With two movies released stateside this year, and one of the most highly anticipated films of 2014 on the way, Jack O’Connell seems like a newcomer crashing the gates of Hollywood. But the twenty-four-year-old Brit has a long record.
Like anyone who played organized sports as a kid, Jack O’Connell had dreams of turning pro. His grandfather played for a big league (English) football team. His father had been a prospect. And it’s a privilege of youth; anything is possible. Master the fundamentals and your own kinetic faculties, and—with a little talent—the big leagues are less like a dream and more like a ticket to glory.
By age thirteen, Jack was a standout athlete. Then the agonizing symptoms began in his knees.
Ticket gone. Fate sealed. He considered joining the army.
But a funny thing happened on the way to high school. Jack enrolled in a drama class, where a teacher suggested he audition for a television show. He earned a four-episode part in the TV series The Bill, playing Ross Trescot, a teenage rapist. The following year he was cast in Shane Meadows’s This Is England as skinhead Pukey Nicholls. In 2009 Jack joined Channel 4’s Skins, the program that made him a UK household name. (An American spin-off aired one season on MTV but was cancelled under puritanical charges of indecency and child pornography.) Skins follows a group of teenagers in South West England as they grapple with eating disorders, budding sexuality, and—thanks in part to Jack’s joyfully scurrilous character James Cook—substance abuse.
Sensing a pattern?
From TV shows to feature films, Jack cut his teeth on emotionally damaged characters. If an English picture required an elegant delinquent, a bruiser with golden gloves, Jack got consideration.
It wasn’t rote typecasting. O’Connell applied the same vigor to the acting craft as he had to football and boxing. Hailed as one of the most intense actors of his generation, he earned his rep as a ringer in a tough division: complex, fractured characters repressed by dark circumstance, or by the rigors of adolescence. Put another way, he played violent teenagers, but with veniality and boyish qwan. Call it what you will, there’s not a piece of bubble gum on his CV. And the lad’s got a long record.
Much of Jack’s appeal is in his physicality. His movements are economical, straightforward, and sharp as a boxer. There’s no wasted motion, no insouciant slouch. The energy is below the surface, so tightly coiled you can almost hear it creak before exploding across the screen. Which brings us to the David Mackenzie-directed British prison drama, Starred Up. In the movie, Jack plays Eric Love, whose violent outbursts graduate him from a youthful offender institution to a big-league penitentiary, where his estranged father is coincidentally incarcerated. There, Eric’s fulminant temper makes fast enemies of prisoners and COs alike. He’s soon fighting for his life, unsure whether his father will protect or punish him. The film won high critical praise (as well as a 99% “fresh” rating from democratic website Rotten Tomatoes, as of this writing). Jack’s performance in the film heralded the arrival of a fully matured actor, and added hefty status to a name ringing across Europe. With an assist from his showing in 300: Rise of an Empire, American audiences detected the echo.
Consider the anapestic note of recognition in his name: “Jack-o-kAHH-nell.” Yes, you’ve heard of him.
If an English picture required an elegant delinquent, a bruiser with golden gloves, Jack got consideration.
Anticipation of the Angelina Jolie–directed biopic Unbroken has made him nearly impossible to miss. In Jack’s first lead role for a Hollywood film he plays Louis Zamperini, an Olympic long-distance runner serving in the US Army Air Forces during World War II. After his plane crashed in the Pacific, Zamperini survived for forty-seven days in a raft, fending off sharks, eating fish raw, drinking rainwater, and dodging strafe from an enemy bomber before he landed in the Marshall Islands. There the Japanese captured him, under who he suffered two brutal years as a POW. Adapted by the Coen brothers from Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, Unbroken is set for release on December 25, just in time for the 2015 award season considerations.
Merry Christmas, Jack.
We caught up with O’Connell in L.A. to talk about the acting craft, social studies, and words to live by.
ERIK RASMUSSEN: What does your tattoo, “Jack the Lad,” mean?
JACK O’CONNELL: In my school reports, teachers often referred me to as a “Jack the Lad.” I think the Americanism is “Billy the Kid.”
I hope it implies something more fun-loving than your typical aggressive reprobate. But seeing that favored description of theirs, I figured I’d get it tattooed on me arm. It was a play on the irony. In school they tried to strip it from me, and now I’m a professional at something where that attitude looked after me.
What did you want to do before you started acting?
I wanted to be either a footballer, or a boxer. My grandfather was a professional footballer. My dad and his brother had that opportunity, but they shattered themselves. It was a different sport then, a lot tougher. I persevered in football until puberty kicked in and my knees went bad—the official term is osteoslatis. Acting came as I started to fail football.
Did you feel like a failure?
My dad wasn’t as keen on the idea of me being an actor as he was my being a footballer. That was important to me then. So when the knees prevented the footballing I may have felt that way. The lucky side of the story is that I ended up in a school that was a performing arts center. I could have gone to community school and left bilingual. Instead I went to Catholic school and left an actor.
Just be patient.
What does your dad think now that you’re leading Hollywood films?
He passed away in ’09, bless him. But he saw me get on my tracks and look like I was going somewhere with it. Although I heard very little discussion on this topic, he was allegedly proud of me. According to his colleagues.
You dealt with some dark subject matter as a young actor.
My second credit, The Bill, I played a teenage rapist. He was fifteen, I was fourteen. It was quite daunting to engage with.
Is it possible to understand the mind of a rapist when you’re fourteen?
You can only do so much as an actor. As long as you get the key bits right you don’t have to fully involve yourself in that kind of thinking. I benefited from playing the lowest of the low. Anything else didn’t really feel like that big of a stretch for me.
What was it like to switch between TV and film?
