Interview: Jack O’Connell

Jack O’Connell has quickly established himself as one of the most compelling and visceral performers working today. From his debut in the 2006 drama This Is England, to appearing with Michael Fassbender in the chilling Eden Lake, butting heads with Michael Caine in Harry Brown, to playing Calisto in the 300 sequel, he’s carved out quite a career for himself, and he isn’t even 25 years old yet. 

Most audiences know him from his work in the hugely successful Unbroken, but it was two earlier festival films that really solidified both his range and his on-screen presence. Back in 2013 O’Connell gave an immense performance as Eric Love in the raw prison drama Starred Up, and over the last half year his film about the Irish “troubles”, ’71, has made its way through the festival circuit.

The film packs a powerful punch, thanks in large part to O’Connell’s bravura performance. Under the direction of debut filmmaker Yann Demange, this remarkable film manages to be both entertaining and sophisticated, a lovely blend between art-house sensibility and action film.

I spoke to O’Connell while he was here promoting the film during last September’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Dork Shelf: You were here at TIFF last with Starred Up. Quite a change – Same haircut, but different tone of performance. Could you talk about what you brought to this role and what it meant to you?

Jack O’Connell: Two weeks after we wrapped Starred Up we were on set with ’71. If I’d had it my way, I’d have had a more 70’s hairstyle!

I was very keen to get into that era and the one main method I was distinguishing myself for [my character] Gary [Hook] was with music from the period and understanding perhaps what it was to be born in 1950. He probably sat up a lot straighter than I am and that offered me some sort of guidance.

The rest was up to Yann and I really benefitted from his direction because he was keen on making sure I didn’t betray or didn’t use any Eric [my character in Starred Up] for Gary.

DS: It’s a much more restrictive character obviously.

JO: Exactly, which I find difficult actually. In Starred Up, I felt like I had the answers.

DS: You didn’t have a lot in the way of dialogue either. You are like a Jason Bourne character without all the bravado.

JO: That’s it. And we didn’t want to create an automatic hero. We had to feel a sense of jeopardy, so this kid had to be terrified beyond belief. But what he does have is good reasoning to get out of there anyway and his younger brother. I just focused on that and then instincts come into play.

DS: Did the quick turnaround help between projects so you wouldn’t overthink it?

JO: No, not at all. In fact, I’ll be mindful of that in the future. It can get a little absurd, but it’s kind of my responsibility to not let that come into play.

DS: How much research did you do?

JO: I was already cleared up on the relationship between England and Ireland, from centuries ago, I do my own research out of interest. So I probably knew too much. 

Gary went there naively, as was the truth back then as well. A lot of my references were from soldiers, ex-soldiers that had served there, I was fortunate enough to know one, and the whole thing was tormented. 

It was important to make someone very normal. He was local to me, he’s from Darbyshire, and I’ve got a huge amount of adoration for that period.

DS: Was the younger brother character absolutely critical for your performance of having something outside of the situation to be holding on to?

JO: The lad that played him, Harry Verity, we worked very hard together. I did my best to establish a friendship with him so that when Gary is trying to escape Belfast, I at least had something to draw from that.

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When we introduced Corey McKinley’s character, the urchin, we see that parallel between the dynamic that he has at home and the stuff where he’s instantly able to sympathize with this kid because of I guess what he’s used to. It was vital to acknowledge that and try and nurture something between myself and Harry for us to both care, I guess.

 DS: It’s a heavy film – was it heavy on set? 

JO: I once heard it said that a pleasant experience shooting doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything in the edit suite. And in my experience, it’s been the polar opposite in that it has to hurt. The reason why I feel settled about ’71, as I did Starred Up and as I am doing about Unbroken, is because I can wholeheartedly, with total honesty, say that that hurt. ’71 was so under budgeted that everyone had their own strife and their own difficulties across departments and there wasn’t a lot there to make my life any easier.

DS: Does it physically hurt, or is it strictly I’ve got to get 10 pages done in the next 2 minutes?

JO: That’s Yann’s problem. I just think, they say action, I’m running my ass off, they say cut, they tell me they’re not happy with it, so that means to me, I translate that like that means I’ve got to do all of that shit again. I’m lucky to get out of there if I’ve only done it twice. We can’t afford stunt doubles or I’m too anal to use stunt doubles, so there isn’t a great deal on offer I guess in terms of support on lower budget ones.

DS: Just because you have the money doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to work well when you’re shooting.

JO: For sure. I’d never suggest that. You can’t buy movies. You can’t buy great stories like that.It’s all a hardening process. I don’t mind taking a pay cut to do all of that again if it’s for the right reasons. If it means I’m going to be back here promoting a film that’s been responded to, or that people have responded to this well, that’s why we do it and I just say I’m able to feel assured in that we gave 110% so I can sit here and feel like all of this is validated. 

DS: The pub scene is probably the most technical of the scenes. Was that as brutal as we might think behind the scenes?

JO: Credit to the boys behind the camera, that’s where they really step up, and they have certain techniques that by the time it’s out of the edit suite, you can’t really understand how that process is possible. I still can’t. 

DS: Was it done in one shot? 

JO: Yeah, so I’d start off in there and then they’d replace me with the stunt man, during what looks like the one continuous shot. It’s still dangerous and like I say, when it’s this low budget, the onus is on you. I know better than to fuck around with a set that’s on fire. 

DS: Did you find overt parallels in telling this period story to the events of today?

JO: We’ve got a universal story on our hands. Unfortunately, conflict is relevant everywhere. I do hope that that puts it in a timeless category and it’s appreciated in that way.

I always hope that my work is regarded like that and I feel very fortunate in that I can say that about a lot of my projects. What is very humbling is seeing it get the approval that it deserves. A film like this might fall on deaf ears if it wasn’t for the responses that it receives in front of cinema lovers who know the difference, so I feel a huge sense of gratitude towards people like yourselves.