Twenty-four-year-old British actor Jack O’Connell has been handed a plum part with Unbroken, and he knows it. In the Angelina Jolie–directed film, O’Connell plays Louis Zamperini, the inspirational real-life figure who survived incredible torment during World War II after his plane crashed at sea, leaving him stranded for weeks on the ocean before he was captured and tortured by Japanese guards until the end of the war. It’s the kind of movie that will introduce the Derby-born O’Connell to a significant worldwide audience, the capstone to years of good work done in vehicles like Skins and Starred Up. O’Connell recently sat down with Vulture and spoke with impressive candor about how he’s treating that major opportunity.
You've been acting since you were a teenager. What motivated you to get into the business?
It was the idea of success and getting out of Derby. I was a kid then, so things that were important to me then — like girls or people’s opinions — are no longer important. What is consistent from then to now is that all my success is my mum’s and sister’s, too. I bought them a new house, for instance. And one day, I’ll work hard to get them another house; and hopefully one day, I can organize a jet for them. That’s the long-term plan, and that means more to me than anything else. If by being a good actor that’s achievable, then I’m gonna do my best to be a good actor, and while I’m here, I might as well take the opportunity to announce myself as one of the best. I can only do that with consistent work.
What are the creative signifiers of success for you?
People’s reactions to my work all seem to be generally positive, so that means I’ve had a good introduction. Now it’s a case of building from here and seeing what else I can demonstrate or experiment with. I mean, the industry’s complex, and in order to survive and live good, you perhaps have to entertain roles that you wouldn’t be able to choose whether or not to take. I feel like I’m in a good position because now I have the luxury of choice, so I can have influence and make decisions based on what I want to do next.
What’s surprised you about coming to Hollywood, meeting everyone, and going to all the parties?
I’m surprised by how little I’m able to celebrate it. In my own thinking, it doesn’t feel final, it feels like I’m still building. The assumption I was in danger of hoping for was that I’d get here and be able to wallow in it, mindless of everything else. But there’s still a pressure.
A self-inflicted pressure?
Well, it has to be. But it’s self-inflicted in that I’m aware of what needs to happen now. I can’t guarantee I’m gonna be working in ten years’ time yet. I don’t think that guarantee ever comes. I’ve realized I’m on a long conveyor belt, and the decisions I make creatively are ones that I can stand by for the rest of my career.
What would have to happen in your career to put you more at ease?
It’d be nice to find myself with a role that is such a departure from the ones I’ve been playing that nobody has a valid argument that I’m a typecast actor.
Well, the next few projects you’re doing seem pretty different. You’re in the Weinsteins’ romance Tulip Fever, you’re attached to star as a man who holds George Clooney hostage in the financial drama Money Monster …
Money Monster’s gonna prop me up because I’m acting opposite George Clooney for the entire film, and I believe in the character enough to accept that it’s not gonna depart much from what I, as an actor, [have been seen doing]. Then I’ve got the rest of the year to size things up. As long as I go into the rest of that year with the right mentality, then I hopefully won’t get stuck in a rut. Hopefully I can persevere and keep living up to that ambition with my mum and sister, for instance. Hopefully that allows me the opportunity to then concentrate on smaller, more experimental roles, where I can at least present something to people who’d argue that I don’t have a range.
What about creative pursuits outside of acting? Are there other aspects of your life that give you satisfaction?
I make music. Not as much as I want to at the moment, but that’s one outlet. I box to try to keep in shape. I enjoy doing that endlessly. Ideally, one day I’ll have a production company, and I can set things up from the bottom upward and create opportunities for people. That’s the long-term idea. I don’t know enough to go into it yet, but I certainly feel advantaged by the age of 24 to have all this experience. In a few years’ time, if it should become affordable, I’ll definitely dive in there headfirst.
Are you usually okay with watching yourself onscreen?
It’s variable. If there’s little risk in the role, then yeah. But if I’ve taken risks, like I did with Louis in Unbroken, then it’s different. Thankfully I felt reassured by Angelina and the people at Universal, and that’s half of it. I’m very critical of myself usually.
When did you see Unbroken for the first time?
In Malta. Angie was shooting [By the Sea] there with Brad, and I went over for a photo shoot. I took my mum because Angelina insisted.
It must have been intense for your mother to watch you go through such harrowing circumstances on film.
Guess so. Yeah, yeah. But that seems to be a bit of a theme in the roles that I play, so she’s slowly becoming accustomed to it.
Has your attraction to roles like that prompted any sort of self-examination on your part?
Always! Well, actually, it’s the opposite: I do this job so that I don’t have to examine myself as much as I should.
Is it hard to shed a role like Louis?
It’s part of the job. In my life, I’m a brother, a son, a nephew, a grandson, and a good friend to people, hopefully. I just have to get back in touch with these people and find out what’s happening in their lives, so shedding a role is not a solo effort. Thankfully, I’ve got all these influences in my life who can support me through that transitional phase, but I remember feeling that I’d miss Louis, and I do. I miss playing him, I miss feeling the heat, I miss the arduous nature of the shoot. But what I was hoping to achieve on a personal scale is that by doing Louis’s story justice and achieving a proper tribute for the man, hopefully, then, I’m announcing myself as a lead actor.
How did you approach your toughest days on set with Unbroken?
Every day you’d start with this feeling of dread and angst. You have to take it day by day. You get there, you shoot, you get to lunch, you ask yourself, Do I feel good? No? All right, fuck it. Keep taking one step after the other — left foot, right foot. You go through all the processes. But I’m a professional, I’m there for someone else. I’ve given my signature on a piece of paper saying I’ll do this to the best of my ability. They’ve given me the opportunity to do so, and if I’ve done it properly, I'll receive awards from doing so. You have to remind yourself of those reasons why when you’re getting out of bed or sitting in makeup for so long, when you’ve got time to contemplate what you’re there for and whom you’re there for. For me, that’s my mum and my sister, and above all, Louis.
The U.K. has a complicated relationship with its celebrities: They want you to succeed in America, but at the same time, they won’t hesitate to cut you down to size. Is that on your mind as your profile becomes bigger?
I know that’s out there, I know it exists, and I know there are things I can do to make myself less susceptible to all that. I’ve learned better than to be distracted by the comments or criticisms. The work speaks more volumes than any of that. All I focus on is exactly what got me here, which is the attitude I have towards my work and how I can develop that further on so that people have got no choice but to regard me as one of the best in a generation, whether they like me or not. The good thing about being an actor is that you don’t have to necessarily be liked by people to be good.