jack o'connell, starred up
2014 is the year of Jack O'Connell’s horse. Taking the lead in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and in David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, Derby’s own Jack the lad has Hollywood in one hand, and the British film industry in the other. He’s flying.
"I like your reebok classics", Jack O'Connell says as I take a seat a bit too close in his hotel lounge. I think we're going to get on. The 23 year old has just got back from Australia where he was filming Unbroken, directed by Jolie and written by the Coen brothers. "That must have been daunting," I open with, but Jack corrects me. "Potentially daunting, but I've got a decade of work behind me, so I would be very foolish to collapse now." Confidence comes off Jack O'Connell like water comes out a tap. Peeping out of his Fred Perry polo shirt is a tattoo that reads "JACK THE LAD," above two hollow-eyed drama masks. He's embarrassed about it, but I don't know why because it seems to me to reflect the precise dichotomy of his character that has made him famous. Because Jack is a lad, and Jack loves acting. And those two things don't go together all that often; the fit boy at school who was in trouble with the police isn't usually the one that goes on to become a Hollywood actor of very fucking considerable talent. And there's something about that rough Derby accent, the one you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of, that stirs up every emo girl who grew up watching Jack cry "I'M COOK" on Skins before kicking someone's head in. Or telling Effy, his then on and off screen girlfriend, in that sincere way, "we have fucked in every sense of the word." If you thought that sincerity was just part of Jack's act, think again. This lad means every word he says.
I grew up in Derby, which was rough, rough, rough. I was very streetwise coming out of school and, pretty streetwise going in. Thankfully drama offered me a focus.
Do you find it hard to play characters embroiled in such dark subject matter? Like Marky in Harry Brown, and Cook in Skins, and Eric in Starred Up…
Yeah, but they all have redeeming qualities and they are all products of their environments. If I was to play an outright wrongun, you know, because we do live in a pretty dark world, then that might have more of an effect on me, but I wouldn't describe any of the characters that I've played as total outright wronguns.
What attracted you to the part Eric Love?
I feel like I've been preparing for a role like Eric, subconsciously, for my whole career. I've always had an interest in trying to justify that sort of commonly conceived criminal. You know, someone that's written off in the public view, but does have a level of morality and a certain amount of pride too.
Starred Up is very critical of British prisons, are they really that corrupt?
Oh yes. The facts are there. The whole system is based on statistics and figures and they rarely demonstrate the needs and musts of an individual. Particularly like Eric, who's been let down relentlessly.
You played Cook in Skins for such a long time, did he change you?
I think out of the characters I've played, me and Cook are the most similar. I don't know whether he changed me… he helped keep me on the straight and narrow for a bit, ironically, because I could focus any troublesome incentives of mine into a very productive line of work. If he changed me, it was for the better.
What kind of Cook fan mail do you get?
Usually just photos that people want signing. And I always enjoy responding. There is a significant amount, and it comes from all over the world; it's so humbling to know that Skins reached out on a global scale, from something we were just fucking around with in Bristol.
So how do you keep grounded?
I've got a lot of good people around me. I'm very fortunate to have Derby as a home and good strong influences all the way through my life and I've got a very clear perspective of where I wanna end up and what I want out of life.
What do you want out of life?
I just wanna have a good family man, a nice woman by my side. Nice digs and I want to have set my Mum and sister up nicely too. I want to work for the right reasons, keep my morals about me, just base all my decisions on the ethics of the project itself and the story it's telling. My ambition is to be regarded as one of the best in the business.
What was your school like in Derby?
Rough. Rough. Rough. I was very streetwise coming out of school and, pretty streetwise going into school. I didn't really persevere with the academic stuff but thankfully drama was compulsory at my school, so it offered me a focus.
Derby is a good night out…
Yeah it can be, it depends who you're with I find. You're alright with us. We're a good crowd to go out with. As I say there are a lot of positive influences for me in Derby, but it's not the kind of place you can accommodate massive aspirations. For example, there isn't really a film industry… But it's always home, and a large part of my identity is a result of being Derby born and bred.
Did you study drama professionally?
