emily   –   May 12, 2016

Photoshoots & Portraits > 2016 > Evening Standard

EVENING STANDARD – A bright, crisp, spring afternoon in Mayfair and Jack O’Connell — dressed almost entirely in Dior, his scuffed blue suede Adidas the only nod to his pre-fame life — is sitting on a velvet sofa in one of the best suites at the Dorchester, reflecting on the downsides of stardom.

My whole life’s different,’ he says in his thick Derby accent. ‘I can’t live the life I grew up living. I used to enjoy going to the football, being around ordinary folk, or so-called ordinary folk, and family get-togethers. Now even they’re difficult. If I go to certain dos every f***er in there’s gonna want a photo.’ Then there’s the small matter of his (perfectly passable) ‘English’ teeth: ‘Whenever I go to LA, people tell me I should get my teeth done. Unless they want theirs f***ing rearranging as well I suggest they keep their mouth shut. My teeth are my teeth and I’ll be f***ed if I’m ever going to do a job on them just to serve their purposes. Well f*** ’em anyway.’ He gives a blast of infectious laughter. ‘I’m not Hollywood. There’s not a bit of me that ever wants to consider myself “Hollywood”.’

It’s hard not to think he may have to acclimatise. Just 25, O’Connell has stacked up an impressive collection of roles, including outstanding performances in Starred Up as a violent prisoner, and a turn as a British soldier lost in a riot in Belfast in ’71. This summer he’s set to go stratospheric: in July he stars alongside rumoured ex- girlfriend Cara Delevingne (more of whom later) in Tulip Fever and plays a Czech soldier in HHhH with Rosamund Pike and Mia Wasikowska. Before that, you can catch him in the Jodie Foster-directed thriller Money Monster, out today, in which he stars alongside bona fide Hollywood royalty Julia Roberts (‘a dream to work with’) and George Clooney (‘piss funny’).

Not to mention his relationship with Angelina Jolie, who cast him as the lead in her 2014 Second World War biopic Unbroken and has become a kind of mentor. Days before we met she flew to Sheffield by helicopter to see O’Connell in The Nap, the play he was starring in at the Crucible Theatre. ‘She just came up with a friend. Proper.’ She’s even met his family — after casting him in Unbroken, she took ten of his closest friends and family members out for a pub supper, which must have been a little surreal. ‘She wanted to meet my people,’ says O’Connell. ‘We all went to this place out of the way in Derbyshire, a pub where you can eat nice food. She came up on her own, man. She had some security people but they weren’t really involved and, yeah, we were all just sat around.’ Jolie, meanwhile, has said she’s ‘in awe’ of him and hailed his talent as ‘a gift’.

Not bad for a lad from Alvaston who not so long ago was contemplating a stretch at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

Born in 1990 to Johnny, an engineer on the railways, and Alison, who worked in the refunds department for British Midland, the young O’Connell envisaged a career in the army, or as a footballer. He was disruptive at his school — so much so that ‘I got kicked out of certain subjects so I wasn’t even allowed to take my GCSEs in them.’ (He ended up leaving with two GCSEs, a B in drama and a C in English).

It was his drama teacher who spotted his potential, encouraging him at 13 to audition for the Television Workshop in Nottingham, a free drama school and alma mater of Samantha Morton and Vicky McClure. He got in and, after roles in Doctors and The Bill, Shane Meadows cast him as the juvenile delinquent Pukey Nicholls in This Is England. ‘I was initially cast as the lead role in it,’ says O’Connell. ‘So I was buzzing — and then they found Tom Turgoose, so I got kind of demoted. It felt like that as well. I was [upset]. I did my best to get over it but I was slightly resentful, it’s fair to say.

What could have been his big break was thrown into jeopardy when, aged 17, he was arrested. ‘I got in trouble big time. I did a stupid thing. I took my mum’s car out and I injured people who were in the car with me.’ He didn’t have a licence: ‘I was very drunk.’

As he describes it, he got in his mother’s car drunk and went to see some friends late at night. He offered them a lift home and ended up crashing: ‘I really kicked myself for that for years and years after. One [of my friends] was very badly hurt — there was a time when we didn’t know if he was going to live.

I’d had other arrests by that point.’ For what? ‘I don’t want to go into it.’ Violence? ‘Mmm. Yeah, but no convictions.’

He blames his misdeamours on his conditioning. ‘In the area where I’m from, there’s not many standout accounts of people being, like, commendable for good behaviour,’ he says. ‘From the age of four I was in the playground with kids who wanted to hit everyone and what have you, so I grew up fighting.

He went to court for sentencing the day he began rehearsals at the Royal Court in Fiona Evans’ play Scarborough, directed by Deborah Bruce, which garnered rave reviews. ‘It was four separate charges that I was up for: aggravated TWOC [taking a vehicle without consent] — aggravated ’cos I was drunk. Driving without insurance and a licence; driving however much over the limit; and another one which I forget. It was all stacked against me… I’m not going to make out that I sailed through it all feeling very cocky and sure-fire, like. I was f***ing terrified. But that was because of what I was potentially gonna lose. It was a case of putting a good version of accounts over to the court — for them to say, “Well, there’s a chance he might make something of himself if we don’t send him down this time.” Thankfully they gave me a suspended sentence.’ But he has struggled with the aftermath and lost out on a major film role because of visa issues related to the incident.

