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
‘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’