Jack O’Connell: ‘My world just got much bigger’

Jack O’Connell is shouting at a bus. “Goooo on, Sam!” he roars, a bit like he’s cheering someone on at a football match.

Sorry, who? “There’s the Claf,” he says. Sorry, who are you talking about? “Sam Claflin. He’s a mate of mine.” I crane my head towards the bus, fast driving out of our view. And then I realise, there he is: the Hunger Games actor Sam Claflin, on the side of the bus. You’re shouting at the side of a bus? I ask. “Yep,” O’Connell says, laughing.

It’s been a fun hour in Jack O’Connell’s company. There have been copious cigarette breaks and a sit-down chat where he’s torn through a chicken-mayo sandwich, getting most of it on his jeans. I found myself watching him subtly try to rub the mayo off, then resort to rubbing it in, eventually telling the mayo – perhaps a little embarrassed – to “fuck off”.

He’s still boyish; still the lad from Derby. Still the cheeky charmer; the ladies’ man (his current squeeze is rumoured to be Cara Delevingne). But Jack O’Connell does seems a little caught between two versions of himself. It’s as if there is another Jack looming: the dapper young man who greeted me with the sharp coat, floppy hair and designer stubble is quite unrecognisable from the lad who used to turn up to film premieres in Fred Perry shirts, trainers and a crew cut.

And he’s a professional now, this Jack. He doesn’t even allow journalists to write about his hangovers anymore – “Er, because I’m not hungover. Not in the slightest. Why do you ask?” Well, I say, it was becoming something of a tradition for you to turn up hungover to interviews. This Jack shrugs. “Well, I’ve had to rein that all in, haven’t I?”

It’s been a mad year for O’Connell but a brilliant one, too. This is the year that O’Connell’s career has tipped. He is now, so people keep writing, not only a “graduate” of Skins, the C4 show that made his name, but the most exciting talent in British independent film this year (thanks to the performance of his career in Starred Up and another fine turn in ’71). But even the “independent” label no longer fits. As of Boxing Day, Jack O’Connell will become Hollywood’s latest leading man when he stars in Unbroken, a new film directed by Angelina Jolie in which he plays Louis Zamperini – the Olympian track runner and Second World War veteran who spent 47 days on a life raft in the Pacific before being detained as a POW by the Japanese.

He has been working on the project for the best part of the past year, if you count the numerous auditions and screen tests, the intense months of filming in Sydney, and the six-week promotional tour he’s about to embark on after we meet (LA, New York, London, Paris, Berlin). As well as putting him on “Angie” terms with Jolie, the role has seen him lose an extraordinary amount of weight, to appear as emaciated as Zamperini did. In fact, anyone would think O’Connell is still catching up on food, so enthusiastically has he been tucking into the chicken sandwich – and now a broccoli pie. “Do you want some, Megan?” he asks, exercising caution this time and holding the takeaway box carefully while I take a bite, so that the gravy doesn’t spill out.

Sitting with him feels instantly intimate, partly because he frequently name-checks me: he has a little sister called Megan and seemed quite satisfied when we first shook hands to discover that we shared a name. But it also feels a little nerve-wracking, like hanging out with the bad boy at school. I put that familiar feeling of butterflies in my stomach down to the fact that O’Connell is a bit laddish, slightly unpredictable and has a physical charm that grows on you.

Angelina Jolie first met O’Connell a year ago at the Dorchester Hotel in London. In a recent interview, she said: “As soon as I met him, I knew he was Louis,”, and described O’Connell’s talent as “a gift”. It’s true – O’Connell’s performance is the most stunning part of the film – but Jolie was also nervous about casting him. “She was under a lot of pressure from the studio and numerous people to get it right,” is O’Connell’s take on it, “so you can imagine what it was like, trying to convince them about this complete unknown.” I tell him that I heard she was more concerned about his reputation, and called up other directors he had worked with to see if he was going to behave himself. O’Connell smiles, sees what I’m getting at. “Well, yeah, they did the background checks on me. Because I think they were a bit worried, you know?”

They were concerned about what others typically refer to as O’Connell’s “troubled past”. But when I ask what that entails, O’Connell is at pains not to go into details. He will readily admit that it is because of his old exploits that he has until now mainly been playing delinquents. “Some of the roles, like Eric in Starred Up [a violent youth offender who is taken to an adult prison], haven’t been much of a stretch, really.” But he has avoided going into specifics. Why is that? “It’s just quite hard for me to be open about it. Partly because the stuff I got involved in as a kid was quite serious, and partly because I’ve now got my American visa.” Obtaining that visa, he adds, was very difficult. “And that was because of my criminal record. So when you put those two things together, talking about it all in an interview is only going to bugger me up even more – eh, Megan?”