Not quite. My school referred me to this drama group in Nottingham, which really excelled me man, and it put me in the same environment as these pretty fearless people; we weren't paying to be there, we'd only auditioned. So it gave me this alternative focus as opposed to being troublesome, without much of a cause, at home. Finally I had something to engage with. From the beginning I've always believed in myself. I knew I was capable and my naivety worked quite positively in my favour, I was unaware of the enormity of what I was getting myself into.
She doesn't have to be aesthetically flawless for me to fancy her, but if she's got a character on her, then I'm usually fucked.
Your first professional roles were on TV shows like Doctors and The Bill. Do you still watch TV?
Not much, unless it's sport or a drama. I don't do reality TV or shit like that. I've still got Breaking Bad to look forward to, apparently I'm in for a treat. It's a commitment though innit. I'm gonna grow old watching it and that frightens me. You know like, when you get that alleged flashback of your life before you die, I'd hate for it to be reflecting on the best TV shows I'd watched. We'd all probably benefit by making our own fun rather than watching other people's.
Do you watch Girls?
Oh no, not in that context!
Haha ok let's talk about girls in your context then. What do you find attractive in a girl?
Character. She doesn't have to be aesthetically flawless for me to fancy her, but if she's got a character on her, then I'm usually fucked.
Are you going out with anyone at the moment?
No, too much work man. I'd struggle to answer to anyone else at this stage.
Do you have any regrets so far?
Yeah, plenty. I don't believe in 'no regrets'. But I wouldn't beat myself up over them either. I like to focus forward and if I don't focus forward I usually end up regretting not focusing forward, so that there's a lesson in itself.
Does your ever Mum give you any advice?
All the time. She's tells me that she's always on my shoulder no matter what, and I shouldn't let her fall off. If ever I get in any shit, she claims that I let her fall of my shoulder. I've got my sister as well keeping me on track.
What does your sister do?
She's 17, she's just finished studying drama at the same school as me. And she was on set with me during Unbroken. She got herself a nice little non-speaking role. She looked very beautiful in it and she held her own.
What games did you used to play with your sister when you were kids?
"Try not to cry while Jacko throws you about" and "try not to cry while Jacko tests out his WWF moves on you."
Who was your favourite WWF wrestler?
It was a tussle between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
I liked the Undertaker...
Was you a bit of a goth?
Oh wow, interesting. I didn't want to assume.
I love the fiction of wrestling, the trash talk before matches and stuff…
Yeah man, I think it taught me how to act! Or maybe it taught me how not to act.
Tell me more about your family…
Well, my Nan is a phenomenal woman.
What's she called?
I've got a Grandma Joan!
Get out. It's a good strong Nana name, isn't it? She's of that generation, real selfless. And I want to adopt them traits myself. Because we're very far removed from that generation in the way that we're brought up. And I honestly fucking hate it.
Are you scared of losing your principles the more famous you get?
Yeah I am scared of it, so I hope that makes me more aware of it, because I'll let down a lot of people, including myself, if that becomes the case.
What's been the proudest moment in your career so far?
I know walking down the red carpet at the premiere of Unbroken, being with my mother on the same red carpet hopefully as Louis Zamperini himself and I dare say as Angelina Jolie. That's going to be very monumental.
How did you find Angelina as a director?
Phenomenal. On a daily basis, she was battling and coming out on top. She showed me a lot of loyalty right from the beginning. So I was very indebted to her on a personal level and it did sort of reach beyond professional obligation in the end.
Why did you get that tattoo on your arm?
It's shit, I hate it. I got it when I was 16.
It's pretty fitting though...
I suppose... Let me show you this one… [pulls up shirt to reveal huge cross tattoo on the side of his body]. I'm proud of this one.
Are you religious?
No, I went to two catholic schools to become an atheist. I'm a born again atheist.
Why did you become an atheist?
It just doesn't make no fucking sense, does it? On a physical level, I mean I'm all for faith and what not and I know there's a character named Doubting Thomas that's supposed to relate to my circumstance here, but sometimes seeing is believing. At school we'd be taught physics, alongside RE, in the same morning. Fucking mind-boggling. But I do find the Bible a really enthralling tale of man. If people want to live their lives by it then fair play but I'm religious about other areas of my life.
What do you believe in?
Just fucking good will man. I'm religious about the people I know.
Text Sarah Raphael
Photography William Selden
Styling Raphael Hirsch