Jack O’Connell, the strapping Brit with the Derbyshire drawl, is hotter than a fresh-fucked fox in a forest fire.
The 24-year-old turned in one of the strongest performances of the year as an explosive violent offender in the prison drama Starred Up, was eyed by J.J. Abrams for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Josh Trank for The Fantastic Four, and is even seeing supermodel Cara Delevingne. He’s also earning plenty of awards buzz for his gripping turn as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie’s World War II saga Unbroken.
Capturing Zamperini’s incredible story onscreen was no small task. Jolie’s film, co-written by the Coen brothers, traces his journey from a bullied juvenile delinquent to his days as a track phenom who ran the 5,000-meter event in Hitler’s Olympics. While serving as a bombardier in the Pacific during WWII, his crew’s defective plane crash-landed about 850 miles south of Oahu, and Zamperini was forced to spend 47 days floating on a raft—only to be discovered by the Japanese Navy and funneled through a series of POW camps for two-and-a-half years. There, he finds himself tormented by Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a sadistic, ultraviolent prison guard nicknamed “The Bird” who derived sexual pleasure from beating his inmates. All in all, it’s like a mishmash of Gallipoli, Life of Pi, and Forrest Gump.
“This shoot broke me,” says the intense O’Connell. “It was a fuckin’ mountainous effort, and I knew fairly early that this was going to be something that would challenge me more than ever before…but then you get adrenaline on your side.”
For the raft sequences, the actor dropped 26 pounds, going from 145 to 119, and then had just nine days to bulk up again to shoot the Olympian sequences, which he says was “a little berserk.” But that wasn’t even the most arduous task.
One of the most grueling sequences of the lengthy shoot is set at Naoetsu POW camp in northern Japan—a mining camp lorded over by The Bird. There, Zamperini is ordered to balance a heavy wooden log over his head and if he drops it, he’ll be shot. “I fainted twice underneath the plank,” says O’Connell. “We spent half a day shooting that scene.”
O’Connell says he found strength in his director, Jolie, who was both very passionate about doing Zamperini justice, and also a champion of the young actor’s from the get-go.
“I was pleasantly surprised that Angelina was very respectful—respectful enough for me to separate ‘Angelina the superstar’ from ‘Angelina the director,’ or boss,” he says. “I think her experience as an actor allowed for more empathy than any director I’ve had before, which I was grateful for.”
He pauses. “I have heard that there’s such a thing as dictatorship when it comes to directing, and she’s not guilty of that at all. She led by example. It was a personal thing she was working towards, and I felt very invested as well seeing her level of commitment. I called her our ‘fearless leader,’ and I’ll stick by that.”
O’Connell’s recent wave of success is no fluke. After acting in theater programs at Saint Benedict Catholic Voluntary Academy in his native Derby, he was accepted into The Television Workshop in Nottingham—a rigorous drama program that met twice a week and all day Sunday where kids would learn scripts, improvise, and act out plays.
“Sometimes the requirements pissed me off because I had other ideas at that age,” says O’Connell. “When I was starting out, I was naïve enough to dislike it and consider most actors poncers because acting wasn’t my first love, so I defined myself against that and developed this interest, which has become my passion.”
Two years into the program, he was part of a project dubbed the National Theatre’s Shell Connections Festival, where their workshop was tasked with choosing a script and acting it out. If it passed muster with an adjudicator, it would be put on at the local playhouse. O’Connell’s group chose The Spider Men by Ursula Rani Sarma, and their rendition was so lauded that it not only played the playhouse, but was then upgraded to the National Theatre Cottesloe.
“You’re looking around thinking, ‘Holy shit! There isn’t much of a gulf between doing this, and being a professional actor,’” he says.
Shortly thereafter, British director Shane Meadows, who’s known for his gritty, Midlands-set films, was casting This Is England—a coming-of-age story about young, Northern skinheads in the ‘80s. O’Connell read for the lead, which eventually went to Thomas Turgoose. But Meadows was so impressed by the young lad’s audition that he wrote the part of Pukey Nicholls, who splits with the white nationalists over their racist ways.