But another part of the reason he won’t talk at length, he says, is because he doesn’t want to end up apologising for things he was already sorry for. “When I was younger, I got into a lot of trouble and was made to feel guilty for a long time. I was in and out of court, and then I had a young offender’s referral order for a year. And that was at the time when I was trying to be an actor at the Royal Court. I was in real court the day I was starting a play called Scarborough at the Royal Court in London – waiting to find out if I was getting a custodial sentence.”

He didn’t get the custodial sentence. He hints later that it was for a crime connected to violence. “I’d always argue it was defence purposes but sometimes the best form of defence is attacking, innit, so…” But he says there was other stuff, things he didn’t get caught for. “And perhaps that’s more frightening, something I’ll never be talking about in interviews.”

O’Connell says he WAS a product of his environment. He grew up in Derby with an Irish father who worked on the railways and an English mother who worked in the refunds department of British Midland. They were decent parents: “My dad had his faults but he was a good dad.” The problems started to occur when he was at school, a local comprehensive that O’Connell describes as “brutal”. “My dad had me when he was 40 and so when I was 10 he was 50 – the oldest dad in the school. And I was made to realise that, weren’t I?” he remembers.

When he was 12, his parents sent him to army cadets and boxing in the hope that he would learn some discipline. Both gave him “a good outlook” and O’Connell says that for a while he wanted to join the army. “I found myself enthused, trying to be good – which is odd, innit? – once you flip the dynamic and make something seem macho and desirable, I start to behave myself.”

A teacher had encouraged him to try drama, having been impressed by his work in class – “the only class I did anything in” (he left school with 2 GCSEs, a B in drama and C in English) – but O’Connell refused. When he did finally make his way to the Television Workshop in Nottingham, it was only because he was following a girl. “And I did end up copping off with her as well,” he chuckles. “She was dead fit an’ all.”

At some point, attending “became about the actual drama itself, instead of just showing off”. And so O’Connell stayed on, encouraged by his mother but also by an older student at school, the actor Michael Socha, who was winning parts and going to auditions. “He led by example,” O’Connell says. “Just by going to the workshop. And he was dead cool – somehow he got away with it.”

The pair began travelling together to auditions, getting on the train to London with discounted tickets that O’Connell’s father could obtain from work. Sometimes they had to be in London for the night, so they would sleep rough, not being able to afford a hotel. But O’Connell says this was also partly a choice. “Derbarians in London,” he laughs. “We were there for a day out. It wasn’t ever really about the audition, so that kind of took the heat off.” He thinks not really caring too much served him well. “Naivety. I think that probably gave me an advantage going into auditions against the stage-school actors. And I don’t know whether [the casting directors] found that appealing, or what.”

In 2006, he landed the role of Pukey in This Is England. Then three years later, when he was 18, he was offered the part of drug addict James Cook in Skins. Other lead TV roles followed, such as Bobby Charlton in the ITV drama United and a teenage father in Dominic Savage’s Dive. But just as his career got going, O’Connell lost his dad. When I ask what emotional effect this had – his father died quickly of pancreatic cancer – O’Connell goes a bit quiet. “What happened to my dad is not something I ever expect to get over,” he shrugs. “Made up me mind on that pretty early, so…” But later on he will say that his acting success has helped. “It’s been great that the work I do has acted as a kind of outlet. When I’m doing emotional scenes I suppose I do use my trauma, my grief.”

Six months aho, O’Connell moved to London. He now owns his own flat in the east of the city and says that it’s a different crowd. But no matter where he is, even in Australia filming Unbroken and living in an apartment away from other cast, the temptation to go and let off steam is “constantly audible”. So does he just stay in? “Well, the good thing about living here is there’s a way of going out where I can just mind me own business. My local pub’s good – I get on with them – so I have a chinwag with some of the old characters in there. That’s a night out for me now.”

When he first moved from Derby, he was living in Hounslow. It strikes me as an odd choice, I say, being from that way myself. “Do you know a band called the Ruskins, Megan?” is O’Connell’s reply. “Well, I became friends with them, and they said Hounslow would fit the bill.” And did it? “Yeah, I was there for long enough, working on a farm in Cobham.” What were you doing working on a farm? “Shovelling shit and maintaining livestock. Building driveways.” He looks at me like I’m a bit mad. And then he understands. “Cos I was out of work. So I did that until I got another role. Was fun ’n’ all.”

He says there is one motivation for everything he does now: “Putting my mum somewhere under the sun”. I say that becoming the lead in Angelina Jolie’s $65m film should surely help. “Well, yeah,” he agrees. Did they pay him a big lump sum? He shrugs. “Nah, not really. Like, I’m not set up. I’m not minted, by any means. But it’s ’cos I’m just starting out, the business people exploit that.”

