Many may be hearing about actor Jack O'Connell for the first time this year, but he's been plugging away for a decade nevertheless. And it's all been building to this moment. A star is being born.
O'Connell received awards recognition for his ferocious turn in “Starred Up” (now in theaters), the most immersive deep dive into a prison psyche this side of Tom Hardy in “Bronson.” He dabbled in the Hollywood world with “300: Rise of an Empire” earlier this year, while Belfast thriller “'71” debuted at the Berlinale in February before hitting the circuit once more at Telluride and Toronto. And of course, a little movie from Angelina Jolie called “Unbroken” will be the big introduction for anyone still unaware by the time Christmas rolls around.
It's rare that you get to sit down and dig in on these heady particulars with an actor at the beginning of his or her real launch onto the world stage, and at 24 years old, O'Connell appears to be in the right frame of mind. He's nervous, but he's content that a lot of hard work has paid off. And now he's ready to enjoy his career to the fullest.
Read through our back and forth below. We touch on everything from avoiding the butterflies plaguing him ahead of his big “Unbroken” coming out to the excruciating workout that landed him the requisite abs for a swords and sandals sequel. Naturally, you can expect to be hearing a lot more about this guy in the coming months.
HitFix: We've got a lot to cover but I'm going to back into things here and begin with “Starred Up.” I think for many this performance has become your breakout. Not that you think strategically about your career necessarily, but what was it you were hoping to show you were capable of in that film?
Jack O'Connell: Oh, commitment. Commitment to a character, and an understanding that I'm not just doing me on camera or a version of me. You're doing this stuff all day every day for a period of time, which never feels like long enough, and the repetitive nature of it can sometimes distract you from the reality that you're trying to stay within. Or the hyper reality that you're trying to stay within. And so thankfully “Starred Up” threw up this parameter where I could indulge in that realism properly and not have to worry about the acting, because we weren't in a studio. We were in an actual prison. So I could consider my environment properly, too. The fact that it then went onto a global stage like it has – essentially I just wanted people to see that I care enough. I've studied what my line of work is enough, without having had drama school experience.
I imagine you were working on things like “'71” and such so maybe it was all in the background, but how did it feel when you received that adulation? Did you sense your career catching a spark?
Well, 10 years on, it's kind of been a bit of a long haul and I've been slugging it out for a long time. I do have previous work that I'm equally proud of, which might not get that level of exposure, but at least that can remain integral, that everything I've done I feel a sense of pride of. There are only one or two credits on my CV that I'd opt to erase if I could, and not every actor can say that. So thankfully I was given enough time to really learn my craft, learn my trade. I don't consider myself an expert; the whole process is continuously learning and I want to better myself as I go. But thankfully everything before “Starred Up” was absurd and kind of extraordinary enough in terms of my shooting experiences and promoting these films, it kind of set me in good stride for the attention “Starred Up” got, “'71,” and hopefully it will contribute to what we've got on “Unbroken.”
Indeed, and I don't mean to insinuate you're an overnight success. I've certainly had an interest in you since “This is England,” probably, but it's just interesting to note when careers catch for a broader base, I guess.
Sure, no, of course. But I can appreciate that, too. Particularly in this country, in America, cinema is worshipped. I don't find any insult in people considering me an overnight success. In fact, if that is the case, then I'm advantaged, because I've done the groundwork necessary.
In the meantime you sort of made your way into the Hollywood sphere with “300: Rise of an Empire.” Why did you want to take on that project?
I'll tell you why. Because it fell in a certain part of my calendar year when I had just missed out on a role that I was originally cast in, but we couldn't make the dates work and shit, and so I was without work. I originally rejected “300,” but then I was in a position where I needed it. So I just went ahead and did it, you know?
Did you get anything out of it?
A six pack and pecs and muscle and a devout opposing of stunts on the Gym Jones ethos of gym training. They were the people they liaised us with, and I don't mind naming them. I'll fucking go to war with them, I would. They were quite unreasonable! So in actual fact, no, I didn't take a lot out of it, but I got some good friends out of it. I should remain grateful, you know? They employed me and gave me a slight stepping stone over the atlantic.
And now “'71.” I caught the film at the Telluride Film Festival and found it riveting. It's a very different performance than something like “Starred Up” because it's quite reactive in some ways. How demanding was it for you?
