You have to hand it to Angelina Jolie: she knows how to make an impact. Not content with making Unbroken from a script by the Coen brothers, she eschewed all the current crop of hot young stars and instead chose a relative unknown.
Step forward Jack O’Connell, the 23-year-old Derby lad rapidly emerging as Britain’s hottest new talent. Pugnacious, intense and packing as much wallop as a young Steve McQueen, O’Connell is about to become the poster boy for a new generation of film fans.
Unbroken won’t be out until Christmas. In between there will be ’71, an acclaimed portrait of the Troubles in Northern Ireland told from a young squaddie’s point of view (O’Connell again) and Starred Up, a gritty tale of life in prison with O’Connell as the tough kid who gets elevated from young offenders’ institution to adult prison. An actor since his teens with roles in This is England, Harry Brown and the TV series Skins, O’Connell is aware of the vagaries of the industry and how actors can work in short bursts and then be unemployed for months.
So it’s perhaps just coincidence that the sword-and-sandal sequel 300: Rise of an Empire opened just a fortnight ago – O’Connell lends support as Calisto – and that Starred Up lands in cinemas this week.
“Sometimes I’m only on set for up to six weeks or summat,” he says. “On these shoots, we’ll do them and get them finished and then sometimes I’m out of work for maybe months at a time. I can be really busy now and then be doing nowt for about a year and then the stuff that I’ve done will come out and make me look loads busier than I am.”
A glance at O’Connell’s CV hints at some incredibly fortunate collaborations. On Harry Brown it was Michael Caine. On The Liability it was Tim Roth. On Starred Up it was the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, the break-out star of Animal Kingdom. O’Connell admits he’s fortunate – even if he does have to brush up on his film knowledge.
“I’d been in a position before where [I was] a bit naïve about people’s legacies. Michael Caine might have been an example of that: it wasn’t until after working with him that I started studying his background and I developed a respect for him.
“I think it’s a bit of an advantage at times to not necessarily know everything about who you’re working with. I’ve just been working with Ben Mendelsohn, who played my Dad, Aussie actor.
“I was none the wiser and that’s through me own ignorance but during the filming process I was advised to watch one of his films, [Animal Kingdom]. I got halfway through it and just found it unhelpful because I was starting to perceive him as someone other than me Dad.” Shot in Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, which closed in 1996, Starred Up, is both an indictment of the penal system and a plea for tolerance. Written by Jonathan Asser it sets an upper-class therapist amidst a band of brutalised blue-collar inmates and urges both convicts and their caretakers to look the concept of second chances. O’Connell plays 19-year-old Eric Love, a damaged kid separated from his parents, thrust into care and abused by a paedophile on whom he takes bloody revenge.
Abandoned by society and lost in the system he winds up in prison where he finds himself at odds with the staff, other inmates, the pecking order – and his long-lost father, a lifer who has become inured to jail and all it represents.
“We get to make up [Eric’s] back story which left me with a bit of a blank canvas,” said O’Connell. “I got to fill in the gaps, as it were. The youth that I was responsible for portraying… his father is already incarcerated, there’s a void in his life.
“I had this opportunity where I could explain a character like Eric as opposed to judge him or shun him and potentially justify [him because] people like Eric do exist.” O’Connell is open about his research. He worked with Asser and read the book. Moreover he spoke to people within his own circle about their experiences.“I suppose Jonathan is proposing that he has this inside information,” he muses.
“Hopefully without pointing too many fingers indirectly we’re just illustrating truths which are then concealed from the public domain. That became pretty clear when I was researching myself, as well.
“[I spoke to] day-to-day characters who I might have known from my upbringing.”
Is he hinting at people who have spent time in prison? O’Connell nods his assent.
“Either that or with like-minded folk, I suppose, if there is a such a thing. And the one thing that was really stark in my research was that some of the most violent characters I came across were very kind and genuinely friendly. I thought that would be nice to introduce to the role, you know?”
Family connections are important to O’Connell. With his English/Irish roots he found playing raw soldier Gary Hook in ’71 a tricky prospect. The film previewed at the Berlin Film Festival in January and received a terrific response.
“The British armed forces are [often] depicted as quite brutal or very unsympathetic. I’ve been given the opportunity here to play a variation of that where he’s got no form of malice at all.
“I’ve got half-Irish heritage myself on the Catholic side so I’m going to wind up both sides of the divide. He’s no action hero. He’s a bit of a pussy in this very male-dominated, brutal environment. And he’s out of his depth.”
And Angelina Jolie, director of Unbroken, the story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini and his wartime experiences? O’Connell smiles. “Oh, phenomenal. And as a human as well, very consistently nice.”
Starred Up (18) is on on nationwide release.