Still, at 24, he’s not doing badly. Last month, O’Connell bought his mum, now his manager, her first house – not quite under the sun, but in Derby. And there’s more work coming up –a reprisal of Pukey in the next series of This Is England and a period film, Tulip Fever, with Cara Delevingne. The latter, which was set in Amsterdam and also stars Judi Dench, brings me, quite neatly, to the topic of Delevingne.

Can we talk about girls, Jack? “Yeah,” he says, shrugging, looking amused. So I start by asking how much time there is in his life for relationships. “Er, it’s kind of discretionary, innit? I’ve gotta make time… if I’m gonna be a good boyfriend.” And is he a boyfriend, I ask. He tries his best not to look chuffed. “Yeah, I am a boyfriend to someone.” A boyfriend to Cara Delevingne? “Er, I’m not able to make comment at this stage.” Why not? He laughs. “Because I’ve got trust issues. You’ll say something I didn’t say.” And so we bat back and forth for a bit, until he eventually says, “Look, I’m not single. She’s beautiful. And she makes me want to make time for her. I’ll give you that.”

If he wasn’t with Cara Delevingne I think he’d just deny it – not least for the benefit of the other girl he was seeing. And he does say that he often falls for girls who he works with. “It happens. I tend to become besotted by someone’s version of a character, so then I become besotted by her.” Although now he corrects himself, saying he certainly doesn’t go striving for that these days – “particularly if I’m going to be serious with someone”. Has he had serious relationships before? (His exes include Tulisa Contostavlos, who confirmed their break-up on Twitter, and Skins star Kaya Scodelario, who said he broke her heart.) “No,” he shakes his head, “not really. I’ve never really deemed myself to be in a good position to be a boyfriend before.” Would he now? “Yeah. I think I’ve lost my curiosity.” He grins. “I feel well explored.” Would he like to settle down? How important is it for him to have a conventional family life? He barely skips a beat: “It’s what determines my sanity.”

In some ways, says O’Connell, he is really growing up. “I consider myself an adult these days because I think a lot clearer now.” He points to his head. “There’s not much conflict going on like there was. And I’ve sort of been inspired by achieving a more selfless attitude. As a kid you just think about yourself, don’t ya? Try and better your situation for you. But I’m sort of inspired now by a different outlook.”

It sounds like the kind of outlook, I think, that one would adopt after working with someone like Angelina Jolie, who used to be a bit of a bad girl herself. O’Connell says Jolie has obviously had a massive impact on him, but then she’s had an impact on everyone around him, too. “She’s really gotten to know all my people. She’s done things like meet my family and taken us for dinner – one night in Derbyshire. She asked me to pick 10 or 11 people – aunties, godparents, my mum, my nana, who is 78 – and she flew up in her helicopter to this hotel.” He shakes his head. “Madness.”

But later he used the helicopter “to get back to London”. You’re definitely moving in different spheres now, I laugh. Can he picture himself as a sort of Tom Hanks figure in a Hollywood mansion? “Ah, I’d like the Tom Hanks bit! But nah, I’ve got my career. Wherever that takes me. A house somewhere nice is just a perk…”

Jolie has described O’Connell as the “least Hollywood person I’ve ever met” in terms of attitude, but there is the expectation that he’ll rise up to the A-list fast. David Mackenzie, who directed O’Connell in Starred Up, says: “In the past 18 months, I think Jack has become a bona-fide movie star. Some of the very first reviews for our film already took the ‘birth-of-a-movie-star’ angle, and I think that’s been consolidated by ’71 – and will be by Unbroken. I hope he’s not too tempted by the big-buck fantasy franchises and continues to do strong, uncompromising stuff.”

O’Connell says his interest lies in arthouse projects and history. One of the reasons he wanted to do Unbroken, he admits, was because of the era it was set in. And his interests are developing. “These days I’m educating myself more than I was at school. Maybe my version of fun is changing a bit,” he chuckles, preparing for me to looked shocked: “Lately I’m into classical music and I go and look at art.” Well, I say, now you’re reining in the hellraising you need to fill your time with other things. But, just for the record, what got you into art all of a sudden? “I dunno! It’s like a fucking universe out there innit? And to think I knew nothing about it for 24 years…

“But that sort of stuff is in my day to day now,” he adds, suddenly clocking the hour and asking if we can go for a fag. He’s been fiddling with his cigarettes for 20 minutes now. “Where I was living before, there was a requirement. You live in that bubble, you keep up with what that bubble expects you to be, even if it’s in your subconscious. But my bubble’s a lot wider now. I get to go around the world, and there’s a whole universe in that bubble I’ve got, where no one’s going to judge me any more.”

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