While filming his feature debut, the then 15-year-old was given a crash course in movie acting by Stephen Graham, who played the movie’s imposing skinhead antagonist, Combo. When Pukey tells the gang off and tries to walk out, he’s confronted by a surly Combo, who head-butts him repeatedly.
“I was taking actual fuckin’ head-butts with Stephen Graham in that, and he’s got a fuckin’ hard head as well!” exclaims O’Connell. “They used the sound from the actual head-butt. He kept getting me in the same spot on the eyebrow every fuckin’ take, and I remember thinking, ‘This better have some fuckin’ pay off!’”
“Sometimes on a production,” he adds, “you’re gonna get fuckin’ fisted, and it’s how you deal with that fist up your ass, and how you react. By not reacting, you find yourself persevering.”
Other roles followed, until he was cast as James Cook, a promiscuous, violent drug-pusher in the taste-making British television drama Skins, which chronicles the travails of a group of rowdy, pill-popping teens. The show has become fertile ground for UK talent, producing the likes of Nicholas Hoult, Kaya Scoledario (The Maze Runner), Joe Dempsie (Game of Thrones), and Dev Patel, who was famously cast in Slumdog Millionaire at the advice of director Danny Boyle’s daughter, a massive Skins fan. And O’Connell says his two years on the series was like “university.”
Another positive experience he had was filming Eden Lake, a 2008 thriller where he played a teenage sociopath opposite Michael Fassbender.
“He led by example, and showed me lessons by his etiquette on set,” recalls O’Connell. “We devised the nickname ‘FassyB’ for him. I miss him. He’s a top fella. We’re all British, and I do feel part of a cusp of actors where there’s no animosity, no muckin’ about and bitching, and no fuckin’ ego.”
But landing the role of Zamperini in Unbroken is O’Connell’s biggest break to date—and it was no simple task. Jolie had reportedly been impressed by his turn in the TV film United, where he portrayed young Manchester United footballer Bobby Charlton in the wake of the 1958 Munich air disaster. Then, O’Connell’s agent sent Jolie a rough cut of Starred Up, and he sent in a self-taped audition reading lines opposite his cousin—and still sporting his shaved head from the film.
While shooting the period flick’71, production members began approaching him and saying, “We’ve got Angelina Jolie inquiring to us about you…do you have any idea as to why?” Finally, he landed a meeting with Jolie and conveyed his respect for “The Greatest Generation.” He was given the role of Zamperini on the spot, but since he was a relative unknown in Hollywood the studio, Universal, needing convincing. So, they set up a screen test.
“I made Angelina aware the night before the screen test that it was my cousin reading the lines opposite me in the self-tape, so she said, ‘How far is Derby?’ Can we get him down tomorrow?’” says O’Connell.
His cousin came down to London and they shot the raft sequences, as well as a few POW scenes of Zamperini being battered by The Bird.
“I was just getting walloped by a member of the crew with a stick, which was made of rubber,” says O’Connell, with a chuckle. “I didn’t want to say it at the time, but it did fuckin’ hurt, so I got up and started havin’ it with him!”
O’Connell’s intensity got him the part. And prior to shooting, he had the distinct pleasure of speaking with the real-life Zamperini twice—and then once more after filming wrapped.
“He had a humility about him, and was very content with where he eventuated,” says a wistful O’Connell. “In terms of takeaways, I have an example for life of an extraordinary human being that I will constantly try and better myself towards.”
And as far as his career goes, well, O’Connell feels he’s well on his way to achieving greatness.
“For want of a better word, and fear that no one will say this on my behalf, I think it’s deserved,” he says of his successes. “I haven’t just turned up out of nowhere; I’ve been working very carefully and considerately to piece together a career and a body of work to suggest that I can be one of the best someday. I had to turn down projects and paychecks when I was down-and-out and hungry because they weren’t integral to what I wanted to achieve.”
He pulls his head up, and looks me square in the eyes. “I feel measured, I feel alert, and I’m ready to focus on the future.”