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The Cast
Firth had known a man who'd been on the Death Railway. "He was actually our local Labor parliamentary candidate and it was often told how this is something he carried with him and that he'd actually had some sort of experience of reconciliation. It all connected."

"In an awful lot of screenwriting you get a generic hero of one sort or another. There was nothing generic here - the character jumped off the page. Eric felt completely unique to the story; his passion for railway timetables and trains, his extraordinarily intense, soldierly qualities - loyalty and a commitment to a sense of honor, all combined to make a very dynamic personality. There's also this very dark side which has to do with the degree to which he'd suffered. That was also very powerful to read. So you have a man who's delightful, but there's a mystery to him."

Jeremy Irvine had actually read the book a few years before being sent the screenplay and arrived at his first casting meeting with fifty pages of notes. "This was a story with real integrity, real emotion and also something that needed to be told because it's truly extraordinary - and I don't use that word lightly."

Did Irvine find it intimidating to find himself playing the young Firth? "Suddenly I was working with one of the greatest actors of a generation. Colin was so open about his process and so helpful and kind and understanding and really did want us to work together so it was just wonderful. I could phone him up and say 'do you think this will work?' and he'd say 'well I don't know, let's play with it' and we'd workshop together and that's something that most 21 year-old actors only get to dream of, doing this sort of masterclass with an actor like Colin."

For Teplitzky, the time the two spent together was the best kind of rehearsal. "Because it's a split experience, where Colin has to deal with the emotional consequences of what Jeremy physically and emotionally goes through, there needed to be a trading of what those experiences mean for each of them."

Nicole Kidman read the script and responded immediately. "I'd never had the chance to play a woman who gets to stand by her partner, her lover, her husband through very difficult times. It's something I feel very strongly about and have done in my own personal life. I do believe there's a way in which love can heal, by just gently, slowly, encouraging someone to confront things, and I wanted to do that on screen. That's the thread Patti and I share, obviously in very different situations, but I connected to her."

"I've always believed that people fuse through pain. People don't fall in love, or really find deep love when everything is good. When you really find it is when you have to go through pain together. And if you choose to stay together you really find something much deeper."

Firth and Kidman had both worked with Stellan Skarsgaard before. Teplitzky remembers that "as soon as Stellan's name came up we all just fell in love with the idea. It needed an actor who brought great weight, truthfulness and believability to an enigmatic role. He anchors the film. He's sometimes the narrator and he brings great warmth, helping Patti to understand why her husband is shutting her out."

Hiroyuki Sanada was stunned when he read the script. "I had heard about the Death Railway before but I didn't know any details. The Japanese education system doesn't talk about this. When I started research I was shocked and surprised and felt a kind of mission as a Japanese born actor, to tell this story to the world and to the young generation, to re-examine history. I believe learning language means learning culture. Mr. Nagase was a translator, so he had a chance to find out what the rest of the world thought about Japanese militarism. That's why he started trying to pray for the Prisoners of War. The Asian workers and I felt the same mission. If we don't know what happened in the past, how can we learn from it? That's why I wanted to join this film as an actor and as a Japanese man."

Tanroh Ishida, who plays the young Nagase, feels that his generation will be very surprised because they don't know about this story. "You're not taught it," he says. "You only find out about it if you choose to look." But Ishida was keen to understand the pressures his character would have been under. "It's something very hard for us to get hold of because it's new for us in our generation. The belief was that the Emperor was the god and you had to give your life to him. There was no 'you.' You're just part of the group or the nation. Especially for Western society it's very hard to imagine, but that's how it was back then."

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