Jack O’Connell: from Skins to superstardom

O’Connell’s searing performance in new prison drama Starred Up has movie-watchers giddy with excitement – and Hollywood has already come a-knocking

Fri, Mar 21, 2014, 10:08

It’s that point in the calendar when we attempt to flog you this year’s breakout star. Don’t slam the door on our poor wee foot. Shares in the indecently gifted Jack O’Connell really are about to shoot through the roof.

To this point, Derby’s finest has been best known for roles in Shane Meadows’s This is England and in the mildly notorious TV series Skins . Stand back and prepare for the Jack attack. This week, O’Connell eats up the screen as a troubled inmate in David Mackenzie’s tungsten-hard prison drama Starred Up . Later in the year, we will see him as a British soldier adrift during the Northern Irish troubles in Yann Demange’s greatly praised ’71 . Then there’s his lead role in Angelina Jolie’s survival drama Unbroken . A lot of important people are investing a lot of energy in this young man’s career.

“Obviously there is an element of uncertainty with everything that we do,” he says. “If I was to trust my foresight at the time I would have hoped it would go this way. But it is very humbling.”

In recent years, we have watched aghast as alumni of the ancient English public schools have moved into the acting profession (B Cumberbatch, T Hiddleston, D West, to name a few). It is, however, easy to exaggerate this phenomenon. Young performers from less humble backgrounds can still find space to breathe. Am I right in thinking Jack attended neither Eton nor Harrow?

“I wasn’t nurtured in that way,” he agrees. “I didn’t have a soft upbringing. I certainly didn’t study at no drama school. I was out in the mix. I was trying to be a popular individual round Derby.”

It hardly needs to be said that young Mr O’Connell is from an Irish background. Dad is from Kerry and – despite not visiting Ireland until he was a teenager – Jack has maintained an interest in that county’s GAA teams.

“I went to two Catholic schools,” he says. “So there was a massive Irish influence in my life. There was a strong Traveller community there, when they decided to turn up. This is probably a bit insulting, but, when I was a kid, I presumed Ireland must be a place in Derby. I had that affiliation through doing dancing at the Irish centre. They used to call me Jumping Jack.”

O’Connell doesn’t have a simple answer as to how he drifted into acting. But he does remember noting that drama classes tended to have an impressively high ratio of girls to boys. Acting also allowed him an outlet for more rebellious instincts. “We used to have a lot of fun, just pissing around,” he says. “The kind of behaviour that was landing me in trouble in academic lessons was actually being encouraged in drama.”

As was the case for so many young actors from the English Midlands, Shane Meadows, that area’s cinematic laureate, provided Jack with his first big break. Shane spotted Jack’s gifts and found him a role in the classic 2006 film This is England . Then just 15, he found the experience liberating and set forth on a course towards the professional acting life.

“I have no illusions there,” he says. “If not for Shane, it could have been a very different story for me.”

In the years since This is England , O’Connell has honed his technique without losing the rough edges that make him such a dangerous presence on screen. Even if that avalanche of promising material were not on its way, the performance in Starred Up would persuade us to nominate him as a face of 2014. Playing a former young offender facing up to his first spell in HM Prison Wandsworth, O’Connell conveys coiled anger throughout the tense, angry movie. One wonders if it was a hard part to live with.

“I’ve lived a certain life, where I am human enough to know what’s right and wrong with him,” he says. “Unless I am playing somebody very removed, I don’t think method acting is necessary. I get a better perspective cutting myself off. There is enough of a separation for me not to consider myself a walking hazard.”

Starred Up was filmed largely at Crumlin Road Prison in Belfast. We trust O’Connell found time to enjoy the nightlife in our Northern metropolis.

“I certainly did. We spent a lot of time in Lavery’s” he says.

Ah, the unpretentious drinking emporium on Bradbury Place. We know it well.

“And I met a girl once in Filthy McNasty’s,” he says cryptically. “Hey, that sounds like a line from a song.”

O’Connell really has got around. He can currently be seen on our screens in (we forgot to mention this earlier) 300: Rise of an Empire . One can hardly imagine a production less similar to Starred Up . The sequel to 300 is layered in effects, noise and brash spectacle. But O’Connell does insist it still feels the same game.

“But it does involve an alteration. It’s an ensemble. You can’t prioritise your craft so much. It’s a team process. And I had to go the gym twice a day.”

Most of that bulk had then to be lost for his role as Louis Zamperini in Unbroken . Jolie’s second film as director – written by the Coen Brothers and shot by the great Roger Deakins – is, the guts of a year before its release in high Oscar season, already kicking up a great deal of chatter. Zamperini, a former Olympic athlete, after crashing his plane in the Pacific during the second World War, survived adrift for nearly 50 days. Astonishingly, Zamperini is still with us.

“Yeah he’s 97 and still incredibly Iucid,” Jack says. “I’m grateful I got to say this, mate. Very few people asked me. I was asking him, when he was on the raft, what gave him the strength of mind to not feel crushed and not be too aware of the potential of dying. He said: ‘Focus only on the finishing line. Don’t think of anything else’.”

O’Connell looks to have followed that advice. There is no sense of fear or trepidation about him. Mind, you even the bravest chap might feel a little cowed when making their first acquaintance with Angelina Jolie. There’s nobody more famous.

“I prioritised that at the original meeting,” he says. “There was a task at hand. I had to focus on why I was there and not who I was there with. It doesn’t require genius to realise that being starstruck in that sort of meeting will go against you.”

Focus on the finishing line.

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