Jack O’Connell on his banner year in film, fake tanned lungs and working with Angelina Jolie

2014's been big for the former Skins actor - and things are only going to get better...

Talk about a banner year. As 2014 draws to an end, 24-year-old Derby lad Jack O’Connell is seeing it out on a high. Last month he shared an in-joke with Hollywood’s leading dame, Angelina Jolie, at the Hollywood Film Awards, when she beckoned him on stage to collect the New Hollywood gong with “ay up, me duck”. A leading role in Unbroken, the Second World War epic directed by Jolie, means that if you didn’t know O’Connell’s name at the beginning of the year, you definitely will by the end of it.

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The ambitious and raw young actor has had no less than four films out in the last 12 months, catapulting him to stardom from relative obscurity. March saw the first fruits of his big-screen labour. In Starred Up he played a repeat teenage offender deemed so violent he was upgraded to adult prison. David Mackenzie’s brutal, punchy and critically acclaimed drama served notice: the young actor previously best known as jack-the-lad Cook in E4’s teen drama Skins had matured into a blazing movie talent.

In the same month, O’Connell was in 300: Rise of an Empire, the all-action would-be blockbuster sequel to the hit 2006 comic-book adaptation, which also starred Eva Green and Lena Headey.

Jack O’Connell in Starred Up

“I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for,” says the working-class kid whose no-nonsense honesty has come to define him. “Do you want to know the God’s honest truth? I did 300 ’cause I was skint. And I didn’t know where my next job was coming from. I was in a position where I couldn’t choose work. And thankfully 300 turned up.”

Still, for this keen footballer and boxer, there were some plus points. “I mean, the stuntwork, I really had a good time with that. I enjoyed physically feeling like I was in the prime of my life.

“However,” O’Connell grins ruefully, “the fake tanning! A spray tan every three days! I’ve got tanned lungs! I hate vanity in real life, so I really had to swallow a lot of pride… And a lot of fake tan.” 

In October, O’Connell was front- and-centre in ’71. Written by Gregory Burke and directed by newcomer Yann Demange, the taut, low-budget thriller saw O’Connell playing a young British squaddie trapped in hostile neighbourhoods in Belfast in 1971. The actor was terrific in the role, portraying the desperate soldier’s plight with wordless, frightened-rabbit intensity.

O’Connell drew on personal experience for ’71: after his planned career as a footballer was scuppered by a knee injury, he’d considered joining the army. “All the drills and the saluting, I already had that in the bag.” Still, the production was gruelling. He recalls being in Sheffield for “four, five weeks of continuous night shoots, every night being p***-wet through. It’s the middle of winter. I was dying a death out there. I felt so ropey, the worst I’ve ever felt on a job.”

O’Connell in ‘71

However, “Jack’s performance knocked me out,” says playwright Burke. “There wasn’t too much dialogue to start with. But as Yann was filming he was taking more lines off Jack, saying that he liked this idea that he didn’t say too much. Because obviously in the film, as soon as the character opens his mouth his accent gives him away. Jack was OK with that – and a lot of actors wouldn’t enjoy that at all.”

That on- and off-camera stoicism served O’Connell well in his biggest screen role yet. In Jolie’s Unbroken (released in cinemas on Boxing Day), he plays bombardier Louis Zamperini, a real-life Italian- American war hero. He crash-landed in the Pacific, was adrift in shark-infested waters for 47 days, and was then captured by Japanese forces and incarcerated in forced-labour camps for three years. “Zamp” endured unimaginable horrors, and survived them.

To play this icon of wartime valour, O’Connell had to do a lot more than just dye his hair black (“they died my armpits as well…”). With extreme dieting, he lost one and a half stone to play the emaciated prisoner of war – but, at the same time, had to be able to convincingly portray pre-war Zamperini, who was a champion runner and competed at the Berlin Olympics. 

“Trying to sound like him was the biggest challenge,” he admits in his thick Derbyshire accent. “And thankfully I figured out before the shoot had started that I’m never gonna sound like him. But I really wanted to do the film, and do Louis, the best I could. And go Michael Sheen on him,” he says, referring to the Welsh actor who has played Tony Blair, David Frost, Kenneth Williams and Brian Clough. “He adopts people, even to the point where it’s beyond an imitation – like he did with Cloughy.” 

Given that Zamperini – for all his heroic renown – isn’t a well- known celebrity figure, it’s hard to know whether O’Connell achieves this in Unbroken. But his performance is certainly another triumph.

Again, he doesn’t have acres of dialogue. But he conveys huge amounts of physical exertion and trauma with just a flicker of the eyes and a heave of the chest. It’s some achievement, and it vindicates Jolie’s punt on a young, unknown Brit with a stout regional accent.

“She really fought my corner, man,” he says of the woman he calls Angie. “I guess a lesser person would have just given up. And because of that, when I was on set and really struggling, I’d promise her my best on a personal level. It kind of went beyond anything contractual. I promised her my utmost. And as a result, I got some of my finest work there.”

Given the year Jack O’Connell’s had, there’s probably even finer to come.

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Unbroken is released in cinemas today (26th December), and you can read our review here