GQ&A with Jack O’Connell

Angelina Jolie ruined everything. Jack O’Connell was the guy you knew as skinhead Pukey Nicholls in This is England, party boy James Cook from UK series Skins, or gangster Marky in 2009’s underappreciated movie Harry Brown. Then Jolie saw something she liked and next thing, he’s no longer playing deadbeats – he’s Unbroken’s inspirational American war hero, Louis Zamperini.

In a time when movie studios are scraping the barrel for the latest blockbuster sequel or cartoon remake, Zamperini’s story is the real deal. Born in Olean, New York, in 1917, he was a gifted athlete who competed in the 5000m at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. But his true test of endurance came seven years later, when, as a bombardier in the US Air Force, his plane was downed in the Pacific. Somehow he survived not just the initial crash, but 47 days adrift in the ocean. Then, captured by the Japanese Navy, he lived out the rest of the conflict as a prisoner of war. Zamperini passed away this July, aged 97.

In 2010, his life became a bestselling book by author Laura Hillenbrand and although Zamperini is a legend in the US, Unbroken owes a lot to Australia, too. The film was shot here and Jolie, O’Connell and the cast recently held the world premiere in Sydney. You need only go as far as the film’s trailer to see this is a milestone for O’Connell. The words ‘Oscar buzz’ come pretty cheap these days, but this much is certain: we’re set to hear a lot more about Jack O’Connell. While some actors get that first taste of success and suddenly think they’re Pacino, O’Connell is considered and honest, but mainly just chatty, friendly and cool. The kind of guy who, if you weren’t watching him at the movies, you’d want to see in the pub for a round of beers. “Yeah, I’m spot on, mate,” he says, despite a full day of press looming. “And I’ve got plenty to talk about, so not to worry.” Best get started, then.

GQ: What was it like filming in Australia?
Jack O’Connell: It was beautiful, man. I spent three weeks here with my mum and sister over Christmas, and Mum’s determined that we’re coming back soon, bless her.

GQ: Did you get to see much of the country?
JOC: I saw a fair bit of the east coast – up to Broadbeach, around the Goldie and a nice little spot called Cedar Creek [QLD], which had a real waterfall; I felt like I was in a perfume ad. I’m sure there are a lot of hidden gems in Australia, so I’m due another visit.

GQ: How did Unbroken come about?
JOC: Angie put out a worldwide search and wanted a tape of a couple of scenes. So I consulted my old drama teacher and bless him, he put me on camera and got a performance out of me. That must have arrived at Angie’s, then I went to meet her and we hit the ground running.

GQ: What was she like to work with?
JOC: Just phenomenal. Success hasn’t altered the way she engages with people – even with the film crew in Australia, she’d speak to all of them.

GQ: You’re just starting to taste some of that success yourself. Are you aware of the buzz around you?
JOC: Well, I’m not ignorant enough to blank it out, but it’s not at all that productive to fascinate myself with it. There’s a reason why the buzz is there, and it’s because of all the hard work I’ve put in.

GQ: A lot of young stars struggle to deal with it, though.
JOC: There’s a lot of distractions, but I wasn’t handed this. I wasn’t ‘found’ by someone – it’s all been earned and I don’t think there’s any honour in pissing it all away now, just because I’ve got an ego. That won’t feed me for the rest of my life.

GQ: That said, you weren’t always so straight-laced, right?
JOC: The main things I learnt at school weren’t academic, they were street smarts – how to be a little shit, and not get caught. But I had to straighten myself out because there was a junction where I could either be a fuckhead for the rest of my life or be a decent actor. I much prefer the opportunities the latter has offered me.

GQ: What was it like growing up?
JOC: I’m from Derby in England – my dad’s one of nine, my mum’s one of four. But these days there’s a frightening amount of unemployment there, so I feel a sense of relief that I’ve persevered. I’m super proud that my identity comes from being a Derbarian – but in all honesty, I’m happy to be out of the place.

GQ: You’re based in London now. Would you ever move to LA?
JOC: I don’t think so, mate. I can get to Derby in four hours and I’ve got my mum, nana and my sister there. I don’t like the idea of settling down too far away, in case there’s an emergency.

GQ: A lot of people would know you from your lead role in British TV drama Skins. How did you land that?
JOC: My London agent might not like me saying this, but he advised me against it. I was a fan of the program and when I learnt they were holding open castings, I was keen to get myself in a room with them.

GQ: Why do you think the series was such a huge success?
JOC: The creators and the writing team. [Co-creator] Bryan Elsley never claimed to know all the answers, he just knows how to write a fucking awesome script. But it was always a collaborative effort – originally my character, [James] Cook, was a totally different person on paper, but the writers were creative enough to welcome interpretations from me. Perhaps not that challenging, but it favoured me.

GQ: Given your own rebellious streak, it sounds like Cook probably wasn’t that much of a stretch to play. Did you worry you’d be typecast?
JOC: Yeah, I was super wary – it’s an occupational hazard. But I have endless conversations with my representatives on how my next project will contrast, so I beg to differ with anyone who says I’ve just been playing myself.

GQ: You got your kit off in Skins and you were starkers in last year’s movie Starred Up, too. Nudity doesn’t bother you?
JOC: There’s always an apprehension when you’re among strangers and you’re stark-bollock-naked, but I just thought, ‘fuck it’. The piece warranted it as well – it’s not like the film’s about my willy.

GQ: 300: Rise of an Empire must have left you in decent shape, too. What was your routine like?
JOC: We’d start every day with combat training and then work on the stunt choreography – thankfully, those boys were experts. Then we’d have to tolerate these overly militant, potentially insecure, super-macho gym trainers. I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about them, but the training set me in good stead for playing Louis Zamperini.

GQ: Did you know much about him, before you took the role?
JOC: Not at all. And that’s the unfortunate nature of all this – I went to two schools, I’ve had a TV in my house all my life, my mum reads the newspapers every Sunday – but I was still none the wiser on Louis Zamperini. At the same time, there were people like Louis who endured the same sacrifice, some of whom probably didn’t survive, so it’s important to tell his story.

GQ: Did you feel pressure to do it justice, given it’s Jolie’s pet project?
JOC: Yeah for sure, like nothing I’d experienced before in my career.

GQ: Is it different playing a factual character, instead of someone written for you?
JOC: I once played [Manchester United legend] Sir Bobby Charlton, and I remember feeling quite overwhelmed by the enormity of it – so it wasn’t completely uncharted waters for me. But with Louis there isn’t a lot of footage of him growing up, so he’s a bit of a blank canvas and I had to fill in a lot of gaps, which I enjoyed.

GQ: Did you get to meet him?
JOC: Yeah, three times. The guy was so sharp, even at 97, and was a cracking flirt too. He was wooing women left, right and centre – even Angie.

GQ: You’re a busy man, what do you do to unwind?
JOC: I just chill out these days. My working life’s so exciting that I don’t really do much in my own time. I’m kind of beyond being cool, and I don’t really enjoy partying anymore. I just try to surround myself with ‘my’ people.

GQ: Say you’ve got nothing in the diary – what’s a perfect afternoon for you?
JOC: Alright then. Barbecue on the go, maybe I’ve marinated some chicken two nights before, beer’s on ice, there’s some water activity going on, the sun’s out, and I’m just walking around in my glittery hotpants with all of my friends laughing. Sounds like bliss.

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