Yeah, good question. That was a bit of a problem for me because I found on “Starred Up” that Eric had all the answers and he was never too far out of his depth. He probably had more of a disregard for his well-being than Gary. He probably had a larger pain threshold. You know, without being in this hard-man sort of bravado, I had to deliver weaknesses, and it was hard to assume that. It was hard to know where that came, and often it was the things I didn't do. Because things unfold around Gary. I really needed Yann's direction.
Yeah, let's talk about that. Yann Demange seems like a really talented newcomer to the feature scene to me. Was there anything about his vision for the project that kind of grabbed you and made it feel like a unique opportunity?
I met him early on and just the fact that he wanted to portray an ordinary lad – we were just doing justice to lads that had experienced what we were portraying through Gary's experience. So meeting him early and seeing that those were his intentions helped me feel a conviction that he didn't want to glorify war. As soon as I feel that I get put off. So for that reason I developed trust in him. And you know, he was learning, too. The way that he did it, I'm very proud.
And of course you have “Unbroken” on the horizon. Even with the breakout of “Starred Up” and the festival success of “'71” as of late – to say nothing of the fact that you've obviously been working for some time and building to this moment – do you have butterflies? I think it's fair to say that this one will probably reach a broader audience and be a major introduction to your work for many.
Yeah. And what helps to counteract that, slightly, is the fact that I feel very convinced that when we were on set, when we were shooting, it was hard, man. It really fucking hurt. I had to get used to feeling very uncomfortable, very weak. I had to get used to all of that, without complaining about it, either, because complaining wasn't a part of Louis [Zamperini's] sort of day-to-day. It wasn't in his psyche. He's part of that generation that doesn't wince. The things that I learned, you know, the guidance that Louis has given me since portraying him is stuff that I can take with me into this sort of newer, kind of bigger role. I've got one of the best examples of selflessness in front of me there with Louis, and I think that's what it's about. I think the more I constantly dwell on myself, the more I'm in trouble. So I've just got to keep thinking about the future. And it's the work that's got me here, so if I want to earn my keep, it'll be the work that does that, too.
You've pretty much answered my next question, but how did Angelina Jolie strike you as a director and, speaking to that last point you made, what did you learn from her and the experience that will set you up for what's next in your career?
Again, selflessness. She has that ability, too. She strives for it and that's how she presents herself to people. You really feel a level of compassion from her, which that then becomes a passion project. There's a personal investment. And she's nervous for me, which kind of helps me gain a perspective of what I can sort of expect. And there's no guarantee that I'm going to respond to it well whatsoever, but as long as I acknowledge that and just take it day by day – I've got some good people around me and Angie has always offered support if I ever needed it. So yeah, and look, there's a lot of positives in it, too. I'm finally where I want to be with my career, and so now it's just a case of staying here and making the right decisions in order to, like I say, earn my keep.
You've been uncanny with segues to each of my questions here, I have to say, and this is my last one. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what is your kind of mission statement for your career? What do you want to achieve? How do you want to be perceived? What kind of projects do you want to invest in?
Ideally they'll be calling me one of the best actors of my generation after I die. That's sort of the ultimate goal. I don't like mediocre. I find it pointless. And now I'm in a position where avoiding that is within reach. I want to keep working hard enough and set examples for other people. Whilst doing that I want to help people out who have had shit times, you know? I feel a certain responsibility to do that. And also it helps me as well, so it might not be any such thing as a selfless act. But I hope to change lives personally while doing so. And I want to direct as well.
Yeah. And what attracts to me to that is films like, there's this one with Angie in it called “Changeling,” which is such a heart-wrenching version of events that actually happened, and there are so many of them, sort of events where people find themselves in almost impossible situations and got through, as we portray in “Unbroken.” That's what really gets me out of bed. I would feel, I guess, a little bit unaccomplished if I get to the end of my career and I haven't kind of directed or achieved that as a director.
Well I think you'll get there. I think what you've accomplished so far – even just in the work showcased over the last year – is pretty extraordinary. And I look forward to keeping this conversation going throughout the fall. I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of you.
Yeah, nice one, man. Good talking to you. All the best.
“Starred Up” is now in theaters and VOD while “'71” is currently screening at the Toronto Film Festival.
“Unbroken” hits theaters Christmas Day.