Money Monster’s Jack O’Connell: ‘Not as Irish as I would like to be’

Star worked hard to make it in Hollywood and is very proud of his Irish roots

Jack O'Connell stars alongside Academy award winners George Clooney and Julia Roberts in 'Money Monster'.


“If I am playing somebody from another period of history or another country I always try to take that on board,” Jack O’Connell tells me. “That used to involve walking around my area in Derby when that wasn’t a hindrance. Now, you can’t necessarily concentrate on the work when whatever-her-name is trying to get you to have a kid with her oldest. Haha! I mean a photo with her oldest. A kid with her oldest? That sometimes happens.”

Jack O’Connell has arrived. Over the past three years, the young actor has built up an extraordinarily impressive body of work. Spring-boarding off the usual small parts in The Bill and Doctors, he owned the screen in films such as ’71 and Starred Up. He played the lead role in Angelina Jolie’s war epic Unbroken. Now, in Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, he plays a working-class bloke who, after losing his life savings on the stock market, takes George Clooney’s Wall Street pundit hostage on live television.

Only a few years ago, O’Connell was getting in scrapes with the police while knocking about unglamorous Derby. Now, he is one of the UK’s most-sought-after stars. Heck, he has George and Angelina’s numbers in his phonebook.

“My responsibility is to behave myself,” he says cautiously. “We all have a job to do. It’s doing that job that’s got me to the position where I’m working with these people. Superstardom is not something that I have ever entertained anyway. I have never gone overboard about somebody whose work I like: footballers, actors, public figures. Most of the people I get starstruck over are probably dead now.”

No pretensions

O’Connell is an interesting guy. Despite five years juggling offers and appearing in proper films, he seems to have lost none of his working-class, East Midlands accent. No edges have been worn off. No pretensions seem to have been acquired. It seems as if he carries himself as he always did. Do you really need to ask if the persona includes any Irish elements?

“Yeah! But I am not as Irish as I would like to be,” he says. “If I could choose, I’d love to be able to claim I was born there. I follow Ireland in the football and rugby. I follow Kerry in the football. I follow the culture. But not too much or you get dubbed a ‘plastic Paddy’.”

His late dad, Johnny O’Connell, who hailed from Ballyheigue in Co Kerry, worked for Bombardier until his death in 2009. His mum worked for British Midland airlines and now lives with Jack in a house he recently bought in his hometown. He is not a moaner, but I get the impression that it was a reasonably tough childhood.

‘Quick with your fists’

“I liked getting clued up on my dad’s Irish history. That helped me as an adolescent I think. Knowing about that was very important to me,” he says. “But the upbringing I had in Derby was very important as well. I went to Catholic schools that attracted a lot of Irish. You could have got on sound if you minded your own business. But you would have been one of the lucky few. You got to be quick with your fists. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

O’Connell first fancied a career in football and it seems he was pretty darn good. A striker with Alvaston Rangers, he went on to have trials for Derby County. He had already started to toy with acting and, as is often the case, injuries seem to have made the life choices on his behalf.

“Some of my best experiences were playing on a Saturday morning,” he says. “How did I end up in this mess? I got this problem with my knee, which was essentially growing pains. I could have gone on, but it was hard. I was going out a lot more and my standard at football slipped. I wasn’t able to commit.

“Then I got this application form for an acting workshop in Nottingham. That was owned by Carlton. Seeing the ITV emblem was like seeing the logo from Derby County. I never really made the decision. It just happened.”

O’Connell has always been frank about being “known to the police” when he was a lad. His explanations suggest that most of the trouble resulted from pranks that got out of hand. He has a lengthy story about dumping a gas canister in a fire with a bunch of mates. The subsequent explosion nearly killed one of the group. Booze was involved. Boredom was an obvious factor.

‘It was a pisstake’

At any rate, he was still plugging away at acting. Securing a role in The Bill was a big thing. Then he got to appear in Shane Meadows’s great film This is England. “Cameras on phones had just emerged. People would say: ‘Let me get a photo, Jack, in case one day it’s worth something.’ It was a pisstake. Then I did This is England and that was a real movie. People talked to me like I was a real actor.”

Then that trouble with the law came back to bite him. He was offered a part in a Hollywood movie, but he couldn’t travel because, as a result of his criminal record, a US visa was denied. Instead, he went to Bulgaria to shoot 300: Rise of an Empire. When, however, Angelina Jolie cast him in Unbroken, the story of Italian-American war hero Louis Zamperini, she was not going to take no for an answer. It seems she fought stubbornly with the State Department.

“She had to do a lot. She’s very loyal and that’s an important thing,” he says. “By the time I’d met Angelina I was still working through all that. It’s fair enough. A lot of people are trying to get into America and it’s only right that they are doing background checks. I had a criminal record and there was alcohol involved. At the time it was arduous. At the time I thought it was unjust, but things have worked out the way they have.”

Vulnerability Things have, indeed, worked out nicely. O’Connell has done what all actors crave to do: filled a space that nobody knew existed. As he demonstrated in the prison drama Starred Up, he can generate aggression, but there’s a vulnerability to his performances that ensures the audience is usually on his side.

His performance as Kyle Budwell in Money Monster is a case in point. An ordinary guy trying to make a reasonable point in an unreasonable way, Kyle ultimately emerges as the hero. Could he make more sense than I managed of the financial jargon? “It wasn’t until I watched it that it made sense. Jodie made sense of it. There was a lot of grey stuff for me. But now I have got some understanding.”

He is very convincingly American in the role. Does he live as an American off set? Is he a method man or a classical actor?

“My route in is very different to others I think,” he says. “When I am working with classically trained actors I am always listening to them. Maybe not asking them questions. But paying attention. The last role I had was with classically trained actors. I learned how to warm up. Those are things you need to learn.”

He nods with great seriousness at the cigarette packet between us.

“You are always learning. You never stop. You never stop.”

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