Game of Thrones actor Art Parkinson discusses working with elephants in Zoo and his Saturday job in a Derry cafe

He may still be at school, but Donegal teenager Art Parkinson is already a screen-acting veteran. He talks to Jenny Lee about his lead role in Zoo, being bilingual and having a Saturday job in a Derry cafe. Oh, and starring in some fantasy drama called Game Of Thrones

Sixteen-year-old Art Parkinson at the premiere of Zoo in Belfast earlier this month

AGED just 16, Art Parkinson has already had an exciting acting career and rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in showbiz, including Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Dwayne Johnson and Ralph Fiennes – not to mention fellow cast members of Game of Thrones, the global smash hit series in which he has had a central role since 2011.

His latest acting adventure took him to Belfast and Canada, where he filmed some heartwarming and emotional scenes with an elephant, in Zoo, the movie inspired by the true story of a woman who brought a baby elephant home from Belfast Zoo during the Second World War in an effort to prevent it from being killed during the German bombing of the city.

Art stars as 12-year-old Tom, in the family-friendly adventure, written and directed by Antrim man Colin McIvor. When his father gets called up to serve in the British army, Tom steps up to save a baby elephant as city authorities order the elimination of the zoo’s large carnivores, worried they might escape during another air raid.

A young Art Parkinson as Rickon Stark in the fantasy drama Game of Thrones

"It was great fun working with all the animals," says Parkinson, who has two pet dogs at home in Moville, on Co Donegal's Inishowen Peninsula.

During filming in Canada he built up a special friendship with elephant Nellie, known as Buster in the film.

"It was Nellie's first time in front of cameras and she was quite nervous. I just stroked her and talked to her and within five minutes of being in the enclosure with her she was wrapping her trunk around me. We were together most of the 11 days in Canada."

Parkinson describes the film as "hopeful, humane and compassionate".

"It’s a great way to learn about a story that hasn’t been included in history," says the young actor, who is passionate about animal welfare and caring for the environment.

"It was a pleasure to work in and visit the African Lion Safari in Canada, where the animals have so much space. The elephant enclosure alone was about 500 acres.

"These days you look around and see pollution everywhere and basically disrespect for the Earth. As humans we can definitely change the way we look at that."

Art Parkinson, Ian O'Reilly, Glenn Nee, James Stockdale, Penelope Wilton, Emily Flain and Colin McIvor at the premiere of Zoo in Belfast

Before taking on any role, Parkinson spends a great deal of time getting into the mindset of the character he will be playing, he says. In the case of Tom, he believes he and his character share many personalities traits.

"He's determined and the morals, demeanour and values he holds are very loyal and I can definitely relate to that.”

Playing a character four years younger than him presented some challenges. "I did have to shave my chin and upper lip," he laughs.

As a child actor, by the age of seven Parkinson was already taking up roles for screen productions. His first movie role was as Young Kenneth in the 2008 horror movie Freakdog. More horror followed – Dark Touch, Dracula Untold – and a disaster movie, San Andreas, in which he played the lead role of Ollie, a 10-year-old boy caught up in a massive earthquake in California.

But it is undoubtedly for the role of Rickon Stark, youngest child of the ill-fated Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), lord of Winterfell, in four series of the award-winning fantasy drama series Game of Thrones for which he is best known.

"The whole experience of working on Game of Thrones was so surreal. You are just immersed into this world of fantasy and that's largely down to the production team, especially the props and costume department," says Parkinson, whose character finally ends up with an arrow through the heart.

After initially being banned by his mum and dad from watching the show in which he appeared, due to its graphic content, Parkinson says he's slowly catching up on the series.

"I’m on season three now," he laughs.

Last year the Donegal teenager voiced the lead role in Kubo And The Two Strings, an epic US animated film about of a one-eyed boy on a mystical quest to discover his family’s magical legacy, which won a Bafta and was nominated for two Oscars.

“It was great fun and great to celebrate something we spent so long working on and put our heart and soul into,” he says.

Very much grounded, Parkinson hasn't let fame go to his head and is always open to taking advice – most recently on the set of Zoo, from Dame Penelope Wilton, who plays Denise Austin.

"Penelope was amazing to work with and she helped me a lot – especially about the importance of socialising with the cast. Rather than sitting looking at a phone, socialising with her made the connection and chemistry between our characters natural on screen," says Parkinson who, unlike most teenagers, isn't a huge fun of social media. "My friends do give me stick for not posting enough," he laments.

He also isn't afraid to hand out his own advice, helping out Lisburn teenager Emily Flain, for whom Zoo was her first feature film.

"Emily is a natural. On the first day, Emily was understandably very nervous. She just needed to believe in herself, so we sat her down and told her we have all been there and she just needed to believe in herself."

Parkinson, who attends school at Coláiste Chineál Eoghain in Buncrana, is a proud promoter of the Irish language and hopes to star in an Irish language film in the near future.

He doesn't rule out a move to America in the future but, with a tutor on set for three hours a day when acting, he first wants to sit his Leaving Cert next summer.

And if the movie career doesn't work out, he has a back-up plan.

"I have a big interest in food, so if I was acting, I would consider something related to cooking."

In fact, when he's not studying or acting, he can often be found helping out in his parents' cafe, The Coffee Tree, in Derry.

"I work every Saturday, though during the summer I should be getting a few more shifts. I’m working on my barista skills. I’m getting fairly good at making lattes, but I wouldn’t be the quickest."

And the pay?

"I just get the minimum wage like everyone else," he laughs.

While his oldest brother Pearce has now finished college and has a managerial position in a restaurant, his other brother Padraig, whose film credits include an adaptation of John Banville's The Sea, also continues to combine studying and acting.

And the secret to his success?

"I’ve always surrounded myself with people I know and don’t let my head get too big. Myself, my dad and my brothers love to go out and do a bit of mackerel fishing."

As for his dream role, young Parkinson is sticking to his Irish roots. "I’m big into my Irish history, so I’d love to do a role in relation to 1916 – something historical."

:: Zoo, starring Art Parkinson, Penelope Wilton, Toby Jones, Amy Huberman and Ian McElhinney, is in cinemas across Northern Ireland now.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access