If you recognize Jack O'Connell as the rascally Cook from the British series Skins, then congratulations: You got in on the ground floor, because soon enough, everybody's going to be asking who the 24-year-old actor is. The cornerstone of O'Connell's rising Hollywood profile will come this Christmas when he stars in the highly anticipated WWII drama Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, but in the meantime, you can check him out in this week's gritty British prison drama Starred Up, which makes good use of O'Connell's bravado and tightly coiled intensity. (Two traits he shares with Jolie, in addition to their plentiful tattoos.) Last week, the English actor rang up Vulture to talk about how far he's willing to go onscreen.
A lot of actors would have been nervous to get as naked as you do in Starred Up — both emotionally and physically.
It's potentially scary, but in this film, the story warranted it. The director wouldn't have been able to use wider angles if I didn't go starkers, you know? I'm not gonna be gettin' nude at every opportunity — that's not what it's about — it's just that artistically, it felt right. I'm a professional, though, and it's my responsibility to protect myself. Sometimes, productions will ask things of you that they aren't supposed to, and they will be naughty and bend the rules. The bigger productions, not so, because there are too many people watching them, but I did a short film recently and once or twice, I had to refuse to allow a trained yet fully grown crow to peck meat off my face.
That's a long story, mate, but the main point I'm making is that I like to consider myself daring but there's a line, too. There's a line where I have to protect myself.
You really manage to disappear into your characters, but at the same time, you have to use the skin you live in, and that’s covered in your own tattoos. When you get a role like this, do you come up with some rationale in your mind as to why your character might have that sort of ink?
Yeah, that’s a good question, because I'm considering that my tattoos — perhaps one or two, more so than the others — have become a bit of a hindrance. They were definitely a mistake I made when I was growing up, and you kind of have to come up with a background of some sort for the role and have discussions with the director about them. For Starred Up, we just made them look like they were done in an even worse fashion, so it worked for the character and suggested that these tattoos were required in prison, but I am taking my top off a lot on-camera, and if it's not a case of getting them airbrushed out — which comes with its own consequences — then I have to try to incorporate them in. Artistically, I don’t really like the tattoos anymore anyway, apart from the one on my ribs. And my arms are an absolute mess! I’ll have to look into sorting that out.
There's a level of commitment and intensity to this role that's pretty incredible. To what extent does a character like this seep into the rest of your daily life?
I don't know, mate, I kind of got a lot out of my system growing up. I knew what it was to be in trouble very early on. I don't like to tempt fate when I act — I do my job and then I try to contribute to society in other ways, by being a decent human being. I don't need no particular excuse to start acting up. To ask if it seeps into my life, well, it's like acting a traffic warden if they're so anal in their personal lives. D'ya know what I mean?
Still, do you have to rearrange your life when you’re shooting a film like this?
The benefit to staying in Belfast, a city that I didn't necessarily know, was that I could kind of isolate myself and I had a sort of tunnel vision. Thankfully, I didn't have to navigate the day-to-day hindrances, like bills, but I try not to let my working life consume my personal life too much, neither. I find I benefit from a cutoff point. Then again, I've never had to live a role that's completely far removed from myself, so maybe that would be a different matter.
When you're taking on grueling films like this and Unbroken, to what extent are you seeking out things that will challenge you not just as an actor, but physically and emotionally as a person?
I think that's the reason why we all do it, essentially. It's to gain experience, for which my tolerance levels have perhaps been bettered for future roles. I feel a huge sense of achievement when I do those films, and that sort of speaks for itself as well. I just want to move forward responsibly, I guess.
When you come out the other end of either one of those movies, are you a different sort of person in tangible ways? Or are they simple jobs, and once they’re complete, you can shake them off and move on to the next one?
You know, as much as I commit myself 110 percent when it's required of me — and I continue to do so if required to stay in character to that extent — in my day-to-day, I'm more focused on my personal life, which I enjoy and take a lot from. In order to preserve that, I have to acknowledge that my job's a job, and that in order to play the next role, I have to be a blank canvas.
With a film like Starred Up, surely you’ve got to have a lot of trust in your fellow actors when you’re going to such an intense, unpredictable place.
And that was important because we were all kind of improvising. We kept a lot of the group scenes spontaneous; we had our themes, and we stuck to them, but we'd trust each other to not have any selfish agendas because it would ruin the scene. So you have to find that trust in rehearsals, once you suss that everyone is on the same page and knows the difference between acting and being, as it were. In terms of the stunts, everything had to look like there was some jeopardy to it. We didn't want any beautiful choreography — it had to look messy and scrappy. I certainly benefitted from some of the supporting roles being cast with highly trained stuntmen, because they were able to make everything feasible and also safe. You do have to look out for yourself, you know? That's my moneymaker, my face! [Laughs.]
Angelina Jolie can be formidable as a celebrity and as an actress, but what was she like as a director on Unbroken?
Certainly on-set, she's incredibly fair to everybody at all times, and incredibly encouraging — I took a lot of support from her. It wasn't necessarily the things she said, even; in the thick of it, with each take, I always felt assured that she was on my side. And that's what allows me to take risks and feel more comfortable with what I'm doing. We became a lot more motivated by working with her, we did.