UR­BANE COW­BOY

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

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Daniel Thomas Smith Fash­ion by James Sleaford

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

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