Jack O’Connell is the toast of Hollywood but he says it could have turned out differently

A hot young actor paired with the bushy-browed wunderkind of the catwalk. It’s a faultless recipe for buzz-worthy press.

Jack O’Connell fails to see it this way.

First claiming he isn’t bothered by rumours, he then follows this claim with a strange diatribe against the gossip columns, using words like ‘evil’ and ‘cancerous entity’.

And Brad Pitt is seemingly responsible for this attitude.

“I don’t care,” he glowers, running his hand over a newly shorn crew cut. “I know how to combat it. I’ve got great examples before me like Brad Pitt paving the way. He’s given me great advice.”

Like what, INSIDER asks?

“Just to keep focusing on what you do next? What you’ve done, good or bad, just get over it. You’ve got to keep moving. Keep your attentions forward.

“I do get distracted by this horrible cancerous entity that I don’t mind speaking out about. But as soon as you do, you degrade yourself.

“And I do find so much tabloid media so distasteful. I question its existence and what it propagates in society, a sense of evil. It’s criminal. It shouldn’t exist.”

Only 24 and at the hatchling stage of burgeoning stardom, Jack speaks like a weathered veteran, taking it all so seriously. Though it’s certainly made no dent on his upward success.

Since a blistering breakthrough in Skins, Channel 4’s much-feted depiction of jaded teen delinquency, his stand out performance as petty hoodlum Cook showcased diverse emotion under hardened casing. And a trademark cheeky glint.

With dented features and slightly gnarled teeth, his follow-up forays took advantage of this charismatic balance – a council estate lothario in Tower Block; a disillusioned young soldier living through bombed-out Belfast in ’71; a damaged repeat offender taken to an adult prison in David Mackenzie’s Starred Up.

He previously admitted to me earlier this year that the latter wasn’t a stretch for what could have been. A celluloid what if.

Growing up in Derby, this son of a Kerryman drank and experimented in this pre-teens, escalating to more serious offence. A turning point came when he narrowly avoided a custodial sentence and landed a referral order at a youth offender’s centre. He prefers not to go into the details.

“Just because I don’t want to dredge that up again. But like I said before, Starred Up could have happened to me. There was every chance I could have ended up there.

“But the experiences have served their purpose. I firmly believe we’re a product of our choices. So far, it’s turned out quite positive for me.”

INSIDER considers this quite the understatement.

Based on the strength of his performance in Starred Up, Jack earned the most Hollywood of encounters – a sit down meeting with Angelina Jolie. She was casting the lead for a much vaulted passion project, Unbroken, based on the astounding life of Louis Zamperini – a former Olympic runner, who duly impressed Hitler at the ’36 Berlin Games and went onto become an Air Force pilot during WW2. And while stationed in Hawaii, ‘Zamp’ survived 47 days on a life raft after his plane was shot down, only then to be picked up and interred in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for two years.

It’s the stuff dream Hollywood screenplays are made of.

Of her first impression of O’Connell, Jolie said: “As soon as I met him, I knew he was Louis. I’d seen Starred Up and it was something about how he held himself. That swagger.”

I ask Jack for further detail.

“I’m flattered that she felt this way about me. Because it’s not my perspective of myself.

“Her words to me were, she thinks I am Louis. She thinks I am another version of what we find inspiring about Louis. And I beg to differ. I’m not a previous Olympian, former Air Force, former Japanese prisoner of war. I’m none of these things.

“But I think one thing that went well down in the meeting was that I have huge admiration for Louis’ generation and what they had to endure. What was normal life for them back then, compared to what we consider normal life now.

“So Angie seemed to respond well to that.”

‘Angie’, he refers with such sweet intimacy. During the promotion circuit for the film, the pair have gushed about the other. Snapped on red carpets around the world, they showcased a bond with intertwined arms and gleaming grins.

On set in Australia however, Jolie was boss before confidante.

“As a director and a leader, she’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” he muses. “Pretty well rounded and she needed to lead the way. You felt like you had support and you were supporting her.”

“And she wasn’t over friendly. We weren’t chums. But half of that was down to me too. I was never craving that from her.

“There were times where you kind of had to collide a little with artistic conversations. Her point of view against my point of view.

“But Angie lead by example. And she engaged with every member of crew. She thanked all the extras. No one on that film set felt more important that other.”

It’s a remarkably flattering perspective considering what Jolie asked of her lead cast. O’Connell and Dubliner star, Domhnall Gleeson, who plays a fellow life raft survivor and POW camp detainee, both lost nearly two stone from their already slight frames during production off the coast of Queenland.

Jack leant on Gleeson for support.

“It was 24 hours. You finished work and you’re on your own and you’ve got a fridge full, screaming at you. You’ve got to go tunnel vision and solidarity helped. I took Domhnall’s leadership from the start.

“From early on, he gave my trailer a knock and without patronisation, he said to me, ‘Look I know what it’s like to be where you are, so if I can help in anyway, I’m here. And that more than anything, that meant so much.”

The actor met Zamp three times before he passed during the summer at age 97. At his hospital bedside, Jolie showed the unedited rushes of the film, but sadly, he never saw the end product.

“I’m devastated it’s never going to be a realisation. But Angie told me he approved and smiled all the way through what he saw.

“I only met him three times myself and I was awestruck. They were never long meetings but it gave me insight into how his brain ticked. I was trying to find out how a young Louis ticked from a 96-year-old version of himself.”

Jack’s performance in Unbroken is a stunning portrayal of strength and triumph. Hollywood is now his for the taking.

Next up is Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited, troubled production, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which was once planned with Johnny Depp.

It’s a telling indication of O’Connell’s growing power in the industry. After that, he’ll work on an adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, a period piece alongside Christoph Waltz and Alicia Vikander. And Delevinge.

The first sparks of romance apparently ignited on set. The love buzz in the press can only help the film.

“Hmmm,” he smirks, “I suppose that’s how it works. But I don’t want any part of it if I’m honest.”

In a simple black long-sleeved tee and scuffed boots, he leaps from his chair and makes for a hand drawn painting on the wall.

It depicts a battle between two sail-boat armadas in the 17th century. He stares it intently.

“You know what,” he says. “I would have loved to have lived in that time. When it was about defending your honour and your territory. And your life.

“Everything seemed to be so much simpler then.”

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