From a teen skinhead to Skins to prison drama Starred Up, Jack O’Connell brings a raw vitality – and surprisingly mature work ethic – to all his roles. By Alistair Harkness
‘I FEEL like I’ve grown up on screen quite a lot,” says Jack O’Connell. The 23-year-old rising star of British cinema is referring to the fact that a lot of the characters he has been playing of late do what he describes as the “boy-to-man thing” – but he could just as easily be referring to his career as a whole.
Since first appearing as the easily led 14-year-old skinhead Pukey Nicholls in This Is England, he has matured into a formidable acting force, one whose ability to bring raw, in-the-moment vitality to almost everything he does has earned him mainstream TV success in Skins and seen him hold his own against the likes of Michael Fassbender (Eden Lake), Michael Caine (Harry Brown) and Peter Mullan and Tim Roth (in little-seen thriller The Liability).
Later this year that maturity will doubtless serve him well again when Angelina Jolie’s second film as a director, the Coen brothers-scripted Unbroken, is released with O’Connell in the lead as the Olympic distance runner and Second World War veteran Louis Zamperini. Before then, though, it has been put to brilliant effect in the new film by David Mackenzie (Hallam Foe, Young Adam). Starred Up is a bruising prison drama in which O’Connell again takes centre-stage, this time as a 19-year-old young offender whose violent behaviour has resulted in him being transferred early to an adult prison where his estranged father (played by Ben Mendelsohn) is among the lifers who don’t take kindly to a nothing-to-lose, everything-to-prove incomer upsetting the social order.
“I wanted to give a mature depth to him,” says O’Connell of Eric. “I knew the sort of person we were trying to portray: he wasn’t just a constantly angry teenage boy, he’s measured in what he’s doing.” That is clear from the near-wordless opening sequence. O’Connell exudes confidence – much like the movie, which may be the first British prison drama to escape the shadow of Alan Clarke’s landmark Scum.
Did O’Connell avoid watching Ray Winstone’s breakthrough performance in that movie while preparing for this one? “Yes,” he nods. “I often wondered if Eric himself had seen Scum, or any prison film, and I sort of came to the conclusion he hadn’t. We had such a realistic setting that we could immerse ourselves in the here-and-now and when you do that truly, you hopefully end up with a film that stands on its own.”
O’Connell likes getting under the skin of his characters, most of whom could be written off on paper as Asbo-courting, Jack-the-lad stereotypes, yet in O’Connell’s hands always seem to have more of a livewire, De Niro-in-Mean-Streets unpredictability. “Throughout my career, I’ve tried to epitomise that kind of illegitimate persona,” he says, “but I never could really fulfill it because of the confinements of whatever I was shooting.”
Starred Up was different. “It gave me an opportunity to really justify someone who is more commonly written off as a crook or a criminal, or perceived as needing to be locked up and kept away from the general public and exempt from any help. There’s hypocrisy in that. Massive hypocrisy. It’s almost criminal. Which is an irony, I guess.”
A lot of people like Eric have passed through O’Connell’s own life. “I was just out-and-about quite a lot,” he says of his working-class childhood in Derby. “There were lots of various characters; some violent, some very passive. A lot of life experience.”
Acting came about because his school made drama compulsory. “P***ing around, is how I viewed it,” he says, “an hour of f***ing around without a pen in my hand, which was a total luxury at that age.” He soon started to enjoy it, though, and was referred to a drama workshop run by Carlton TV, which led to auditions, including one for Shane Meadows, who was casting This Is England. O’Connell says he didn’t quite appreciate at the time just how special Shane’s way of working was, but he does now, particularly the ringside seat he was given to watch Boardwalk Empire star Stephen Graham flitting between terror and tenderness as a neo-Nazi trying to recruit Pukey and his friends to his cause.
“I was just watching how it’s done,” he says, marvelling at his scenes with Graham. “I’ve just got infinite gratitude for those lessons that Shane offered me via Stephen. And I’m really proud that Shane sort of moulded my perspective in that way. It meant I could add this sense of naturalism to anything I was doing after that. A lot of film sets don’t have those priorities.”
I suspect that might have been the case on 300: Rise of an Empire, O’Connell’s first full-scale blockbuster. He has a supporting role in the sequel, which debuted at number one at the box office on both sides of the Atlantic. When we meet he hasn’t seen it, so I ask if enjoyed the experience? “It was definitely enlightening,” he grins. “I can’t sit here and paint a pretty picture and make out that we all had a lovely time, ring-a-ring-a-roses. There were times people really had to break themselves for it to meet the requirements. In that respect I was surprised, because I thought with a bigger budget came more time. But at the same time, if I’m there working, I pride myself on my ability to do that.”
That work ethic will see him right if his deserved career ascension continues. Unbroken has already wrapped, and though he hasn’t seen that either, he is confident it’s the best thing he has done. He certainly seems to have been unfazed about working with Jolie. “She just presents herself as an equal, which really helped me.” Zamperini was another matter. “I can’t find the words. At the tender age of 97, he’s incredibly lucid, considering all the feats he’s had to demonstrate.” Those feats include competing at the 1936 Olympics, meeting Hitler and being interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. If nothing else, then, it’s a role that should let us see even more of O’Connell’s range, though without missing a beat, he grins and says, “Yeah, but we do that boy-to-man thing – the one that they keep coming to me for.”
• Starred Up is in cinemas nationwide from Friday