When Angelina Jolie cast Jack O’Connell as the lead in her recent directing effort, Unbroken, everyone asked, “Jack who?” Jolie had required an actor with a wide skill set to portray the film’s real-life protagonist, Louis Zamperini, a distance runner at the 1936 Olympics who went on to be tortured by the Japanese during World War II. Jolie deemed little-known O’Connell the man for her film (pictured top left). Written by Joel and Ethan Coen, Unbroken was shot at Fox Studios in Sydney and at various locations in New South Wales and Queensland. It will release through Universal Pictures in January, 2015.
Having just seen O’Connell playing a tormented British soldier in Belfast in ’71, one of the Berlin Film Festival’s best offerings, and as a fledgling warrior, the son of Callan Mulvey in 300: Rise of an Empire, it’s clear that the 23-year-old has the goods. While in the former he is brooding and intense, in the latter he is downright cute, with longer curly hair, a buff bod and those skimpy leather jocks.
Unlike many of 300’s cast, O’Connell is not Australian. A working class lad from Derby in the British Midlands, he’s experienced a Billy Elliott-like rise to attention since Shane Meadows cast him in This is England at the age of 15, and he started a successful run in television’s Skins two years later. He has not lost his sense of humour or his sense of awe.
While in our Berlin interview he thanks 300’s seasoned action star, Australian Sullivan Stapleton (Animal Kingdom), for taking him under his wing, he quotes Russell Crowe when I ask about shooting 300 in Bulgaria.
“Russell said ‘The only worse thing about working in Bulgaria is having a day off in Bulgaria,’ which I’d really like to second, if I may. There’s beautiful architecture and in a lot of senses it’s a beautiful country. But when you’re attached to a film role and you’re limited as to where you can explore, it kind of gets frustrating—especially when there’s so much emphasis on how you look.”
Although O’Connell jovially recalls spending more time looking in the mirror than in front of the camera, it was very hard work. “I have tremendous respect for Sullivan because the adversities I saw him deal with were of true brute force. It was very testing for him and testing for me—and I had time off. It’s difficult to describe how sleep-deprived and lacking in energy you can become on this kind of film. I got to see how Sullivan designates his energy responsibly. So by the time I found myself on the set with Angelina at no point did I feel sorry for myself, because I remembered Sullivan in that regard. I have a lot to thank him for and haven’t had the opportunity to do so, so please thank him for me.” (Stapleton has not been around for 300’s promotion as he had an unspecified serious accident in his free time while shooting the cable series Strike Back in Thailand, which is generally a more entertaining place than Bulgaria.)
O’Connell completed 300 a year ago, after which he lost more than 10 kilos to play Zamperini. “I’m sure I’m stating the obvious by saying it was difficult, but for the right reasons. At no point did I ever feel worse than Louis Zamperini; he was a totally selfless human being by the sounds of it, so I always had his example. At no point was I ever expected to starve myself or deal with the diseases he had to contend with.”
I tell O’Connell that word around the Australian filmmaking traps is that Jolie was magnanimous in her directing approach, treating lowly crew in the same manner as her stars.
“She’s an absolute equal,” he agrees. “As soon as you marry that into the kind of stigma that someone of her stature has acquired, it’s a real quality in someone to operate on such a human level. And you know she has six children so she’s used to the dirty and the nasty and the snot and slobber and doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty herself. She has an acting background and there were even times on certain scenes where she’d be testing out stunts before me.”
An outgoing type who says he gets his lively personality from his Irish railway worker father, O’Connell is a natural athlete who wanted to be a professional soccer player in his youth. Who from England’s working class doesn’t? Ultimately, O’Connell says he had one very lucky break.
“I’m of the opinion if I had stayed in my local school I’d still be in Derby. But my parents sent me to this Catholic school in a neighbouring borough and for no particular reason the school made performing arts compulsory. My [wild] behaviour was all of a sudden welcomed in drama. I was referred to a local acting workshop, which was free, and I’m forever thankful.”
His casting in Unbroken was the result of an audition tape he made with his first drama teacher, Ian Smith. “He’d taught Samantha Morton at the school before me, and I was used to his direction growing up. He just drilled me and we found ourselves with an end product that thankfully Angelina liked as well.”
Filming the low budget ’71 was also quite a workout. “A lot of the huge sequences we had to repeat several times and we had to work in a heat wave in the middle of spring, which nobody could possibly predict in the north of England. I was wearing all these layers and physically it was an even more demanding role. I ran three times the distance that the character Gary Hook is seen running, but at least the people pursuing me were not shooting real bullets. We had a schedule and couldn’t prioritise my stamina to the degree that I would have liked. Still, I like the pressure and I feel stronger because of it. If it had been too easy, what’s the point, man?”
During our interview, O’Connell also emphasises his rewarding experience filming Starred Up with Scottish director David Mackenzie, who had cast him in yet another starring role over Skype during the 300 shoot. “David agreed to meet me here in Berlin and that was enough to convince him and the financiers I was the man.”
O’Connell’s early misspent youth came in handy there too as he plays an explosive offender who can’t settle down to prison life. The character is constantly watched by guards and prison inmates, one of whom turns out to be his estranged father, played by another actor who knows how to be explosive, Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn. O’Connell was nominated as best actor in the British Independent Awards for the film, while Mendelsohn won for best supporting actor. The film will make its US debut in the Viewpoints section of the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival. Madman has the film for Australia. Hopscotch has ’71.
Unbroken is scheduled for release on 8 January, 2015. 300: Rise of an Empire is in cinemas now.