From skint nights on park benches to working with Angelina Jolie, the star of '71 explains why his rise was a decade in the making
It's easy to brand Jack O'Connell as a 'tough guy'. He's played 'em a lot: Pukey in This Is England, James Cook in Skins and last year as plucky, hamfisted inmate Eric Love in the explosive prison drama Starred Up. It's incredible, if you haven't seen it. As for tough, he's spent a night or two on a park bench, digging deep in his pockets for trains down to London to audition. Now the toughness mostly shines through in the f-bombs that pepper his speech. Ploughing through auditions in his early days has all been part and parcel to his painfully obvious passion and ambition for acting. O'Connell brings that undeterred ferocity to his role as Private Gary Hook in Yann Demange's debut feature '71. As a British soldier, he gets cleaved from his team during The Troubles in Northern Ireland and becomes the subject of a man hunt.
After this film hits theatres, it's going to get much harder to feign ignorance to his rising star. Next, he plays Olympic distance runner and prisoner of war Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken. Then comes Tulip Fever opposite Dane DeHaan, Christoph Waltz and Zach Galifianakis. It's all coming to fruit, even though O'Connell has been "slugging it out now for ten years." Here we chat how he musters up the toughness, how he was bullied in school and how he's right where he needs to be.
Why don’t you live in LA?
Jack O’Connell: Ahh, I think that’d cripple me mentally. I’m from Derby. I support the football team very keenly. I work closely with them. If I go out to LA, then I’ll distance myself from that. I’m not ruling it out. I’ve got friends out there, and progressively the more and more times I go out there, the more I seem to enjoy it. But this is home, isn’t it?
How would you describe back home?
Jack O’Connell: It’s just a lot less. A lot less employment, a lot less money and a lot less development. It’s still basically a city and it functions like one, but I think we have the benefits of size. It’s not big enough for people to devalue each other, yet. There’s a lot to feel proud about there for some reason. At home, just staying on the straight and narrow and being an average individual is sort of appreciated as an achievement. It’s very humbling, to go from a place like LA back to Derby, a swift manoeuvre.
Have you noticed an increase in recognition yet?
Jack O’Connell: It’s been gradual, very gradual. There’s never been any sudden nature to it. Like, Skins introduced me to recognition, or a level of fame domestically. And then it did well in Europe and America, so that gave it a level of notoriety. I’ve been slugging it out now for ten years. Now I feel like I’m right where I wanna be. There’s nothing sudden about it, in fact I feel very measured. When I have to make decisions, I’ve got an educated perspective on things now, which is fucking vital. I think otherwise you just get taken for rides.
“I’ve been slugging it out now for ten years. Now I feel like I’m right where I wanna be. There’s nothing sudden about it. I’ve got an educated perspective on things now, which is fucking vital” – Jack O'Connell
Do you still get excited when you get picked for a role?
Jack O’Connell: Oh God, yeah. The same applies to the opposite, in that if I don’t get a role it fucking hurts. In fact, my last endeavor was an unsuccessful one.
Can you tell me what it was?
Jack O’Connell: I’d rather not, because I feel a little bit bitter about it. I don’t want to get specific but the long and short of it is, it was fucking perfect! I really wanted it; I started to believe in it. I did dialect lessons and I really felt like I gave perhaps one of the best auditions. I think what went against me on that day was profile, and that’s frustrating.
What does that mean?
Jack O’Connell: They probably went for someone that they can guarantee an audience with. As opposed to someone who ... and I really had a grasp of the character, ya know? So as I say I’m still bitter about it.
That must be weird, the whole casting process?
Jack O’Connell: Well, you’re never invincible.
“I take a lot of pride in knowing that I put myself here, essentially. I was one that slept rough on the park benches; I somehow managed to find my train fare for the auditions” – Jack O'Connell
How big of a hand would you say you’ve had on your own success?
Jack O’Connell: Well, it’s not singlehanded, but I take a lot of pride in knowing that I put myself here, essentially. I was one that slept rough on the park benches; I somehow managed to find my train fare for the auditions. So I do, I take a lot of credit myself but I am still very humbled by it all and very pleased to see it all go well. I can’t claim that this is some overnight success story. I’ve been slugging it out for a long time – it’s been fucking ugly along the way as well. What I do have is a fucking expert team around me, which I’m lucky for. One of which, my London agent, I’ve been with since I was 14. That’s ten years now. And more and more I’m paying an interest to the business and publicity side of things. I sort of perceive it as part of my job entailments. So I enjoy the conversations we have. For example, last night I was on a jury panel for BAFTA, trying to sift through candidates for several breakthrough Brit Awards. I’m of the opinion that if that was my working life, doing that every day, I’d fucking hate it; I’d be suicidal. It was a bit of a one off last night. We sat around the table with all these BAFTA affiliates having all these professional discussions, I fucking loved having an input in them.
