Jack O’Connell knew playing Louis Zamperini in ‘Unbroken’ was going to hurt

HOLLYWOOD – We've already caught up with Jack O'Connell once this year, but it's perfectly fitting to revisit the well here. He is, after all, having a truly breakout moment, one that actually seems more stretched across three years than bunched up into 2014.

For instance, though he popped up in “300: Rise of an Empire” back in the spring, “Starred Up” was his major coming out in US theaters this year. But that film debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in 2013 and he was breaking into the awards race for his work therein last season. “'71,” meanwhile, debuted at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year and has hit theaters overseas already, but it's being held for a stateside release in February.

“Unbroken,” though, will be the film that introduces him to the masses. We're seeing a star being born and, for his part, the tough-willed O'Connell is taking it in stride. We sat down recently to specifically discuss Angelina Jolie's latest film, basking in the Hollywood sun on a hotel terrace because, well, he just doesn't get to see enough of that back home in England. Check out the back and forth below.

“Unbroken” opens on Christmas Day.


HitFix: So taking on a role of this magnitude in a project this kind of grueling and sizable must have been daunting at the outset. Was there any trepidation on your part?

Jack O'Connell: Yeah, there's always an element. But it's just a case of how much you decide to listen to it. There was a lot I could draw upon positively. Once the role was mine, after 10 years of forging this career path, naive or not, I felt ready. I knew it was going to hurt. I knew I had to put aside my priorities in terms of comfort and I guess social life. But it's a worthwhile sacrifice. You're not going to make an impression or tribute the man as you're supposed to with a painless shooting experience. All of that seemed to equate and seemed worthwhile. Yeah, there is a doubt, but that can also motivate you. I felt in this case that it did.

You got to meet Louis Zamperini a few times. Was there anything elemental about the man that you kept hanging onto as something you wanted to really carry through in the performance?

Yeah, just that he has a quality where he was very reluctant to ever describe himself as anything extraordinary. He would always just consider himself one of many, and I think that's a testament to his era. I can remember my dad having that sort of thinking. And whether there is such a thing as selflessness or not, he surely came close. That came through in Laura [Hillenbrand's] writing, but I wanted to meet him and be able to put it down to the era. And having met him, I felt like I was able to.

When and where did you first meet him?

It was at his house, I think maybe four weeks prior to shooting. But that was like a set-up, where they set up like a studio in his front room. And I just felt intrusive, you know? I was so conscious already about coming across the wrong way, and that wasn't made any easier for me, the cameras, the lights and the small crew. It wasn't as relaxed and I didn't get as much out of it in terms of what I needed. So I insisted on a second meeting.

Why was there a crew? They were already documenting something?

They wanted it for the DVD extras. So they sold out on me. But that's why I insisted the second meeting needed to happen, and it did and we had time to just hang, me and him. We went through his old scrapbooks; you know, he's a big collector. He showed me his Nazi flag that he picked up from Berlin. So one of these things, just to be able to spend time in his presence and relax and enjoy the silences and not have an agenda. That was going to inform me a whole lot more than investigating or interviewing the man.

The story as presented is obviously a grueling one, so I imagine, as you've intimated, it was physically and psychologically difficult. Does any scene or moment stand out as particularly tough to work through in that regard?

Well the plank [that I hold over my shoulders at the end] made me faint twice. I passed out twice beneath it, so I reckon by rights that wins. But I've always struggled with that question. I mean I'm only using science as my reference point there, having fainted. The whole thing kind of merges into one mountainous effort. And even in hindsight now, I struggle to separate days apart from each other. And I sure as hell know that when I was feeling my weakest, the idea of portraying Olympic Louie seemed so far-fetched. Perhaps that was the most difficult.

Yeah, because I guess you hadn't even gotten to that yet. That was saved for the end of production.

Yeah, and I had the benefits of adrenaline weekly, which served me well, but I needed something for the Olympic track as well and I wasn't sure where I was going to source it from. And then I ended up getting glass in my foot over Christmas. It was my own doing. I dropped a glass of water I was handing to my mom and it dropped and smashed and I bled like I never have before.


Yeah. So the time I should have been on a treadmill working toward something, I had my foot elevated. I couldn't foresee that, so I couldn't put it in my schedule at all as you start to put up with the reality. And I was panicking a little, wondering how the fuck I was going to get from my horizontal, recovering position to a feasible Olympian.

How did Angelina help you through the trials and tribulations of the project?

I don't know if it was knowingly but I felt like I had her on my side very early. And she did so much for me, in terms of my personal life during the preparation period. She hired a helicopter for me so I could go see a friend who was passing away at the time. She arranged that. And then there was the meeting, the dinner that she arranged for some of my select few closest people. She arranged that. She considered it important to meet my people before we went on this mission. So that meant by the time I was on the set, I felt, already, personally invested, and that supported me throughout.

Yeah, how did the project even come to you, speaking of all of that. What was the audition situation? Just a typical deal?

Self-taping at first, because she put out, like, a general email to all the agents. That's what I pay my agents for, so if something like that comes around, I at least hear about it. That meant I had to put myself on tape, so I went and consulted with my old drama teacher. He set up an audition and with a good camera and someone to read the lines opposite, so it wasn't just a rushed, time-savvy effort. It was something that we were going to send and hopefully be proud of. She responded to that. And then she set up a meeting for myself and her. There was no dialogue for it. No lines attached. Just meet Angelina and talk about Louie. So I was introduced to his legacy then, and then she set up the screen test, which she needed to go back to the Universal people with and convince them that I was their man, which is easier said for a relative unknown.

You keep in touch with the old drama teacher, eh?

Yeah, even still. I'm very grateful for that man, actually. We talk and I'll be back there one of these days.

And I wanted to talk about Miyavi a bit. I attended one of those early screenings with a Q&A and you guys have great off-screen chemistry. I'm just putting it out there but you guys should do a buddy cop movie together or something.

[Laughs.] That would be fucking hilarious. The thing is we've got it easy going into them Q&As because they've just seen his character torment my character for the best part of an hour. So I can see people responding initially to the fact that we get along with each other. I've got a tremendous amount of respect for the bloke. I admire him as a pal, as a father to his kids. He seems like a devoted husband. Those are really respectable traits in my book.

Have you had a chance to see him perform live?

I have, actually. Well we got together. We formed a band. After the prison camp sequence we had the chance to put a band together, because the producer's a drummer and I play guitar, too. So he did the first half and we came in for the second half. We had a full set. We sang all the obvious ones, like “Angie” by the Stones and “Louie Louie” and “Bird is the Word,” that went down well. “Folsom Prison Blues” as well.

[Laughs.] So what's coming up for you?

“Money Monster,” with Jodie Foster directing. It's a nice role. I'm expecting some time in New York to witness and try and craft something. Because he's lifelike. As much as we're inventing the character, I still consider him as real as Louie, to a degree. So just busy with that at the moment.

Nice. Another female director. That's great.

I can't resist!

Awesome. Well good luck with the release. Great catching up.

Nice talking, bud. Good stuff.