It was all part of the same mad industry to me. There is a vast difference but I was unaware of it at the time. I was only concentrating on what happened after “Action!” Eventually I had to get the discipline.
YOUCAN NEVER PLEASE EVERYONE, AND THAT FULED ME.
What contemporary actors do you admire?
There’ve been some greats. I’m all eyes. But Brad Pitt is one of them. He handed me this awesome advice that I’m sticking to: Just be patient. Between wrapping Unbroken and it releasing, don’t tie myself to anything that might compromise me. Them words there seem true. And his leading by example, by his actions, he doesn’t have to tell me too much. I just watch the fellow.
How do you feel about being compared to other actors?
It’s a bit unimaginative. There may be similarities, but I hate being referred to as the next whoever. Though Shane Meadows did liken me to Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in the same sentence…
That’s a compliment.
Exactly. But I’m me, man. I’m Jack O’Connell. That’s how I come up in the credits. If it makes other people’s lives easier then fair play, let them craic on. But I’m ignorant to it all because it’s ignorance to me.
How’d you get the chance to audition for Unbroken?
Angie put out a worldwide search requiring self-taping. There were a couple of scenes attached. I went to the workshop where I learned drama and consulted with my old tutor. He put me in front of the camera. I had me little cousin reading in the lines and we made a scene out of it. Later, when we screen tested it, Angie was kind enough to bring that little cousin along and put him in the screen test with me.
When did you meet Angie?
She reached out as a response to the tapes. She invited me to the Dorchester in London. From then on it was quite conventional, the only absurdity being that I was liaising with Angelina Jolie herself.
When did you know you got the part?
After the screen test Angie made it hard for me to consider that it was going anywhere else. She just had to convince the people at Universal. They deserve credit because Universal bet $90 million on an unknown actor. An unknown to America, I should say. They had the imagination to take that chance.
What’s Angelina like as a director?
She leads by example. She knows what it is to be the lead in films. She did my stunts before I did them. She wanted to see if they worked for her. She wanted to feel it out. You’d turn up to set and she’d be rehearsing your scene for you. She likes to feel it that way.
Did you read the book, Unbroken?
Yes, it was such a clean reference for me. I was starving myself, kind of. Responsibly. Reading from the book every day made my version of starving seem tame enough to be manageable—in comparison to Louis and the hardship he endured, anyway.
How much weight did you lose for the film?
Two stone (twenty-eight pounds) over three or four months.
Did you meet Louis Zamperini?
Three times. This is the first time I’ve been to California since his passing. I’ve got a heavy heart, actually. I’ll go to his grave, maybe drop something sentimental. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had three separate meetings with an absolute legend.
Unbroken was huge best seller. Still, most Americans will discover Zamperini through the film. Did you feel more pressure introducing an American legend to an American audience?
Enormous pressure. Not just for the audience but for him. And Angie. And his family. Still do! Less now that I feel comfortable with what’s in the can. And Angie’s feedback has been really moving. I already know the fact that I’m playing a national treasure, as a Brit, is going to piss people off.
I’M NOT AS SELFLESS AS LOUIS IS. AND I DON’T have his LEVEL OF ENDURANCE. BUT I INTEND TO GET THERE.
Has there been blowback already?
I’ve seen things. But that’s narrow-mindedness. There are people who can see past that and just appreciate the art form, and maybe even let me convince them I’m American for ninety minutes. They’re the people we’re making films for. You can never please everyone, and that fueled me. There was work to be done. I was dialect training every day. Everything I said on screen I’d rehearsed over and over again. By the time we shot the scene, I didn’t have to think about what my mouth was doing. Then it was a toss up between, Do I try and sound like Louis? Or do I do an American in my own voice, which is what Angie wanted to hear in the end.
Was it hard to get the American accent right?
Yeah. Strange how difficult it is, man. At least for me. Thankfully I was surrounded by Americans.
Did you watch Hollywood films for help?
I listened to a lot of Johnny Cash. But he’s southern in comparison to Louis, so I had to hone in on the West Coast. Not only that, but I had to be true to the period and avoid modernisms.
Did you carry on with the accent off-set?
That may be where I lost out by not going to stage school; I will always feel like an absolute twat if I’m trying to engage with someone realistically in any other accent than my own. I just feel like a knob. Maybe I should consider some more training.
There was an emphasis on getting the feel of the period right. How did you prepare?
The clues are in the era. There are modernisms in the way I stand and walk, the way I emphasize my points with my hands. I had to strip all that out. Before the war, if you were proper, if you ironed your clothes and you looked good, it spoke volumes about you. There was emphasis on symmetry, order. People engaged each other with a heightened sense of importance. They didn’t have telephones. They couldn’t ring you later. They had to relay their messages properly, speaking clearly. It wasn’t until after the war people started to walk slanted and stand off-kilter. This role became a social study.
Could Louis Zamperini exist today?
Interesting question. I do think so, yeah. You won’t see him in the mainstream. But there is such a thing as selflessness, still.
What do you most identify with in Louis?
Being on the wrong side of authority for reasons that aren’t necessarily negative. At school, I just wanted to make people laugh. Maybe it was insecurity. I couldn’t sit still for six hours. I wasn’t docile enough. And neither was Louis, by the sounds of it. Having initiative to think for yourself, that’s a quality in people. But it’s a very worrying outlook for the people who run the show. I definitely share that with Louis. I’m not as selfless as he is. And I don’t have his level of endurance. But I intend to get there.
What other characters do you want to play?
If I never get to play Elvis Presley I’ll be disappointed, I know that much.
Words to live by?
It’s quite cheesy, but Ian Brown told me, “Don’t be nervous, have a purpose.”
What will your dying words be?
“Did I do all right?”