Film Starred Up: Three minutes with Jack O’Connell

Starred Up, the new film from David Mackenzie, is about Eric Love, a scrappy young juvenile offender promoted (or ‘starred up’) to the bruising big league of adult incarceration. Jack O’Connell, the film’s young lead, is on a similar starry ascendence. He’s been plugging away at the fringes of the British film industry for the last few years, playing a bit part ne’er-do-well here, and a thuggish hoodie there in films like Eden Lake and This is England. Even in ‘Broken Britain’ codswallop like Harry Brown and Tower Block, his brutish charisma and impish charm shone above the shopworn material.

And now, in 2014, the 23-year-old is starting to find roles to match his considerable talent and ambition. As well as Starred Up, you can currently find the former Skins star oiled-up in 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel to Zack Snyder’s daft but gorgeous graphic novel adaptation. More edifying roles come later in the year: he stars in Angelina Jolie’s second film Unbroken as Olympic distance runner and Second World War veteran Louis Zamperini; and he also heads up ’71, a much-praised thriller about a squaddie separated from his unit in 1971 Belfast. On a blowy night in Glasgow ahead of Starred Up’s Scottish premiere at Glasgow Film Festival, we grabbed a few minutes with O’Connell, a live-wire on screen, but in person a thoughtful and rather intense young man.

The Skinny: What drew you to the role of Eric Love?
Jack O’Connell: I guess the chance to fully be able to humanise illegitimacy, and kind of be able to justify a character that would otherwise be wrote off by the general public. It gave me an opportunity to add a sense of maturity to someone who would more commonly be stereotyped as intolerable.

Did you feel any personal connection to the character?
Sort of. I’ve kind of been preparing for this sort of role for a while now. It’s always been one that I’d hoped to have fulfilled at some point and was prior to having any acknowledgement that Starred Up was ever happening. The fact that myself and David met together with the same sentiments was enough for me to want to attach myself wholeheartedly to the project.

I just wanted to ask about Skins. It seems that much-maligned TV show has been a launchpad for so many great young actors – what do you think that is?
I guess it was uncensored, you know. That said, the creators, they had every intention of being open-minded as to what we were going to bring to the roles ourselves. So it gave us this very fortuitous opportunity where we could at least experiment and get to grips with working as professionals, but also be part of the creative process as well, and in terms of the subjects Skins covered, at the tender ages of in and around 18, I guess we were in a position where we could really contribute to its reality. I think it’s pretty rare that a production company are prepared to allow that kind of risk, to trust us with some of the areas that Skins often took us to.

Can you talk a bit about working with David Mackenzie?
David had an initiative where he wanted to see how far our initiatives would take us. I have to credit the man himself for being in a position where he was willing to trust, not just myself, but every actor that’s in front of camera; we were allowed to influence, and that’s quite a luxury as an actor, especially on a four week shoot. You know, time isn’t on your side, there are certain requirements that need to be met that involve politics and they’re aside from the creative nature of what David was able to fight for. But in four weeks I really feel that we achieved something monumental, that will hopefully be timeless.

You’ve recently worked with Angelina Jolie on her second film Unbroken. She’s obviously an actor too – was her process any different to Mackenzie’s?
Obviously the films are at two completely different ends of the spectrum in terms of an industry point-of-view. With a film like Unbroken, there is a criteria that has to be met at the same time, and Angelina really fought for the same sort of imagination that David could take for granted on Starred Up. And I really benefited from both of those approaches and both of those directors, truly.

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