From Skins to the Hollywood A-list: Jack O’Connell on Starred Up

Jack O’Connell is not pissing about. These are his words. He has just put in the performance of his career in prison drama Starred Up, he’s shooting Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken – an account of the life of Olympic runner and second-world-war hero Louis Zamperini – in which he again takes the lead, and he’s about to tackle a blockbuster with Zack Snyder in 300: Rise of an Empire. He has been acting for 10 years. He’s done with partying – he’s ready to justify himself. He’s intense and focused, older and wiser than the kid who came up through the ranks of the E4 teen drama Skins. He’s 23 years old.

I meet O’Connell at the tail end of last year’s Toronto film festival. Starred Up was shown to a packed-out audience at a late-night screening. Behind me three teenage Skins fans watched his character, Eric, swagger through a prison to his cell. The girls whispered through the opening 15 minutes: “Je-sus”, “My Gaaaahd”, “He’s sexy!”. By the end of the film O’Connell had been stripped by the guards, beaten in the showers, thrown in the hole. The Skins fans left their seats in silence.

Director David Mackenzie’s film is a bleak and brilliant portrayal of prison life. Eric, a young offender so violent he has been “starred up” (moved to adult prison), is a pup among the wolves. His only chance of survival is a reconciliation with his estranged dad (Ben Mendelsohn), a career criminal who’s incarcerated in the same prison, but Eric hasn’t seen since he was five.

O’Connell as Eric is skin-headed, bulked-up, always on. It’s an intense, unwavering performance that echoes Ray Winstone’s commitment to playing the similarly troubled Carlin in Alan Clarke’s Scum. Eric doesn’t show weakness. He knows how to play the system. He brings baby oil into prison, so when he attacks a fellow inmate and expects a beating from the guards he can smear himself in it, making it harder to be caught. Prison was supposed to break him, but it has taught him ways to get stronger.

“He attacks for principle,” says O’Connell. “It’s more defence than anything. These are traits I consider honourable in the world he lives in. He’s got to be a bit ugly and he’s got to disregard pain. Nowadays there are so many cheap thrills, so much here and now going on people probably aren’t concentrating on honour and longevity. He’s been inside, so he’s less susceptible to that.”

O’Connell and his co-stars spent four weeks shooting Starred Up in former working prisons Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast and HM Prison Maze in Lisburn. They set up dressing rooms in the cells, with some cast members – but not O’Connell – deciding to live in the prison for the duration of the shoot. As with Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Starred Up’s script – by former prison therapist Jonathan Asser – reveals the rules of its claustrophobic world through small, almost imperceptible details. Eric knows to hide his shank in a light fitting, he clocks which inmate it’s OK to batter and why. These are things he just understands. They are not explained, nor rationalised to us.

“That kind of knowledge is just there in the film,” says O’Connell. “There’s no dialogue, there’s no description; if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. It’s part of the uniform. The details are fucking accurate. That’s because the scriptwriter was so well informed. It was as good as if we’d just gone to Wandsworth. We might have had a bit less camera equipment coming out of Wandsworth, mind …”

Born in Derby in 1990, O’Connell is much slighter than Eric, but no less profane or self-assured. He’s got a laddish quality to him, but he doesn’t come across as aggressive or intimidating, traits that the majority of directors have tapped into. His first feature role was in the Shane Meadows film This Is England as the young National Front conscript Pukey Nicholls. After a brief stint in TV, roles as a teenage gang member in Eden Lake and Harry Brown (opposite Michael Caine), and an innocent at war in the first-world-war drama Private Peaceful threatened to file him as a go-to street thug or cannon fodder. Yet it’s the emotional nuance that he brings to the violent and disenfranchised that suggests he’s ready to expand his range. He’s wary of being typecast – even with as complex a role as Eric. He wants the chance to play something completely against the grain.

“I think United [about Manchester United’s Busby Babes, the youngest team to win the league championship] would be the best example of what I’m trying to get at,” he says. “Playing Bobby Charlton – completely out of my comfort zone. They’re the kind of roles I want to decorate my CV with. It doesn’t mean I’m going to completely neglect these kind of roles [like Eric], but the more I play them the more I risk being typecast.”

He likes losing himself. Occasionally he brings parts of a character back from a shoot with him. This can be problematic. He can play Cook in Skins and let the lines blur a bit, because superficially they were similar. Playing Louis Zamperini in Unbroken is going to be challenging. “He’s a world-war-two veteran, out of California,” he says of the Olympic distance runner, who was given a purple heart after being held captive by the Japanese. “There can’t be any hint of me. I don’t know how that’s going to end up. I don’t know who the fuck I’m going to be after that.”

Equally confusing (if a fair bit more enjoyable) is how this young actor, who has an ambition to “end himself” when he’s in character, handles a sex scene.

“It’s weird playing lovers with someone,” he says. “You end up falling for them to a degree. The lines blur. Characters’ emotions sort of become your emotions. I’ve found myself besotted once or twice.”

With who? “You want names!? … More or less every leading lady that I’ve played opposite I’ve fallen in lust for. That’s no exaggeration. Particularly in sex scenes – if there’s a connection it betters a performance. It’s never a chore. It’s one of the many perks of the job.”

It’s not said with a wink; he’s not trying to be cheeky or macho. He’s just saying what seems obvious. He’s a young actor, on the brink of a giant step up in his career. He knows he’s lucky. He’s going to take the opportunity. He’s got one ambition and he delivers his thoughts on it in typically blunt style: “To keep fucking working hard until I die.”

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