Berlin: It’s February 2014 and it’s more than likely that, if you live in America, you’d have a hard time picking Jack O’Connell out of a line-up. But by year’s end we’ll wager that will have changed, because if there’s any justice in the world, both “Starred Up” the fantastic prison drama that we caught in Goteborg, and “‘71” which has proven one of the biggest hits of the Berlinale (read our review here), will have made it across the Atlantic. They’ll be followed by “Unbroken” the Angelina Jolie-directed bestseller adaptation that has “prestige project” and “potential award magnet” writ large on it already, and a Christmas release date locked down. And that’s not even mentioning an abs-bearing, sword-brandishing role in “300: Rise Of An Empire.” Once all of this exposure hits, O’Connell may feel like an overnight sensation, but as the 23-year-old reminded us during our very enjoyable Berlinale interview, he’s been at this for nearly a decade now.
The eagle-eyed and elephant-memoried among you may know him from Shane Meadows’ excellent “This is England” or from supporting roles in Brit flicks “Eden Lake,” “Harry Brown” and “Tower Block.” However, back in dear old Blighty he’s best known for his role in the cultural phenomenon that is the youth-oriented TV series “Skins.” He’s about to go international with that potential hat-trick of attention-grabbing lead performances, but maybe the most unusual part of this story is that, according to the personable and thoughtful O’Connell, this career trajectory is actually part of a plan he devised a long time ago, and which is just now beginning to bear fruit.
U.S. audiences this year may well be seeing a lot of you all of a sudden, but tell us how that all happened from your perspective.
Since I started acting I’ve always been aware of the sort of “beastly entity” that is America and Hollywood, and semi-consciously I devised a kind of route in — I’d seen a lot of people try and fail. And so I realized that if I work hard enough at what I do [in the U.K.], then eventually they’ll have to listen. It’s a very sought-after part of the industry, and for the right reasons and I’d like to involve myself. But I think a lot of people make the mistake of devoting themselves wholly to that, to trying to sell themselves over there. That was never my intention. So thankfully I’ve been able to keep my priorities straight and do work for the right reasons. And now all of a sudden, I’m reflecting on a backlog of work that I’m extremely proud of. And after ten years of working now, I know that that’s quite rare.
So I sussed out at an early age what would be my route in, and that was to cause enough ripples over here to the point where they’ve got to listen. And then thankfully a director of Angelina Jolie’s caliber turns up and trusts me with the lead role in her next feature film — gives me an opportunity and a platform to show off my strengths — and perhaps my weaknesses as well!
It’s refreshing to hear that–often young actors seem reluctant to admit to having thought things through so coolly, like it’s all pure luck or fate or destiny or something.
I think that point of view did become trendy at some stage but there’s very little naiveté about me on that point. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful that it’s all gone to plan, because it was never set in stone. But it seemed like the more realistic approach for me, coming from the background I’m from, without having the right, you know, credentials. There’s no way I could have gone to Hollywood and tried to look for myself. I’d have got laughed at.
So once you did get a bit of notice, were there any Hollywood projects that came along when the timing was wrong?
I’d much prefer to not name them, but there was one that I was attached to and for one reason or another, which turned out to be an American government intervention as opposed to anything professional…
A visa issue?
A visa issue. So I lost that anyway, and in hindsight I do feel quite fortunate. At the time it was very frustrating because I assumed it was my next move forward. But I know this happens a lot. I wonder when it’s going to happen again and if there’s any way I can foresee it, if I’m any more educated to be able to predict these things. I don’t think so.
So now you’ve had the experience of both small-scale British indies and much more massive American productions. What’s your preference as a way of working?
Well, my first experience on a feature film was with Shane Meadows on “This Is England.” He has a very identifiable approach in the sense that I didn’t see a camera on set till 10 AM at any stage. It was about what we were shooting, not how we were shooting it. And in my naiveté I guess I assumed that that’s how a film was made, totally unaware of different styles and scales of filmmaking.
But now I’m mature enough to appreciate those and I find them equally as fascinating in some cases. But if you were to ask me about preference I’d say certainly I prefer feeling free —if I know the character well enough. With someone like Gary [from “‘71”] I guess it would be trickier, because Gary tested me. I felt lost and I didn’t know the answers. With Eric [from “Starred Up”] I knew the answers. I knew that backdrop and setting…not to the point that I’ve experienced it, but well enough to be sure of what I was doing. So in that kind of [free] environment [on “Starred Up”] we’re able to take the story and, well, meander perhaps. But there are so many depending factors — egos are not welcome in that kind of setting, and I have experienced it sometimes when it doesn’t necessarily work, so credit to [director] David [Mackenzie].
Actually when we spoke he mentioned that one of the reasons he gave you the role in “Starred Up” was because he recognized you had a deep personal connection to that character. That you’d almost thought that if things had gone differently, you could be in his situation. Is that true?
