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At 23, Jack O’Connell has been a mainstay in British cinema for close to a decade, having made his screen debut in Shane Meadows’ “This Is England” and starring in the gritty teen drama “Skins.” But the actor’s star is about to get a whole lot brighter: In August, Tribeca Film will release “Starred Up,” in which O’Connell plays an angry prisoner clashing with authorities. While “Starred Up” premiered to great acclaim at Telluride and recently found more support at the Tribeca Film Festival, O’Connell has already surfaced again as the lead in the Berlin Festival selection “’71,” a brutal war drama featuring the actor in nearly every scene. He also recently surfaced with a supporting role in “300: Rise of an Empire”; later this year, he will be seen as main character in Angelina Jolie’s latest directing effort, “Unbroken,” a biopic about Olympic champion Louis Zamperini’s experience in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. In short: O’Connell is about to be everywhere. And for a young man who acted out as a teenager — to the point where he had a track record that delayed his American work visa — this moment has been a long time coming. In New York for the Tribeca premiere of “Starred Up,” O’Connell spoke with Indiewire about what he has learned about his career ambition and how he hopes to apply it going forward.
I’ve worked a long time to deal with the whirlwind. It’s been a long time in the making for me, and a lot of hard work too. I think it might be overwhelming if I thought it was undeserved. It was definitely an uphill battle trying to get myself the recognition. Now I’m at the point in my life where I kind of feel I know what I want to do with it.
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The work that I’ve done so far demonstrates my intention as an actor and hopefully one day a filmmaker. I’m quite content with the level of integrity I’ve been able to preserve, and I haven’t had to compromise myself at all. The jobs I’ve turned down are probably as crucial as the jobs I’ve decided to do. If I wanted the cheap roles in this game I would have gotten them by now. That’s not what I’m out for.
I hate exposition. I feel very patronized when I’m being force-fed information and not allowed to do the thinking myself. With that preset already a priority of mine, I was keen. And David [Mackenzie, director of “Starred Up”] is the same way, he tells stories very finely. He doesn’t force it. So that was already there, and I had a lot of respect for David as well, which I knew would translate as well with or without the dialogue. Certain things don’t require words. We’re not in a particularly articulate setting. I think that the relevance of actions compared to words have always fascinated him privately. So to be able to just feel these things and hope that it’ll be conveyed well by David in the edit, or what have you, there is a level of trust there. I didn’t really doubt that David would use what we gave him responsibly. There was always a level of certainty.
My character in “Starred Up” is a very complex individual. So as long as I do justice to that, it holds the story together, and you’ll be interested enough to follow. It would have been very boring for me to walk around very angry all the time, with a chip on the shoulder, almost sympathetic to himself. I had no interest in that. To know that, I had to be a little bit older than Eric. I only learned what that was recently. Eric’s nineteen, and he’s had to come to terms with being a man, being an adult at nineteen.
At school I had problems with the idea of authority. I didn’t really find all of the topics very relevant. I got distracted very easily and I just wanted to have a laugh. I just used to enjoy making people laugh a lot in school, and that landed me in trouble, so there’s a conflict. I wasn’t a bully or aggressive to people, it was mainly just trying to have a sense of humor. I guess what I didn’t know then, but what I know now, is that for some reason, in a classroom environment, that’s a threat to the order, so they try to whip it out of you. But that’s part of my persona and my character. To be in a form of institution where you’re deemed as a problem, it has a negative effect. I did what I did because I was there, and there is stuff that I did that to this day I’m sorry about. I would never try to justify it. I made mistakes. In a working environment, the way things have worked out to come full circle, I feel very privileged that I’m allowed to introduce the life experience I’ve got into characters like this. It’s projected on a scale where a lot of the world can see it, it’s available to a lot of the world, and hopefully it’ll influence people in some way.
It’s always been my intention to be a diverse actor. I think it’s important if I’m going to respect myself as an actor is to have a diverse CV. I did get the opportunity to portray Bobby Charlton [in the TV film “United”], who was a footballer in the 50s and 60s. He’s from a different part of the world, a different era, and that’s one credit to the CV that I’m so thankful for. I think without it, there is a violence to my other roles, and I might typecast myself. If I’d have approached “300” trying to do what I did with “Starred Up” or “Skins,” playing a fellow with that sort of ethos, then I’d deserve the criticism. So it’s important to me to avoid that, because the actors I respect are versatile. In my defense, I don’t really get to choose a lot of the time. There is a pattern developing, and I don’t really like it. I’m trying now to focus on separating myself from that.
I’m not a particularly angry individual. I got to sort it out for what it is growing up, and people who have gone other ways are more frightening than myself. I get to use that in my work, but I don’t identify with it. I consider myself fortunate that I can bring my experience in to benefit my art, but it’s not me.
Growing up, Gary Oldman has been a big role model of mine. Also Tim Roth, I’ve always loved his performance. A more recent example would be Tom Hardy. He decides to do what he does for his reasons, but I like the way he’s been able to stay as Tom. He’s not been warped in any way. And when you see these people who persevere, it seems possible. But it does get a bit mad.
With Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” I felt like I’d been working a long time to be trusted with a role like that. I finally I felt like I had an opportunity to break away from exactly what I was nervous about. So I just welcomed it. I tried to treat it with a level of respect that would enable me to portray the guy responsibly. That’s how I avoided anything that might be a comfort zone. I was well away from my comfort zone for three months. It was integral. It gets to a point where there are so many real-life decent stories that have occurred, so many inspiring people who were heroic, it doesn’t really stand to repeat franchises and supernatural stuff. I don’t need explosions or special effects, unemotional shit like that. If you’ve got nothing else, you’ve got a good story, and a good team, and they’ll find a way to avoid fucking up.
It wasn’t until I got “Unbroken” that I was able to obtain a work visa. It was not easy to do, I had to go to a lot of meetings. It’s insane, because I felt like I did the time for whatever crimes I did. I don’t think I’m a hazard to anyone else. What’s different now is that I have a future. I didn’t know if I had a future back then. It was difficult to still be judged as that reprobate that I’ve been working as a long time to separate myself from. But I just knew that there was only one way to combat it, which was walking the walk and not talking the talk. That’s why I’m reluctant to talk the talk too much now. Now, thankfully, I’ve proven myself. What really gets me going these days is work.