The Young Guns of Hollywood

Growing up in Derby, England, Jack O’Connell saw his future on the soccer field. At least he did until the age of 13, when a drama teacher suggested he should audition for television roles. A stunning film debut soon followed as violent youngster Pukey Nicholls in Shane Meadow’s 2006 coming-of-age drama This Is England, and O’Connell began popping up when casting agents needed Artful Dodger types. He terrorized a middle-class couple in horror film Eden Lake (2008), and was part of a murderous gang in the Michael Caine revenge flick Harry Brown (2009). O’Connell then excelled as the self-destructive James Cook on the notoriously racy Channel 4 teen drama Skins. And this past September, the 23-year-old actor was the toast of the Toronto International Film Festival for his rough-and-tumble performance in the prison drama Starred Up (out later this summer). O’Connell’s sprint toward stardom hits full stride later this year, when he’ll star as the World War II P.O.W. and Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini in the Angelina Jolie-directed biopic Unbroken.

KALEEM AFTAB: Since I met you last, you’ve filmed Unbroken. How was that?

JACK O’CONNELL: God, I was very hungry when I spoke to you last—the diet. I was rather strict on myself. There was a lot of pressure playing Louis Zamperini. I slimmed down. I just put it down to having to be an Olympian, spending all this time hungry. I’ve been eating again, which is nice.

AFTAB: What was the food you missed most?

O’CONNELL: Roast dinner. That was my last cheat meal. My Derbyshire roots kind of surfaced. My cravings for roasted meat and potatoes were heightened.

AFTAB: Did your childhood athletics help you at all in preparing for the role?

O’CONNELL: Ostensibly, yes. Originally I wanted to become a footballer. But it’s great when I get to marry the two because, in the acting field, a competitive mentality can be beneficial at times.

AFTAB: Have you received good advice in your career?

O’CONNELL: Yeah, from [musician] Ian Brown. It was in 2009, I think—July, a festival, fucking roasting hot. I was playing with a band that I used to piss around with. We ended up backstage at the festival, and Brown was just getting set up, doing his thing, having a cigarette. I walked past him and because he is a favorite of mine, asked him for a bit of advice. He said, “Don’t be nervous, have a purpose.” A nice quip. I’ve been really sentimental about that.

AFTAB: What did you do in the band?

O’CONNELL: A bit of guitar, a bit of vocals, a bit of rhythm. I was with very talented musicians, and I guess that rubs off.

AFTAB: Do you do karaoke?

O’CONNELL: I quite like to sing, actually—just belting out numbers with my guitar. I find that it’s a form of tranquility. After all this mental lifestyle of the past seven or eight years, it’s good to find some outlets that are not bad for my health. I sang last night—a song that I wrote about a mate who passed away. It was the first time I played it. It went well.

AFTAB: Have you ever made a big fashion faux pas?

O’CONNELL: When all my mates used to think they were proper rude boys, they used to take the piss out of me for wearing casual clothing. But in terms of a faux pas, I reckon I’m too proud to admit it—I’m of the opinion that I always look boss.

AFTAB: Does that help in auditions?

O’CONNELL: I really enjoy being in that [audition] environment, testing stuff out. It’s very productive for me to be in that position again. I remember jumping on trains down to the city, being totally broke, sometimes having to stay out overnight, really bumming it, having to choose between cigarettes and a sandwich. One night we didn’t have accommodation. We slept rough in some square in the West End. We didn’t actually sleep. We just spent the night having a laugh because it was a one-off. I hope it’s a one-off.

AFTAB: Has your working-class background helped you?

O’CONNELL: I started auditioning at the age of 13, which, all of a sudden, is now 10 years ago. So I spent a decade getting to this level of recognition. It’s a bit of a whirlwind with a lot of graft. I’ve had to eat a lot of shit without compromising myself, which is important, and that is down to the culture I hail from. There is pride, and such a thing as honor. I do think that has helped me with my progression, certainly with the rejection and shite side to it.

AFTAB: Was there anyone growing up that you looked up to?

O’CONNELL: Certainly, plenty. It would be tricky to name just one, as I feel I would be doing the others an injustice. My dad is the best example. We didn’t have the perfect relationship, we used to clash a lot, but on reflection, I’m thankful for that.

AFTAB: I know you want kids. Do you have a particular woman in mind to be their mother?

O’CONNELL: Several. There is a blueprint. Aesthetically I’m not that fussy. Maybe that’s a bad thing. But character—if we are having a laugh, then I’ll probably want to spend time with you.

AFTAB: Are you a perfectionist?

O’CONNELL: I like the ideology of there being no such thing as perfection. I really like what that suggests. But I’m of the opinion that I have witnessed perfection at various times, especially in art. I’ve had the good fortune of studying the 17th-century art of Amsterdam in preparation for a film.

AFTAB: You’ve played a lot of tough roles, but do you cry a lot?

O’CONNELL: More than I want to mention probably. I cried at The Lion King, the West End musical production, but only the first time. I’ve seen it twice—I have a younger sister.

AFTAB: What are you doing next?

O’CONNELL: I’m off to the White House tomorrow. I think it’s all in alignment with the role that I’ve just done with Angie [Jolie]. I’ve been invited to go. I hear Barack is at home too.

AFTAB: What will you say to President Obama?

O’CONNELL: I’ll probably just talk about Guinness, unless he’s interested in football, which I’ll have to remember to refer to as soccer, but that word always pains me. So I think I’ll start with football, and see how we go from there.

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