Jack O’Connell: The Great British Breakthrough

“It all gets a bit illegal.”

As on-set anecdotes go, Jack O’Connell’s description of the lengths taken to complete his latest film, ’71, is quite unique. But then, O’Connell is not your typical movie-star-in-waiting. A broad Derbyshire accent and laddish demeanour cover what is a very earnest and thoughtful undercurrent – not afraid to say what he thinks, but perhaps a little cautious of the eyes suddenly on him following a spectacular six months.

Building his reputation on TV (Skins) and in British cinema (This Is England, Harry Brown, Tower Block), he got a shield and six-pack as part of the cast in Hollywood sequel 300: Rise Of An Empire in early March. Then came Starred Up, the superb prison drama where he starred as a volatile young offender making his way in an adult prison, which won awards at last year’s London Film Festival, where he returns this year with Northern Ireland-set drama ’71 (review).

While no actual laws were broken, the 24-year-old endured long working days, a tight budget and precarious stunts to play Gary, a British squaddie separated from his unit and forced to negotiate the angry streets of early-’70s Belfast.

“There were times when the shoot was on top of us,” he admits. “[The production] got more out of us than they were authorised to, I guess. Making your days longer, making your turnaround shorter and shit. Thankfully I had Yann (Demange, director) there really backing me up throughout.”

The film represents a turning point in O’Connell’s career, something he feels he’s been working towards.

“’71 was really the first film that approached me, decided that I was their man and didn’t want an audition, and wanted to piece the film together around casting myself. You know, at the risk of sounding a little bit expectant, I wasn’t surprised, man, because I’ve worked for a long time to put myself in that position. I was flattered, but I felt it was time to skip the audition process!”

Incredibly, production on ’71 started just two weeks after O’Connell wrapped on Starred Up, meaning he had precious little time to both leave behind an intense psychological prison drama, and begin to prepare on a very physical action-thriller. The contrast between the two roles did, however, aid him in making the transition from volatile prison to soldier on the run.

“One element that helped me understand that was the era,” he explains. “Nowadays, we are inclined to act out, individuality or whatever, whereas back then I guess it was more about being part of the machine. There was an acceptance of normal and average, and a pride in normality.”

The production did leave him in a reflective mood on the physical side of filmmaking. “I just think physically, you know? What you do to your f*cking anatomy, it took its toll, one way or another,” he muses, leaning back in his chair. “I think that’s why I’ve got to keep myself physically fit – if I ever find myself with work backing up like that, it’s not for the ‘out of shape’… I wouldn’t advise it, anyway!”

In the end, however, the actor is keen to stress it’s all in the name of ‘the process’. “What I’m keen to put across is I choose to put myself in those situations, so I don’t blame anyone for it… That’s why we f*cking do it, so that you sit in a theatre, and assume it’s a struggle. Particularly, if I’m watching films, my eye is always attracted to where people are f*cking up and not giving 110%. Thankfully, we’re not guilty of that.”

’71 has won rave reviews at both the Berlin and Toronto Film Festivals, with O’Connell’s performance as a man trapped in the middle of a war he has little grasp of being singled out for particular praise. As his profile has risen, so too have the number of eyes watching.

“I enjoy the recognition and, having worked long enough, feel like it’s deserved,” he says, nodding approvingly. “Moving forward from here, I kind of know what noises to make, I know who to listen to, I know what has validity to it and what doesn’t. So now I’m just going to choose to focus on what’s next, so whatever comes up I’m in the best state of mind for, and that doesn’t involve Googling myself or reading reviews.”

The mood gets a little darker when the subject of celebrity gossip comes up, and a particular incident when trying to obtain a work visa.

“I was trying to get my first visa, and a lot of gossip magazines were describing me as a ‘bad boy’, people that have never f*cking met me, right? By them f*cking around with their petty gossip like that – and I’d love for you to run this – meant that when I went to get my visa, embassy people were researching me, saw these headlines and that was the stigma attached. Them magazines, all of that, they’ve actually offended me coming up, so I do whatever I can to ignore the f*ckers.”

Happily, gossip columns and sidebars of shame don’t seem to have held back the actor in any long-term capacity, given that the year that started with a Hollywood blockbuster will end with a potential award-winner: the Angelina Jolie-directed Unbroken. O’Connell plays ‘Louie’ Zamperini, an Olympian who became a hero during World War 2, beating out actors from around the world to get the lead.

“I guess what went in my favour was I didn’t realise at the time how important a role this was for me to get. I didn’t know at the time, so I was treating it like an average audition, I guess.” Having admitted to working with “some Nazis” in the past, he has nothing but praise for Jolie as a director. “With Angie, she had a level of compassion, and decency, and understanding, that made you want to invest personally.”

Moving forward is a theme in a lot of O’Connell’s conversation, a sign that he is aware that the next steps are more important than ever. “As a result [of Unbroken], my relationship with that studio, Universal, is a good one. And it does look like we’re going to move forward together, for the right reasons, for the right work, but it’s always about the content.”

The ‘right work’ doesn’t, however, mean we’ll be seeing variations on a theme, as he is keen to stress anything and everything is an option.

“It would have to depend on what I’d just done, and what I feel like doing next… I’m always keen to achieve a variation. So I’m not closed-minded to anything, man – you can’t rule out that one day you won’t see me in a West End musical. A superhero movie, perhaps…”

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