Starred Up: exclusive interview with Jack O’Connell

When Jack O’Connell was cast in the film role that would change – indeed, supercharge – his career, he had several things counting in his favour. For one thing, O’Connell, 23, had previous experience of portraying characters similar to the one he was to play in the prison drama Starred Up. In both Shane Meadows’s This Is England (2006), his film debut, and Channel 4’s teenager series Skins (2009-10), O’Connell had played boys who straddled the roguish-to-thuggish spectrum.

Eric, the young offender at the heart of David Mackenzie’s film, is a new arrival on a cell block populated by adult inmates. The better to ensure his survival, he must quickly establish his credentials. To his mind he must prove he is tougher and more violent than any other prisoner – including, it transpires, his father (played by Ben Mendelsohn). The only person seemingly willing to attempt to rehabilitate him is an idealistic prison therapist, played by Rupert Friend (most recently seen in Homeland).

Veracity was vital in Starred Up, and Mackenzie’s team were able to film in Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol, which O’Connell describes as a ‘museum’ of the Troubles. ‘You’d go into the cells and see the political messages. And sometimes not political. I walked into a padded cell, and someone had written in pencil, kill me.’ It was an emotionally and physically intense production, lacking creature comforts, with some of the cast actually sleeping in the cell blocks. ‘There was no central heating so that made the idea of sleeping overnight there a bit stupid, to my mind,’ O’Connell says, laughing. ‘But respect to the guys who did. And,’ he adds, ‘there are tales of it being haunted.’

We are talking in a room upstairs from a photography studio in Dalston, east London. O’Connell is dressed in sharp, mod-like clothes, but his normally cropped hair has been grown out and dyed black. Despite a slight hangover from a pre-Bafta party the night before, he is ebullient company.

‘Having access to this prison meant we could film sequentially,’ he continues. ‘So however much [shooting conditions] took their toll, it was made up for by the fact that we could just let the story unfold.’

The screenplay for Starred Up is by Jonathan Asser, and is his first script. A former prison therapist, he was able to introduce the actors to ex-convicts. ‘One of them was actually dubbed Wandsworth’s Most Violent Inmate 2005,’ O’Connell says with a wry smile. ‘And what was fascinating about this guy was that I didn’t learn that from him. And to be honest, if he had had it his way, I probably wouldn’t know that about him… he never imposes himself on you. Really gently shakes your hand – and the hardest people I know are like that. And that’s what I wanted to introduce to Eric.’

It is apparent from the outset that Eric is a coiled spring, poised to explode into violence whenever necessary (and sometimes when unnecessary). But equally, it is clear that inside he is still a kid, a tormented product of a tormented upbringing. O’Connell brings both boyish vulnerability and man-sized aggression to the role. ‘I feel like I’d worked on Eric for years. Without knowing when I was going to play him, or even knowing he was Eric,’ he says. ‘But coming into this business I was always interested in epitomising and demonstrating what it is to be bad. And not in the sense of even consciously bad. Just a product of his environment, and to have this different set of morals.’

David Mackenzie has worked with a range of young British actors early in their careers – including his brother Alastair (in The Last Great Wilderness) and Jamie Bell (in Hallam Foe) – and says he ‘came across Jack in among the cream of the crop of young British actors’. ‘He had a quality that felt right for the part,’ Mackenzie says. ‘Then when I met him and we did a bit of work together, we reached a pretty rapid understanding of just how intense the part was going to be – and it was obvious that Jack could play this character, this very angry young man, with a sense of authority and a sense of authenticity.’

He agrees with something that O’Connell himself intimates: that with a couple of wrong turns, he could have been a lad like Eric. ‘Jack made that clear to me when I first met him,’ Mackenzie affirms. ‘And as much authenticity as possible was the name of the game in the whole process.’

O’Connell grew up in Alvaston in Derby, the elder of two (he has a sister). His mother worked for British Midland, in the refunds department. His father worked for the railway companies that were the principal employers in the area, before being made redundant ‘after 24 years. Just like that,’ O’Connell says with notable bitterness. His father died four years ago. Now his mother works as his manager. ‘It’s ideal,’ he says.

When he was a child, football was his key passion and skill. His maternal grandfather, a former player, scout and assistant manager, helped him secure schoolboy trials at Derby County, although by the age of 16 knee injuries had put paid to his dreams of a professional career.

He describes his Catholic secondary school as ‘rough as f***’, and it seems that O’Connell gave as good as he got. ‘What I learnt aside from [anything] academic at school was probably very valuable lessons in terms of how to lie, how to play the game, how to play authority against itself.’ Drama was compulsory, ‘which meant I was forced into this environment where the behaviour that was landing me in a lot of shit in other lessons was being encouraged. It was just messing around for an hour. So I enjoyed it on that basic scale. And then because I took a liking to it, I ended up choosing to study it at GCSE level.’

