hit the jack­pot

He’s the award­win­ning ac­tor and grade-A charmer who has just bared all for his lat­est role. How Jack O’Con­nell

ELLE (UK) - - Elle Play - Words by SHAN­NON MAHANTY

‘I’m a shady in­di­vid­ual. I'm a hard one

to put your finger on’

‘Oi, look at that!’ I’m sit­ting with Jack O’Con­nell in the small, leafy court­yard of his favourite Primrose Hill restau­rant, near to his new flat. A flower has just drifted on to the ta­ble from a bal­cony above, land­ing di­rectly be­tween us. He picks it up. ‘How ro­man­tic. This feels like a date, this!’ Jack grins, his face full of boy­ish charm.

It’s a face I’ve seen hun­dreds of times in the weeks lead­ing up to our meet­ing. Across Lon­don, there’s barely a sta­tion that hasn’t, at some point, been plas­tered with posters for the Ten­nessee Wil­liams play he’s star­ring in op­po­site Si­enna Miller, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In­tense and brood­ing, a top­less Jack stares from the poster into the eyes of com­muters and tourists. He plays the lead in one of the year’s most-hyped pro­duc­tions, a char­ac­ter that Paul New­man played op­po­site El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor in the 1958 film adap­ta­tion, and an ar­che­typal Ten­nessee Wil­liams-flawed man. But none of this seems to faze Jack. He says of the play’s run so far, with a coy smile: ‘It’s go­ing well. There’s a re­ally good chance I’ll not get bored of it.’ A few weeks later, I see him on stage. Gone is the boy full of wit and one-lin­ers, and in his place, der­obed, stands Brick, a failed ath­lete whose forced mas­culin­ity gives way to sti­fling sad­ness and re­pressed ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. His per­for­mance is star­tling. The tran­si­tion from an al­co­hol-in­duced numb­ness to a cli­mac­tic dis­play of vit­riol is deeply mov­ing; Jack takes on Brick’s sad­ness with as­ton­ish­ing con­vic­tion.

The Jack O’Con­nell I meet to­day is much less trou­bled. Whether it’s win­ning the 2015 EE BAFTA Ris­ing Star Award, playing a pris­oner of war in the An­gelina Jolie-di­rected Un­bro­ken (he as­sures me she’s as ‘sound as a pound’ post-Brad Pitt split) or shut­ting down the streets of New York to take Ge­orge Clooney hostage in Money Mon­ster, noth­ing ever seems to tem­per the north­ern soul and rogu­ish charisma that made the boy from Derby stand out in the first place. He may be tak­ing in­ter­views in Miche­lin-starred restau­rants, but the 27-year-old ac­tor is do­ing it his way: turn­ing up in shorts and train­ers, charm­ing and chain-smok­ing his way through.

‘I try to avoid these, Shan­non,’ he ex­plains to me as he tucks into a bowl of crisps on the ta­ble, ‘but I’m a crisp con­nois­seur. These are ma­ture ched­dar and spring onion.’ I no­tice early on that Jack has a ten­dency to name check dur­ing in­ter­views, but he as­sures me that rather than it be­ing some­thing pur­pose­ful, a ploy to get an in­ter­viewer on side, ‘it just sounds bet­ter than “love” or “dar­ling”.’ I tell him I watched Theresa May do the same thing with au­di­ence mem­bers dur­ing the elec­tion de­bates, and his eyes widen. ‘She does it, too? Re­ally? She’s keen to please, like me.’ He crunches on an­other crisp. ‘She’s quite a hot­tie, isn’t she? You can say a lot of bad things about her, but she’s got sexy eyes,’ he says, with a glint in his own.

Con­fi­dent and cu­ri­ous, it’s not sur­pris­ing that act­ing comes nat­u­rally to Jack, though it was never re­ally his plan. ‘I used to go to fancy-dress par­ties as a builder be­cause that’s what I thought I’d be. My mum would get out her eye­liner and put stub­ble on my chin. Grow­ing up, you have dif­fer­ent am­bi­tions ev­ery week.’ As a tal­ented ath­lete, foot­ball took cen­tre stage for a long time. When a ca­reer in the sport was ruled out af­ter a knee in­jury aged 16, and on the ad­vice of his drama teacher, Jack au­di­tioned for Not­ting­ham­based drama school The Television Work­shop. Grad­u­ally, act­ing be­came more and more ap­peal­ing. ‘They did quite a bit of the­atre,’ he ex­plains. ‘Be­ing in­volved with them meant we had an op­por­tu­nity to [act] at proper the­atres such as The Na­tional, and we were just kids. I guess I took it for granted. Now, that kind of thing hap­pens less and less, doesn’t it? That’s old sexy eyes and her gov­ern­ment for you.’