It’s been hard enough trying to get into America with all of that said and done,’ he continues. ‘So I can’t imagine, if that conviction had amounted to anything, how different things would be.’

Far from knocking him off-course, the experience only made him more determined to succeed in the acting world. He was cast in the E4 drama Skins as hard-living tearaway James Cook. Skins launched the careers of Dev Patel and Nicholas Hoult, and brought O’Connell his first taste of mainstream fame. But the experience was marred by the death of his beloved father from pancreatic cancer in 2008. ‘It was tough — I lost my dad halfway through. I’m trying to do a comedy drama and I’ve lost one of the biggest inspirations of my life.’

Even after he’d been in Skins, O’Connell would have to sleep rough on park benches in London when he was doing auditions. ‘After Skins, if I was ever auditioning and missed the last train home, I knew I had to do an all-nighter — so it was either stay up at the numerous nocturnal venues in the city or get some shut-eye on a park bench. I had money for the train fare and that was it.’

These days, he rarely has to audition — his role in Unbroken made sure of that. Filmed over three months in Australia in 2013, it involved him going from 9st to 7st in a month on an 800-calorie-a-day diet in order to play the American Olympic runner Louie Zamperini, who survived in a raft for 47 days after his bomber was downed in the Second World War, then was captured and sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. ‘I think I damaged myself, man,’ he says. ‘I feel like my kidneys are a bit f***ed up. The thing is, I don’t want to bad-mouth anyone, but… getting to a point where you’re ready for the film, they’ll help you with all day long. Getting yourself back to normal again, that’s considered your responsibility.’ As well as his relationship with Jolie, the film saw him develop a close bond with her husband, Brad Pitt: ‘He was like, “Look man, I know your situation and I know you lost your dad. Just to let you know I’m here if anything’s puzzling you.” ’

It’s not the first time O’Connell has received some paternal warmth from one of his heroes. When he was 19 he bumped into Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown at a festival. ‘I said, “All right Ian, you got any advice, mate?” and he said, “Don’t be nervous — have a purpose.” I left it at that, as there was a bit of poetry there that I’d just received, so I didn’t badger him.’ But Brown is no longer in O’Connell’s good books: ‘I invited him to my play in Sheffield and he didn’t get back to me. Yeah, of all the people I invited with a bit of celebrity status he was the only one to blank me. So f*** ’im,’ he laughs.

He’s become known for playing angry young men; in Money Monster, he plays a blue-collar worker who takes a TV presenter (played by Clooney) hostage following a run of financial losses. What does he draw on to find the anger? ‘I’m helped out by the fact that, growing up around my area, you’re seeing a lot of violence — you’re getting used to violence all the time.’ He stops himself, and reconsiders: ‘I’ve never, ever felt nonchalant about violence. But you have to give off that impression… The whole idea is to look intimidating, to make whoever you’re in trouble with to think twice about battering you. So yeah, I think that’s why it might be so accessible… but now I’m giving away my secrets,’ he laughs.

Does he find it difficult reconciling his new life with his old one? When he visits home, he says, ‘there’s a lot of assumptions made. People assume that I’m wealthy beyond belief — and I ain’t. I still need to work for a living. I have family members come out with claims, trying to threaten that they’re going to go to the newspapers about me… Where it becomes intrusive is that if somebody’s giving me a hard time and I feel like I’m in a position where I have to defend myself, I can’t do that either. I have to get punched in the head and walk away.’ Yet he says that he doesn’t ‘see any separation’ between Jack, the Derby lad and Jack O’Connell, the film star: ‘Whatever I went through then backs me up as a human and as an adult nowadays. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone growing up, but it’s done me the world of good to see genuine hardship, genuine suffering, genuine poverty and to see humour in amongst that as well — to see people just getting on with it. I grew up knowing a lot of strong people. So yeah, for me as an adult now, wherever I am in the world I can always feel sturdy on my feet.’

He’s currently flat-hunting, hoping to find somewhere on the De Beauvoir estate in Hackney. When he’s not working, he boxes at Hounslow’s Westside gym, parties at The Box and Ain’t Nothing But blues bar on Kingly Street (‘dead good’), and hangs out with Skins actors Joe Dempsie and Merveille Lukeba: ‘There’s a good crowd of mates, all actor mates. James McAvoy puts on this game of football in London every Friday. I’m not saying where because of the potential lunatics.’

O’Connell has also starred in the right-hand column of the Mail Online. His former Skins co-star Kaya Scodelario said he broke her heart, Tulisa Contostavlos confirmed their break-up on Twitter, and Cara Delevingne posted a picture of his neck covered in love bites on Instagram with #fittybum a while back. Is he in a relationship now? ‘Negative. I’m happily single.’ Does celebrity ruin his chances of meeting girls? ‘No, no, it kind of works in me favour. Well, it depends what I’m after. If it’s a bit more lingering than one night, then maybe not.’

His ultimate ambition, he says, is ‘to find myself in a set-up where I can look around and feel happy with the things I’ve done and the things I’ve got, have a good family and be able to lead a life that benefits me as a professional and also a human. That’s the overall ambition. I’ve got morals.’ In the meantime he just bought his mum a house in Derby. He’s a nice guy, and dead funny, is our Jack.

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