The school also referred him to the well-regarded Television Workshop in Nottingham. From the age of 13 O’Connell began making the twice-weekly trip. ‘I was a youngster looking up to dudes like Vicky McClure, Joe Dempsie and Michael Socha – in fact he was a big influence on how I was able to detach drama from the all-singing, all-dancing stigma,’ he says. Aged 15 he landed a part in the television series Doctors, then a recurring role in The Bill. Still, he remained unconvinced that acting might offer a future. ‘I wanted to join the Army when football failed. That was my only realistic form of making an honest living. I did my work experience there.’

Four years ago my daughter interviewed O’Connell alongside two other members of the Skins cast – a teenager profiling the stars of the hottest teenage drama. Skins was a new kind of youth-oriented show, a more realistic portrayal of the highs and lows experienced by modern British youth. O’Connell had been cast as Jack-the-lad Cook after impressing in the films This Is England, Eden Lake, Wuthering Heights and Harry Brown. Talking then about any comparisons between himself and Cook, he told my daughter, ‘I haven’t done time, but only by the skin of my teeth.’

When I mention this today O’Connell squirms only slightly before giving a matter-of-fact shrug and saying, ‘Look, I mean, I’m a product of my environment.’ He declines to detail his transgressions, lest he implicate others involved. ‘But one thing I will say: I never went out with the intention to f*** someone over. My problem is that every time I was out I was trying to maximise and make it the best time of my life. And I guess I had that in common with Cook. For a working-class Brit, that kind of attitude lands you in some shit. But as I say, the long and short of it was, I always tried to have the best time of my life, any time I was out… but I’m 23 now. So I’ve started reining it in a bit.’

Starred Up premiered to great acclaim at last year’s London Film Festival (at which Jonathan Asser won best British newcomer). Its impending release offers the first glimpse of what will become a career-defining year for O’Connell, including a big-budget studio film, 300: Rise of an Empire. In the over-the-top sequel to 300, the 2006 blockbuster comic-book adaptation, O’Connell has a supporting role as a warrior in Ancient Greece, with the musculature (and the spray tan) to prove it. He has also finished work on ’71, which recently received impressive reviews after being unveiled at the Berlin Film Festival. With a script written by the playwright Gregory Burke (who wrote the award-winning play Black Watch), the gripping low-budget thriller focuses on a soldier (O’Connell) newly arrived in Northern Ireland in 1971. He is almost immediately separated from his unit and hunted by the IRA in the nationalist streets around the Falls Road in Belfast. ‘It’s quite difficult to find working-class actors nowadays,’ Burke says. ‘Or people from the kind of background where you look at him and think, I believe him in that role. Jack is a Derby lad. He looks like someone who would be in that role in real life. For me that was the selling point.’

It is an impressive slate for a young British actor. But it is, in a way, only the curtain-raiser. A couple of weeks before we meet, O’Connell completed work on the job of a lifetime. He had been in Australia for four months filming Unbroken, the latest directorial project for Angelina Jolie. Adapted from the bestselling book of the same title, it is the true story of Louis Zamperini, the Italian-American Olympic sprinter, Second World War US Air Force bombardier, Japanese prisoner-of-war and all-round hero. The part explains his floppy black hair – and, perhaps, the blazing rigour that O’Connell appears to be applying to his life. ‘I’m 23 now,’ he states again. ‘And I feel like when I was last in England, I didn’t have this mature, level head on my shoulders. It made a f***ing man of me, that job.’

To play a man who, after being shot down over the Pacific, survived 47 days on a life raft and then two and a half years in a succession of hell-on-earth Japanese slave camps, O’Connell followed an 800-calorie daily diet for three months before the beginning of the shoot last autumn, dropping about a stone and a half from his starting weight of a little over 11 stone. ‘There were times on that raft when I just didn’t have the energy,’ he admits. ‘So I was sneaking the odd biscuit. I just thought, “I need something…” I kind of blacked out once or twice. I am a production liability,’ he says, smiling thinly.

As for how he landed the role, O’Connell has no doubt that his performance in Starred Up helped to convince Jolie of his merits. He also refers to his athleticism, courtesy of his passion for football and boxing. Jolie, he says, ‘taught me a lot. The main thing I’ve taken from working with her is how genuinely selfless she is. That’s what I want to be. Being on call all day, every day – I feel really determined off the back of it. And I feel really fulfilled. Now I’ve got this sense of belonging. And thankfully I’ve been able to flirt with Hollywood a little bit without having to compromise at all. So now I’ve just got to be patient and make the right moves.’

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