Jack O’Connell: Down to earth lad with real star quality

Jack O'Connell in scene from '71 filmed at Park Hill Flats.  Photo: Dean Rogers
Jack O'Connell in scene from '71 filmed at Park Hill Flats. Photo: Dean Rogers
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Bright young thing or flash in the pan? Film Critic Tony Earnshaw talks to rising star Jack O’Connell as his new film The Liability opens.

These days practically every young buck with a modicum of talent is lauded as the one to watch.

Jack O’Connell genuinely is a future star in the making. Still only 22 he possesses the rawness of a young Tim Roth, the edge associated with Sean Bean and a simmering dangerous quality that might once have been applied to Gary Oldman.

Given that Messrs Roth, Bean and Oldman are now solidly into their middle years it becomes apparent that O’Connell, a handsome son of Derbyshire, is among the leaders to fill the gap vacated by his ageing peers.

He currently has two very different films in the pipeline and is in the midst of shooting a third. Meanwhile his latest, an off-kilter buddy film-cum-road movie called The Liability, opens today.

O’Connell, playing a fast-talking teen who is volunteered by his stepfather to act as driver to a hitman, is ostensibly the film’s lead. Not bad when considering he’s up close and personal with Reservoir Dogs’ Mr Orange himself, aka Tim Roth.

Then there’s the small matter of the magnificent Peter Mullan, who plays his menacing stepfather. It can’t be easy being around such talent even if, as O’Connell readily admits, he tends to know very little about his older, more experienced and more famous co-stars. “I think people appreciate your naivety at times,” he says when asked about working with 52-year-old Roth.

“I remember Tim feeling that way. I bet he gets his ego caressed all the time so when he turned up on set at first he was a bit standoffish. I thought ‘Sod you then, mate. I’ll just do my job, you do yours.’ And then as a result of that, four weeks down the line, we got on. I was in LA and he picked me up in his Jaguar. We started cruising around all Beverly Hills. I had to pinch myself.”

O’Connell has a refreshing approach to his burgeoning role as a home-grown movie star. He frequently returns home to Derby and to his family and friends. It’s a grounded approach to life that so many young actors start off adhering to only to go off the rails.

O’Connell originally had plans to be a footballer. He had a trial set up with his beloved Derby County. Then football and acting collided when he joined a drama course at his school. He was 14. Showing off to girls as a wannabe actor was easier than kicking a ball. Acting won. Soccer became a passion to be watched, not played.

Early roles in TV shows like Doctors and The Bill led to a part in Shane Meadows’ Made in England in 2006. In the years since he was worked solidly – if not necessarily regularly – in films such as Harry Brown (with Michael Caine), Tower Block and Private Peaceful, the low-budget adaptation of a Michael Morpurgo WWI tale that had the misfortune to follow the epic that was War Horse.

He’s been busy. Does he ever sleep? “I get time between jobs where I’ll be doing nowt for weeks at a time. I just hibernate, by and large,” he smiles.

“Sometimes I’m only on set for up to six weeks or summat. When I shot this prison film [Starred Up] in Belfast before The Liability it only took four weeks. On these shoots, we’ll do them and get them finished and then sometimes I’m out of work for months at a time. It’s nice to provide the illusion that I’m non-stop but sometimes it does quieten down. On The Liability we shot in December, about 18 months ago or something like that. So there’s this knock-on effect. I can be really busy now and then doing nowt for about a year. Then the stuff that I’ve done will come out and make me look loads busier than I am.”

He’s currently working on Sheffield-based Warp Films’ latest, a drama set during the Troubles and based in Belfast called ’71. Shooting in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Liverpool it offers O’Connell another gripping tale and another opportunity to play a gritty youth.

“I play a British soldier who’s completely naïve to any of the politics or the history. It’s often the case where maybe the British armed forces are depicted as very unsympathetic.

“I’ve been given the opportunity to play a variation of that where he’s got no form of malice at all to those who he might regard as his enemy. He gets separated from the rest of his platoon and then it’s sort of a one-man mission but without it being an action film. He’s no action hero.”

He adds: “Also I’ve been 
able to make him a Derbyshire man. Originally he was from Leeds. They wanted me to play a Leeds man! So I had to have a word and I said ‘Nah!’”

The Liability (15) is on staggered release from today.

Screen successes of a young talent

Jack O’Connell was born in Alvaston, Derby, in 1990.

He made his acting debut in 2005 appearing in an episode of Doctors, along with four episodes as character Ross Trecot in The Bill.

In 2006 O’Connell made his film debut in Shane Meadows’ This Is England.

During 2007 O’Connell made several appearances in Waterloo Road, Holby City, and Wire in the Blood.

In 2008 he appeared in the horror/thriller Eden Lake and in 2009 the ITV television serial of Wuthering Heights.

He won the best actor award at the 2010 TV Choice awards for his role as James Cook in the TV series Skins.