emily   –   September 27, 2017

Photoshoots & Portraits > 2017 > The Sunday Times

THE TIMES – Most people know the story of Jack O’Connell. The bad boy from Derby; the teenage delinquent turned Bafta-winning Hollywood actor; the go-to guy for a “troubled youth” tale; a skinhead in This Is England, a sexy, self-destructive lost boy in Skins. He dates pop stars and supermodels; he gives interviews with a hangover. As the tattoo on his biceps says, he is the definitive Jack the Lad.

But that’s not the man I interview one Thursday afternoon in Camden, north London. The guy I meet is softly spoken, calm, seemingly unflappable and with impeccable manners, a guy who gives me tips for the best Sunday roasts in Hampstead, who leans over to pick up my jacket when it falls off my chair, who offers to share his last cigarette and who orders two scones with cream and jam at the gastropub where we meet around the corner from his new home. He moved here in May from east London, where he’d lived for years. “I had my local pubs I went to,” says the 27-year-old. “I’d speak to all the old fellas in there, go for two or three pints, then lock-ins would ensue.” He’s already finding new watering holes with the same “old fellas” in NW1: “I like a pub, me. You can have a nice boogie in some pubs.”

This summer, O’Connell has risen to a whole new level of fame after starring in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Benedict Andrews, at the Apollo Theatre. He plays Brick, a broken, alcoholic, ageing football player who is grieving the loss of his best friend and whose marriage is falling apart. O’Connell says he has enjoyed the routine of theatre and the opportunity to evolve his character, though, “I’m over halfway through and I feel I could be better. I wonder if it would be more truthful if I took the edge off, instead of belting it out,” he thinks aloud. “Because I’m really starting to feel sorry for people in the front row.”

Certainly they get an eyeful. The play opens with O’Connell sitting naked and spread-eagle under a shower and, predictably, his full-frontals have received much publicity. (“Worth coming all the way from Stoke-on-Trent for!” one woman trills in the interval the night I attend.) He says he has “got used” to the nudity and likes the “immediate intimacy” of marriage it establishes between him and his on-stage wife, Maggie, played by Sienna Miller. He describes his co-star as “wonderful. A powerhouse. She’s just solid,” adding that she started a tradition of a “company cuddle” with the cast before every show. “Every time we’re on stage, she’s energised,” he says. “Even as recently as our last performance, she’s trying new things, which is exciting for me, too.”

I wonder how he copes with his sudden sex-symbol status. I tell him George Clooney once said that the level of attention he gets is embarrassing. Does O’Connell feel the same? “I’m willing to put money on the fact that George Clooney is not embarrassed about it at all, not a chance,” he laughs (they featured together in the 2016 film Money Monster). “I play characters for a living. If they come across looking like they breathe real air, then sweet. If people want to f*** them as well, sweet — that’s another reaction altogether. But really, I don’t pay enough attention to feel anything towards it. It’s a by-product.” It may be a constructed front of modesty, but I can believe it.

His next big moment, set to air in November on Netflix, is Godless, an epic seven-part western set in the 1800s, also starring Michelle Dockery and Jeff Daniels, and written and directed by Academy Award nominee Scott Frank. O’Connell shot in New Mexico for eight months, which involved “plenty of horse-riding and proper cowboy shit”. He enjoyed the physical challenges of the role. “Don’t get me wrong, I was a bit scared on them horses from time to time,” he says. “But it helps your character if you look like a natural. It gives you a better continuity in your own head, instead of sitting in your trailer while your stuntman does all the brave shit.”

Starring in period films holds particular appeal, O’Connell says he has a genuine fascination with history and hopes one day to immerse himself back into the education that he took for granted in his younger life. Earlier this year, he went on a pilgrimage to Co Kerry, the birthplace of his late father, John, to find out more about Ireland’s history as well as his own heritage. “The idea was to visit museums and talk to historians, but I did it on a more casual scale than I’d hoped. I met people, hung out and played golf.” He’s currently trying to write a Buddy Holly biopic, but he’s still in the “research and spider diagrams” stage. “I stand by my dad’s opinion, which is that few people have gone on to make as much music, not only quality but quantity, in such a short amount of time. My dad hails him as the greatest ever. If he could,” he says, exhaling cigarette smoke. “He’s not around nowadays, bless him.”

Godless also allows O’Connell to break away from the troubled-youth stereotype. When I suggest this, I suspect he might bristle, but he seems fairly serene about it. “I get what I’m given,” he says. “Maybe a year or two ago, when I’d racked up one or two similar-sounding characters, I was more conscious of it and made more effort to avoid it. Nowadays, I just think, ‘Oh, f*** it.’ I’m very grateful to be doing what I’m doing. I’ve done way more than I ever could have hoped as a kid, and I’m glad to be free of that anxiety of what comes next, that ‘How can I justify this choice?’”

He was once quoted as saying of his younger life: “My mentality every time I left the house was that I had to have the most fun I’d ever had.” I ask whether this ambition has mellowed. “My teenage years were fast and bountiful,” he says, “but I feel fortunate to have learnt one or two things by my early twenties. I’m all right with having a bland night out now. Even if it’s a Saturday — two, three pints and a nice chinwag. It’s all about the chinwag. That’s what I’ve come to learn: everything else is just temporary. Chinwags last a lifetime.”

Despite his propensity for roasts, history and a chinwag, O’Connell is single, but in no rush to settle down (he has previously dated the singer Tulisa and, allegedly, Cara Delevingne). “I couldn’t imagine doing this job with children. Maybe there will be a quieter period when I’ve got the luxury of choice, but I don’t at the minute. So that has to take priority. Just being fair to myself and my unborns,” he laughs.

At the end of our chinwag, he gets up from the table to ask the waiter if he has something he can transport his scone leftovers in. I ask him if he’s taking the jam and cream as well. “Too f****** right I am,” he smiles. He offers to pay the bill, then shakes my hand and says it was nice to meet me. And off he goes to the theatre, with his box of scones in hand — that nice lad, Jack O’Connell.

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