Features

Young Man-O'-War

The True Revelation Aboard the HMS 'Surprise'

Fourteen-year-old Max Pirkis can play the violin, speak Latin, play soccer, speak French, play cricket, play the saxophone, ride a Razor scooter using only his left hand, and fire a cannon. Six are talents he's honed at Eton, the English academy famous for producing statesmen and future kings. The rest he picked up on the set of ''Master and Commander,'' in which Pirkis brilliantly stands out as midshipman Lord Blakeney, surrogate son to Crowe's Captain Aubrey and May-December buddy to Bettany's Dr. Maturin.

''I suppose every young boy wants to be a big actor,'' says the London native, ''but I hadn't really thought about what I wanted to do.'' Then casting folk visited his school, where they hoped to find boys to fill the HMS Surprise's teenage crew. ''Max stood out very early on,'' says director Peter Weir, ''but not to the extent that you see in the film. That was a complete surprise.''

No kidding. In the film's most instantly gripping scene, the newcomer channels a silent horror as his character's injured right arm is amputated without anesthesia. ''A friend of the family had just died, so that helped me cry,'' Pirkis says. He nailed it in two takes, and then spent the shoot wearing a prosthetic stump, his real arm tucked to his side, learning to write, eat, and ride his beloved scooter southpaw. ''I got to the point of asking him how he does it, and he'd just shrug,'' Weir marvels. ''He didn't want to analyze it.''

Now back in the U.K., Pirkis -- who has no immediate plans to return to film -- is reading the historical novel ''Pompeii,'' getting psyched to see the next ''Lord of the Rings'' flick, and reeling from a ''nerve-racking'' meeting with Prince Charles at ''Master'''s premiere. Oh, and there's school, of course -- although, he admits, ''I can't do math and science. I'm absolutely useless in them.'' That's not good for a sailor. But it's just fine for a movie star.

Originally posted Dec 05, 2003 Published in issue #740 Dec 05, 2003 Order article reprints