As a boy he slept rough in railway stations. Now Jack O’Connell is a movie star with Angelina Jolie in his corner, a West End leading man opposite Sienna Miller, and this month he saddles up for big-budget Netflix Western Godless. Couldn’t have happened t
Soon to be seen in Netflix Western Godless, Brit actor Jack O’Connell swaps spurs for suits in Fashion
“I don’t want to speak out of turn,” says Jack O’Connell, hunched forward in a grey hoodie and a baseball cap, neatly working his way through a fish pie. “But I’ll tell you a story about Jeff Daniels. The first time we met, we were doing a cast photo on the side of a hill and I was positioned just in front of him. Suddenly, I was getting tugged around and pulled off balance from behind.”
O’Connell was about to begin six gruelling months filming with the veteran American actor in New Mexico making Godless, a new Western television drama created for Netflix, in which they play a pair of warring cowboys.
“Now I’ve barely said two words to him at this point, and I’ve made sure those words were very respectful. But now I’ve had to turn around and say, ‘What you playing at, mate?’ And he’s like, ‘Just joking with you, man.’ And I go, ‘I don’t think you are, are you?’
“God’s honest truth: that set the precedent for the entire shoot,” O’Connell says. “We didn’t really interact again until right at the end when we shook hands. Now I don’t know if he was doing something ‘method’ on me, but it definitely gave us something extra on screen. So if it was deliberate, he’s a genius. If it wasn’t, fuck him!”
It’s an anecdote that sums up a lot about the young British actor. He is impeccably polite — “Sorry mate, excuse me boss, couldn’t pinch the pepper could I?” he asks the sniffy waiter midway through his meal — but also prepared to speak his mind. He is serious about his work though downto-earth enough to make fun out of it, and himself. Such qualities have taken O’Connell from being a wayward youth in Derby to arguably the most exciting and sought-after young actor in Britain, with fans and advocates at the highest levels of Hollywood.
Here’s another story he likes to tell. On the day he speaks to Esquire, O’Connell is coming to the end of a celebrated run at the West End alongside Sienna Miller in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which he’s nude, in a shower, in the opening scene. “I’m loving working with her,” he says of his alluring co-star. “In fact, I think I’ll miss her. Dunno whether she’d echo that or not. Ask her for me.”
“Theatre is a proper buzz,” he says. “But some nights are better than others. You have some sizzlers, and then some shows where it doesn’t click.
“One night I got proper nervous because we had Noel Gallagher in. This is a man used to being on stage for an hour or so, and the play goes on for three. I asked him what he thought at the end and he just goes, ‘Well, it was long…’” O’Connell laughs.
Since playing bad boy James Cook on Channel 4 teen drama Skins in 2009, the 27-year-old has risen up swiftly through acclaimed British films — Starred Up (2013), ’71 (2014) — to working with Hollywood royalty as Angelina Jolie’s muse in 2014’s World War II survival drama Unbroken, after which he was famously, if somewhat bizarrely, taken under the actress’s wing. O’Connell has described Jolie as a mentor and credits her and Brad Pitt with helping him straighten himself out during his hard-partying first flush of fame.
Now, in Godless, O’Connell is playing an outlaw called Roy Goode who is trying to move from a bad path in life to a good one. It is the type of role he has made his own, the young man with a violent streak, or as he puts it, “another lad that gets put through it”. O’Connell hasn’t seen a final edit at the time of writing but, as Esquire can confirm from viewing an advance copy, he’s excellent on screen, even managing to nail the accent perfectly.
“Seriously mate?” he grins, slapping the table in delight when I break the news. “That’s good to hear. Because that’s been the one thing keeping me up at night.”
He pauses, and then grins. “Unless they dubbed me… you don’t know.”
Godless is O’Connell’s chance to tick another big box for any actor in 2017: the credible US TV drama. Ambitious, well written and smartly directed, it has a strong chance of becoming one of this year’s critical hits. And if that happens, who knows what could come next for the kid with a Derby accent who, not so long ago, was sleeping rough in train stations between auditions.
But all that’s for tomorrow. Standing outside for a cigarette, I ask O’Connell how famous he considers himself today.
“See that lovely older lass there?” he says, nodding at a stranger on the other side of the street. “I could talk to her all day long, and she’d never know.”
You sense he’d love to do nothing more, and that whether it was the “lovely older lass”, a big name co-star on a wind-up, or Angelina Jolie, he’d be no more or less Jack O’Connell with any of them.
Godless launches on Netflix on 22 November