emily   –   January 11, 2015

Acting saved Jack O’Connell’s life – but from what, exactly, he’s not sure.

As a child, he was good enough at soccer to think a trial with his local team, Derby City, was a real option, but he also spent more time on the streets, scrapping than he ought to.

“I was juggling things,” he says. “I didn’t know I wasn’t going to be a footballer then. I didn’t know I wasn’t going to go into the army. I didn’t know I wasn’t going to be a criminal. All of these things, I was weighing them up as sort of routes out.”

His parents were hard-working strugglers, but O’Connell saw no appeal in following his father into the railways, with its 5am starts. Acting, though, was a way of showing off for the girls, and that certainly had its attractions.

Even so, it was chance that took him there.

Just as he was about to start secondary school the government decreed that all state-funded schools in Britain had to pick an area of specialisation; his Catholic secondary chose performing arts. “Had I gone to the community school near me, and been Protestant, there’s no chance any of this would have happened,” he says.

By “all this”, he means a career in television and film that has reached its highest point to date with the lead in Unbroken. He plays Louis Zamperini, the United States Olympian-turned airman who was shot down over the Pacific in 1943, spent 47 days afloat in a raft and the next two years in Japanese POW camps, where he was brutalised relentlessly by a guard known as the Bird.

O’Connell met Zamperini shortly before he died last July, aged 97. “Awe-inspiring,” he says of their two meetings. “I’m calling it one of the biggest honours in my life so far.”

Directed by Angelina Jolie, the film is a study in resilience, and you get the sense that is something O’Connell knows about.

Growing up was more rough than tough – “it wasn’t poverty, but it wasn’t picturesque,” he says – and drugs and guns were all around. He made plenty of wrong choices, but with his mother’s help he found his way back to the (reasonably) straight and (fairly) narrow.

“I was effectively brought up by the pub that my dad used to drink in,” he says.

His uncles taught him to fight at an early age. “Taking a few wallops as a kid, trying to fight back and whatever, I think it instilled a lot of what’s in me today. I’m not at all violent, though; I find the prospect of confrontation amusing more than anything now, and certainly not worth my career.”
The toughest lesson came in 2009. He had filmed his first season of the televison series Skins, in which he played the larrikin Cook in seasons three and four, when his father died of cancer. It knocked him about something fierce, he says.

“I had to come back and play this loudmouth, this very enjoyable character, but I felt like a fraction of the person I was when I discovered him,” he says. “I was in bits. Whatever my va-va-voom was, I’d lost it. I lost my mojo for a while, and I don’t expect ever to get over that.

“That’s part of the process, actually, the realisation that you can never rise above something like that, really, you’ve just got to take it on.”

In a sense, he says, the experience has been the making of him as an actor. “All of these things have helped shape me and now that I’ve got a better idea of who I am as an adult, when I’m discovering characters I can put me aside,” he says. “I don’t need to channel things that much. I can discover the character on the page as a separate individual.”

Early in his career, O’Connell played English sporting legend Bobby Charlton in United, a film about the Munich air crash that wiped out half of the Manchester United team known as “the Busby Babes” in 1958. He’s not fixated on sport or action movies, he says; it’s just that if a role demands physical expertise, he thinks an actor should get it right. “If they put something in front of me that requires some level of physicality that has to be achieved, and it’s not, then you’ve failed.”

Failure isn’t on O’Connell’s radar. In fact, quite the opposite. Late last year, he paid off his mother’s mortgage. “It was monumental,” he says. “I feel like if my dad was there he’d approve – not to mention he wouldn’t be getting out of bed at 5 o’clock every bastard morning.”

Presumably Unbroken helped make that possible; does it feel like a great leap forward in other ways, too?

“No, because 10 years ago I started out and I was naive enough to be ambitious that one day I’d be the best of my generation. This is just part and parcel of that.”

Do you still think that way?

“Yeah,” he says. “That’s what I’m working towards now, and I don’t ever want to stop working towards it.”


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