer, Elton John, in the special 5th anniversary performance). Two months after leaving the hit stage musical, Holland was cast as the eldest son of Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor in Juan Antonio Bayona's critically-acclaimed tsunami drama The Impossible, before following that role up with Isaac in How I Live Now.

Although both films delve into serious subject matter, Holland observes that "they couldn't have been more different to shoot. For one thing, I'm working with people similar in age to me on How I Live Now, which is great because it means that we all get on very well." Holland endorses his older co-stars' opinion that forming a tight-knit group has made How I Live Now an unforgettable experience. "A lot of the stuff you'll see on screen is us being completely natural together, just having fun, having a laugh, hanging out with each other," he says. "It's such a lovely environment. I've been here five weeks and haven't come across a single nasty person."

Macdonald feels they were fortunate to get Holland when they did. The Impossible has launched his career onto an upward trajectory, and he can hardly walk down a street anymore in Spain without being mobbed; Bayona's family drama is the country's No. 1 box-office hit of all time. "He's like the Leonardo DiCaprio-after-Titanic of Spain," laughs Macdonald. "He's become a hot property off the back of The Impossible and he's absolutely brilliant. He's so charming as Isaac and he sketches this whole family in for the audience very quickly, who they are and the warmth they share together."

Holland and MacKay are keen to show off a trick they've developed that has become all the rage on set, involving the tossing of a grape to be caught in one mouth before being immediately expelled and caught in another. Passing the grape back and forth, until someone misses or drops the fruity orb. "We did it in one of the montages so I hope it makes it into the film," laughs MacKay. They are also all huge fans of 'Flight Of The Conchords', and can launch into an impressive rendition of the Kiwi comic duo's spoof rap 'The Hiphopopotamus Vs Rhymenoceros'.

But it wasn't all fun and games, and Holland enjoyed the serious scenes as much as he did the lighter ones that dominate the first half of the narrative. In particular, he relished shooting the film's emotional turning point, when their Brackendale idyll is shattered as Isaac and Eddie are forcibly separated from Daisy and Piper by British soldiers. But not, it must be added, for the reason that it gave him the chance to show off his impressive acting chops. Rather, "I loved it because I think it brought the whole unit closer together," observes Holland, wise beyond his years.

Playing the baby of the clan -- the loud, eccentric, irrepressible Piper ­ -- is 10-year-old Harley Bird, who has already achieved small-screen fame as the voice of popular animated TV character 'Peppa Pig'. It's a role that has made Bird the youngest BAFTA-winner of all time and a celebrity in her own right.

Bird sees the youngest of the cousins as very similar to herself. "Me and Piper, we're the same," chirps the exuberant young actress. "We've got the same fashion sense; she doesn't get easily embarrassed; and I have pets and live on a farm, too, although not a working farm." Naturally, she's been looking up to her older co-stars, describing them as "my older brothers and sister. We've spent so much time together; it's going to be sad when the movie ends." But everybody walked away with a nickname Bird gave them, including 'Mr. Macdonald, Sir' (Kevin), 'Squish' (Ronan) and the rather peculiar 'Amelia Jane' (MacKay), so earned because the actor wanted to change his name to A.J. when he was younger.

"He said we couldn't call him A.J. because it would make him feel like he was in a crazy rock band," says Bird. "So I said, 'Okay then, how about Amelia Jane?'"

Bird was especially close to Ronan, whom she shares nearly all of her scenes with. "I've adopted her. I gave her the certificate and everything," says the 10-year-old actress. As for Ronan, she found herself being protective of her younger co-star. "It's her first film and to be thrown into something that's so emotional and so heavy, it's a lot for a 10 year old but she's done it," she says.

There is very little adult presence in How I Live Now, and those grown-ups who do appear mostly exist in a shadow of fear or violence. Apart from, that is, Aunt Penn. As a peace envoy trying to help avert impending disaster, she is also fearful, but she takes a momentary respite from her frantic negotiating to bond with her niece the night before flying off to Geneva. To make the most of the brief but pivotal role, the production turned to Anna Chancellor, who makes her exchange with Ronan one of the most resonant scenes in the film.

"It was a hard scene to shoot because she has to convey so many different emotions and so much information to the audience," says Macdonald. "Anna was able to accomplish that. I'm so happy with her and it actually made me think what an underused actress she is."

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