It was at The Television Work­shop that Jack caught the at­ten­tion of Bri­tish film-maker Shane Mead­ows, who cast him as naive and thug­gish teenager Pukey Nicholls in This is Eng­land. By 2009, an 18-year-old Jack had landed the part of James Cook, the bad-boy heart­throb in E4’s Skins. Such was the power of the cult TV show, he still gets tagged in Skin­sre­lated In­sta­gram posts on a daily ba­sis. Since then, he’s con­tin­ued his as­cent with a run of ac­claimed film roles: in 2014’s ’71, he played a Bri­tish sol­dier stranded dur­ing the North­ern Ire­land con­flicts. Next, he took on a vi­o­lent young of­fender

in Starred Up, be­fore playing real-life pris­oner of war Louis Zam­perini in the An­gelina Jolie-di­rected Un­bro­ken, and an out-of-luck fa­ther-to-be in Jodie Foster’s Money Mon­ster. Later this year, he’ll play a 17th-cen­tury Dutch­man in Tulip Fever op­po­site Ali­cia Vikan­der and Cara Delev­ingne, and a Czech sol­dier tasked with as­sas­si­nat­ing a Nazi leader in The Man With the Iron Heart. If there’s a com­mon thread be­tween the char­ac­ters, it’s Jack abil­ity to take the dis­af­fected, and play them with hu­mil­ity. In An­gelina Jolie’s words: ‘Jack has some­thing very unique to him. I chal­lenge you to find an­other young man full of more fire.’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s Brick is cruel and un­mov­ing, but it’s dif­fi­cult not to em­pathise with Jack’s por­trayal. ‘On pa­per, he does some dis­like­able stuff,’ says Jack. ‘But Mr [Ten­nessee] Wil­liams did a good job of the com­plex­i­ties. [Brick’s] a re­ally ob­scure char­ac­ter – it’s hard to pi­geon­hole him.’

The idea of be­ing pi­geon­holed, as an ac­tor and in his per­sonal life, is some­thing Jack brings up a lot. ‘I’m a shady in­di­vid­ual. I’m a hard one to put your finger on,’ he ex­plains, light­ing a cigarette. ‘That’s why I don’t like be­ing pi­geon­holed.’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is his third play, and life has changed a lot since his first in 2008. His teenage years have been well doc­u­mented: he was of­ten in trou­ble, and one par­tic­u­lar fight al­most cost him a cus­to­dial sen­tence. He can wax lyri­cal about most things, but his past is a topic that makes him flit be­tween ease and ag­i­ta­tion. ‘If I could do this all again, I wouldn’t give so much away about my­self. I wouldn’t have peo­ple know where I’m from be­cause – and here’s a quote from Ian Brown – “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” I’m at a dif­fer­ent place to where I was then. I cer­tainly wouldn’t have eaten this 10 years ago,’ he says, knock­ing back an oys­ter, then care­fully ex­tract­ing a bit of shell from his teeth. ‘Do you want this for a neck­lace?’

Al­though he wor­ries about be­ing de­fined by his past, his home­town of Derby is a huge part of who he is to­day. He’s ex­tremely close to his fam­ily, who still live there: ‘I ring my nana twice a week. She’s su­per strong, she takes no bull­shit. If I say the wrong thing in in­ter­views, she’ll have me for it.’ His mum is ‘dead strong’ and his sis­ter ‘some­thing else’. He sur­rounds him­self with friends from home, ‘not ac­tor or in­dus­try types. The overly so­cial side of this job isn’t for me; if you get wrapped up in it all, if you start fan­girling or fan­boy­ing, that’s just a dis­trac­tion.’ I ask if his re­spect for his friends and fam­ily trans­lates into all re­la­tion­ships – is Jack a good boyfriend? ‘I have been and I haven’t been. Re­la­tion­ships have proven dif­fi­cult in the past. I felt bad at the time, but lis­ten: I don’t think I’m a bad per­son. I’m not a “C word”. I can sleep at night.’ He’s cur­rently sin­gle, and says he’s a long way off set­tling down.

When we talk about his next project, God­less, a wild-west drama com­ing to Net­flix this au­tumn star­ring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Dock­ery, it turns out he’s not en­tirely im­mune from ‘fan­boy­ing’ him­self. To pre­pare, Jack had to spend weeks in Mex­ico City learn­ing to horse ride at the mercy of real cow­boys. ‘I had to put in the ground­work and win them over,’ he says proudly. ‘They were dead cool. By the end, I was one of the boys; they were call­ing me Cac­tus Jack.’ The cac­tus part be­ing added af­ter he rode into one: ‘The horse dodged it, but the cac­tus slapped across me, so I ended up with loads of pricks in my leg. I’m there in the desert with me arse out, try­ing to get them out, like, “Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off.”’ De­spite in­jury, Jack can’t wait to get back on the horse for a sec­ond sea­son. But with a run of sold-out shows ahead of him, right now both feet are firmly on the ground. That suits Jack just fine, he tells me, as he’s go­ing back to his flat to paint the deck­ing and have a low-key af­ter­noon. Be­cause to­mor­row, it’s show time.

‘I ring my nana twice a week. She's strong; she

takes no bull­shit’

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