In 1805 children crewed along with grown men on British naval ships. Some were orphans, working for the ship's carpenters or sailmakers. Some were "powder monkeys," shuttling gunpowder to the cannons during battle. Others were midshipmen, teenage sons of the captain's friends. Young gentlemen being groomed as future officers, they were treated as adults, living and fighting alongside the older men.
In "Master and Commander," Max Pirkis, a solemn, cherubic London boarding school student, plays the ship's youngest midshipman, Lord Blakeney, 13, a war-wounded protege of the ship's physician. In scenes with the film's stars, Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, Max leaves quite an impression. He spoke with The Times recently about life on the ship set, being a teenager then and now, and being allowed in the Monkey Bar.
Question: Since you've never been in a movie before, how did you land the part?
Answer: They came around looking at the school. They thought I looked right for the part. There were a series of auditions. I was slightly surprised, more interested in getting on with school stuff. Bit by bit it became evident I was part of something quite big.
Q: What did your parents say?
A: My mom is a big fan of the (Patrick) O'Brian books, and a publisher. They were really supportive. They said, if you want to do this, think of all the bad things like missing school. They wanted to make sure that if I decided to do this, that I'd know all these things were going to happen.
Q: How long were you away from home?
A: Six months. As a whole, I really enjoyed it. There are some times when you're down. I had my mom out for four weeks. The [school] housemaster came, and my aunt, and the housekeeper, and then the whole family.
Q: What was it like to play a junior officer who gets to command older men?
A: It's quite fun. A bit strange. If you're a lot younger than them, it feels weird ordering them around.
Q: Would you rather be a 13-year-old then or today?
A: They have the overseas adventure and have to face the unknown. The world's not completely discovered and all that. It's quite a harsh life and you die and stuff. I'd probably choose nowadays, though it was a lot more exciting in those days. If you survived.
Q: On location, Russell Crowe and some actors stayed in character between scenes. Did the older cast members treat you as an equal off-screen?
A: They all allowed for the fact that we were younger. You're there for so long, you become like comrades. In the film, it's the same.
Q: What was it like working with Russell Crowe?
A: In the beginning, it was intimidating; he's such a big actor. At the end, we were all in it together.
Q: Did the other actors clean up their language around you? Let you into the Monkey Bar [a canteen provided by director Peter Weir for the actors]?
A: No. They were themselves. We went to the Monkey Bar, but [weren't served] alcohol. I just used the computers. They had a pool table and a coffee machine.
Q: How much did you grow during the filming?
A: When I got the part, I was 5 foot and a quarter inches. Now I'm taller than my mum, though she won't admit it. I must be 5 feet, 4 inches. I had to have lots of costumes. I went through three pairs of shoes.
Q: What do you want to do when you grow up?
A: In my last years of school, I'll have more of an idea. The thing is, I'd love to continue acting. I want to get an education first. I may just do this if nothing else comes up and carry on a normal life. I don't know.