Nicholas Hoult, Gemma Arterton and James McAvoy reveal why they loved starring in Watership Down

A host of A-list actors including Nicholas Hoult, Gemma Arterton and James McAvoy have lent their voices to the new four part adaptation of classic novel, Watership Down. We met the stars to find out more....

Forty years after the original film first aired, (and left many young viewers rather traumatised), Watership Down is back and this time much more family friendly.

Richard Adams’ classic novel, which tells the story of a group of rabbits fleeing human violence and the imminent destruction of their much-loved home, has been adapted for the small screen by BBC1 and Netflix and stars a host of big name actors including Ben Kingsley  who voices  rabbit General Woundwort, Star Wars actor John Boyega (Bigwig), Olivia Colman (Strawberry) and Anne Marie Duff (Hyzenthlay).

Here we speak to James McAvoy, who voices the lead rabbit, Hazel, Nicholas Hoult, who plays  his  brother, Fiver, and Gemma Arteton, who stars as Clover, and discover why the three of them jumped at the chance to be involved….

TV Times interview with James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult and Gemma Artertonabout Watership Down

TVT: Watership Down is an iconic novel. How excited are you to be in this adaptation?

James McAvoy: “When I got the email asking how I felt about doing it I was actually wearing my Watership Down t-shirt. I took a selfie and sent it to the producer saying, ‘Check it out man, this is fate’. I love Watership Down – it’s up there with Narnia and Dune.”

Nicholas Hoult: “I’m pretty sure you were wearing that t-shirt when we were in Montreal shooting together. I asked you about it and you said, ‘Yeah I’m doing the voice for it. You should do it’. It’s all down to the t-shirt.”

TVT: Did you read the book as children?  

Gemma Arterton: “I hadn’t read the book, I’d only seen the film when I was a kid and remember being absolutely traumatised. I remember it being on at Easter and not being joyful at all. It was just blood and moaning. That was my prevailing memory of it. It was great reading the book as an adult and seeing there’s so much more to it than just violence.”

JM: “I read the book at drama school but my first memory of it was when my friend from school came round and we ate our dinner in front of Watership Down. I was thinking ‘This is amazing, we’ve got fish and chips or whatever it was and we’re watching Watership Down!’ but I looked at him and he was crying and he said ‘I want to go home’. I loved it though, and then later I loved the book.”

NH: “I saw the original film and had flashing images of that rabbit in a snare in my brain. I used to watch things with my older brother so I was way too young to be watching it really. It was nice to go back and revisit it and get a better understanding.”

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Gemma Arterton who plays Hazel, during recording (C) BBC – Photographer: Steve Brown

TVT: Is it strange just being a ‘voice’ rather than acting? 

GA: “I think quite early on I asked ‘Do we do a rabbit voice?’ but the director Noam Murro said ‘No, just be yourself’. That’s what makes this version seem very contemporary. You’ve got texture in there, different accents and people’s real voices which is obviously weird when you watch it because you think well that’s just John Boyega (who plays Bigwig).”

NH: “It’s actually lovely not to have all the other kerfuffle of acting around you and to just be able to focus very much on the voice. I had to try and make my voice sound younger for this. They asked me to pitch my voice up a little bit so I did and then I heard a little bit back and emailed the producer saying ‘Please fire me. I feel like you maybe need someone else’. Luckily they said ‘No, we really like it.’”

JM:”That’s because all the other actors were already in it.”

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Fiver convinces Bigwig to follow his plan and head for Watership Down – (C) BBC

TVT: Is it tougher in some ways though? 

GA: “You have to record the bits where they say ‘Oh you’re running away from a cat now’ and ‘you’re sniffing the air’ and ‘you’re running away from a seagull’ and you have to be child really. It’s quite fun. It’s actually quite liberating. You get to let yourself be a complete idiot.”

JM: “Did you ever find yourself getting completely light-headed? I think I almost passed out a couple of times on set.”

NH: “I had to nibble on a lot of pencils. There are a lot of pencils around the recording studio I’ve been nibbling on.”

GA:”The best is when you have to do drowning. You literally have to go bluergh in water. It’s so silly. And Nick was doing proper rabbit acting.”

TVT: Did you act together? 

JM: “When you do an animated film you generally don’t. The production team just had to get the actors they wanted so the idea of scheduling people so they can be in the same country at the same time is secondary. But on my third session or so I started to hear bits that Nick or Gemma had done and that’s when it got exciting.”

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Clover spies Hazel from her hutch at Nuthanger Farm – (C) BBC

Did you get to see the animation though? 

JM: “I was involved right from the beginning so I remember seeing a really good cutout of Hazel and that’s about it. I remember them saying ‘Why don’t we show James a scene?’ but what you see is essentially a flip chat and you go ‘Oh I’m none the wiser really’. There was a lot of imagination involved.”

Was it emotional to see it all come together? 

NH: “I remember me and Noam crying when we were doing the last scenes. We were hugging as we were crying. I’ve probably seen it 450 times and I’ve cried every time. I defy anyone not to cry at the end.”

Watership Down starts on BBC1, Saturday Dec 22, 7pm

Main pic credit: Scott Garfitt/REX/Shutterstock