Yeah, I’ve had run ins. I don’t think that’s a mystery to anyone that might know me. At the same time I’m not proud of it. I don’t want to glamorize it, it might have benefitted me in certain ways but if I could change what I’ve done I probably would. To defy that old cliché of no regrets…but also I’ve got life experience that I could bring to Eric, and if I can incorporate that, well, I’ve noticed a lot of directors find that a useful quality in me.
I’ve seen “Starred Up” and “‘71” within a couple of weeks of each other and it strikes me that while there are surface similarities, the two characters are actually very different. How did you switch gears?
I tried hard to differentiate the two. When I did “Starred Up” I finished two weeks prior to starting on ‘“71” so I had to be mindful of how I was going to differentiate the two characters. I probably walked in to “’71” with a bit too much Eric, mentally.
Was there a certain element that helped you get into him?
The era. Concentrating on the times. Thankfully I’ve enough references in my life, a lot of influences from that period and even earlier. A common trait, typically of a lot of blokes born in the fifties or even earlier is this hardened mentality, drilled into them from early. Eric was hardened for other reasons — he had something else drilled into him…oof that’s quite an unfortunate comment in a prison context! So yeah, the era definitely helped me distinguish, and it’s a very fascinating process for me.
And also “‘71” is a very different style of film. David Mackenzie…caught up with us, it was about us. Whereas “‘’71” is about many things, all told through Gary’s narrative. Which meant in some cases I didn’t really have to do much, you know? [Director] Yann [Demange] had a consistent note where he’d like me to rein things in, and internalize, which is difficult for me as an actor because instinctively, the kind of background I come from, it’s hard to be noncommittal. So I felt quite at a loss, but I guess so did the character.
It was an extremely complex time, and it’s still quite a raw issue. Did that worry you, how controversial and delicate Northern Irish politics were, and still are?
It gave us a sense of responsibility. My Dad’s a Kerryman — yes, on the blunt end of a lot of jokes! He has seven brothers, so a lot of my identity is Irish-based. My birthplace is the U.K., but I’m from a part of England that has such a strong Irish community that there was once upon a time where I thought Ireland was a place in Derby which was a place in England.
And so for that reason I wanted to keep an unbiased portrayal, and at no point do we suggest we’ve got an answer to anything. Thankfully we were sensitive to that, and that was one of my main focus points from talking to Yann in the first place. At first to be honest I was quite alarmed at how little Yann [who is French] knew about it! Because I thought he was steering the ship head on for something colossal. But it’s so transferable across the board that Yann’s got his own frame of reference in which this resonates with him. But we did have a duty, and I know for some people it’s very present still, but one thing we can’t be accused of is undermining anything, I don’t think. And in this setting that’s a real achievement — a writing achievement, a directing achievement. Not so much myself but these were my priorities before agreeing to involve myself. And thankfully [screenwriter] Greg [Burke] was our main source of info and that was all in place with the script itself.
Speaking of directors, you’ve been working with Angeline Jolie on “Unbroken.” Is it true the old cliché about directors who are actors making good actors’ directors?
Definitely. But what surprised me as well, actually I dunno if I was surprised, but she does have a real discipline for all the other elements too. It was all such a Hollywood project, so there were all these other elements to supervise. Thankfully Roger Deakins was on hand to really make a spectacle of what we were shooting. And to a phenomenal extent. And we had to hit the ground running, we didn’t have the luxury of time, so the fact that she was an actors’ director, with these other priorities also, meant that we were not only able to fulfill the schedule on time, but also really well, man, and really get the end product. I mean, I think we’re really sitting on something.
You’re straight off a plane from Australia, having only wrapped a couple of days ago, I believe?
Yeah, and I don’t think I had a day off on that one — started in September, two weeks off for Christmas and then back on it. Thankfully I was able to eat during Christmas; I wasn’t in denial during the Christmas period. But I feel very rewarded by it all, really.
So what’s next?
Go back home, blank canvas, I’m in no rush. I want to enjoy this luxury of reflecting on a lot of good work, and I don’t want to compromise.
And where does “300: Rise of an Empire” fit?
Ah, well that’s interesting because there, I did have to compromise at the time. Not to knock the project at all, but for me as an actor, it’s not what I get out of bed for. I like performance and people and characters and devising and researching them. There was a lot of posing done on ‘300.’ I mean, I hope I don’t offend anyone by saying that, but it was more time spent in the gym than anything. I was in front of a mirror for more time than in front of a camera. it was frustrating — a lot of spray tan. I think I’ve got tanned lungs, all orangey.
So you’ve no next project firmed up?
Not quite. There are a few things floating around, stuff that I’m not in a position to mention at the minute. Because you know, I could spoil it, or I could mention something that never ends up happening. And then I just look like I’m talking shit for a living.