Do you do a lot of research for your roles?
Jack O’Connell: I try.
Do you think that helps a lot?
Jack O’Connell: I’ve been on certain sets where it’s not welcome, certain sets where it’s probably not so drama orientated. I don’t wanna name names but I think we can jump to conclusions. So yeah, I do my research. I feel like I really have to see them. They have to exist in my mind.
For ’71, did you have to do a lot of research?
Jack O’Connell: Yeah, my character wasn’t necessarily from anywhere in the original script. I suggested he could be from Derbyshire, because it meant that I didn’t have to do any particular accent. And then I began to work out who he might be. I assume I might know him. I know a lot of people from that area as well back home, a couple of which actually served out in Belfast at the time. So I wasn’t short on personal reference.
A lot of the films you've been in are very physical (Starred Up). Did you ever feel like you could get seriously injured?
Jack O'Connell: Yeah, sure. In this bracket of the industry you can’t have health and safety gloss over everything. I nearly careered into broken glass. It was fixed into the walls and there was broken glass at the top to deter burglars in Liverpool, and they wanted me to jump over this fucking wall. I had to say something. One thing I have learnt is that you have a responsibility to yourself because no one’s going to draw the line for you. They will try and take advantage and get the shot, even if it does risk your fucking jugular vein, or two, should I say.
What would you say is your money maker?
Jack O’Connell: (Laughs) my intuition, on set and off set, to sense what roles I need to be focusing on and what roles I don’t. It’s just as important what I’m turning down these days as opposed to what I eventually end up saying yes to.
Were you a bully in school?
Jack O’Connell: Nah, I was an anti-bully. I actually got victimised a little bit. I hung around with the bullies a bit, at first, but during secondary school you find your friends. They were the hardest bunch, in terms of protection in numbers and all that. And then they were just fucking vile to people, it was to people that I’d have a laugh with eventually. So, I wouldn’t describe myself as a bully, more a man of the people.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as a bully, more a man of the people” – Jack O'Connell
Do you have any stories where you were bullied?
Jack O’Connell: I remember being fucking lumped in a shower cubicle – because I pissed around in P.E. As a result of my pissing around, our lesson got cut short. We liked P.E. and I just jeopardised our one hour of fucking around in our curriculum that week. So I got into the fucking dressing rooms, and I got lumped in the shower. They fucking closed the door and started spitting on me, hitting me straight over the back of the head, slapping me and turning the shower on. I lost my shit. I started flipping out, man. But, I was popular enough to get friends in older years, and that definitely went in my favour.
With these roles, is it hard mustering up that anger for the tough guy?
Jack O'Connell: It’s exhausting. You have to look at it as a bit of an outlet. You’ve got to remember it’s a performance and why you’re angry at that time. Now I feel like I’ve got it to give it so it saves me getting fucked off in my own life. It’s a release almost.
What’s the hardest thing to pull out at the drop of a hat?
Jack O’Connell: I think tears, and playing an actor that isn’t yourself and you’ve got another dialect. That is a fear of mine at the minute.
You’re doing an American accent for Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, yeah?
Jack O’Connell: Yeah. I want to try and add emotion into that or volume, that’s when your usual accent can creep in. I don’t fear it, but I know that I haven’t necessarily proved myself on that front yet.
How do you pick your projects?
Jack O’Connell: I’ve never had the luxury of choice before now. I just got what I was given. Now I pick them based on how they vary from other roles that I’ve been seen doing and my passion for the writing, and perhaps the director involved. Now I’m just literally avoiding working before Unbroken comes out, because anything that’ll be offered to me won't be of the same calibre. And although in terms of budget and enormity, I’m happy to be open-minded, you do have to entertain harder scales and keep progressing on a studio level, and perhaps a financial one too. Just to remain integral, so one day I can hopefully focus on the more lower budget stuff as well, and the art forms.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Jack O’Connell: In five years, hopefully I’ll have got a production company together. I’m helping people, I’ve got my foundation set and I can work consistently with a body of work that’s more diverse than it is now. Hopefully…
'71 debuts at LFF today and is in cinemas on Friday 10 October; Unbroken is out on Boxing Day