Tuesday 23 October 2018

Jack O'Connell: journey from tearaway to redemption

Once on a path of self destruction, Jack O'Connell has turned a corner. His latest role offers a glimpse into his tearaway teens.

Jack O'Connell
Jack O'Connell

Stephen Milton

Jack O'Connell's latest role reads like a celluloid 'what-if' and a parallel glimpse of the road not taken. In Starred Up, he offers a visceral depiction of a repeat young offender contentiously graduated to adult penal status, struggling to maintain an existence between his feral instinct and a desire for rehabilitation.

In his early adolescence, O'Connell embarked on the initials of similar self-destruction, via a litany of misdemeanours. He refuses to be dragged into the details of his past but freely admits, corrective incarceration was once a potential outcome.

"I had run-ins with the law that could have landed me in a similar set-up," he doggedly shrugs, slowly circling his trilby hat around his finger. He feigns impassivity but it's blatantly a prickly subject.

"Things could have gone another way and I'm really thankful that they didn't.

"There is such a thing as being a product of your environment and I'm very fortunate that mine didn't produce me."

Growing up in the southern burbs of Midlands city, Derby, the actor drank and experimented in his pre-teens leading to petty delinquency, escalating to more serious offences.

The turning point came when he narrowly avoided a custodial sentence and landed a referral order at a youth offenders centre.

Acting, which he discovered at secondary school, was his saving grace and trying to balance the mandatory probation meetings with his increasing commitments to his art proved problematic. Something had to give.

"Once a week I had to attend this referral order after escaping a sentence and I was doing a play in London at the same time," explains the actor in laboured, Midlands burr.

"It was like two separate lives where I was having to navigate London and Derby every Sunday to complete my stipulation on the Monday and back that night for the theatre production. It was all pretty surreal.

"But that part of my life doesn't really apply to me anymore. It's served me well and all those experiences I've took from them to better myself and at least I've found the opportunity where I can marry those two different mentalities.

"I can understand the likes of Eric, without any particular distance between us."

Showcased in swaggering, brutal early performances as noxious skinhead Pukey in This Is England, Michael Fassbender's twisted tormentor in Eden Lake and his breakthrough as Skins central wideboy Cook, played with vaunting allure, O'Connell's hardened typecast finally graduates to jail time in Starred Up.

Centred round Jonathan Asser's low-fat screenplay, David MacKenzie's precise, foreboding direction bulks up a lack of hard facts around Eric's youthful crime and why he ended up prematurely at an unnamed prison in an innocuous part of Britain – though his ferocious temper hints at a precociously horrifying crime.

We're also none the wiser why his kingpin father, Neville (Animal Kingdom's Ben Mendelsohn), all wiry countenance and beleaguered doubt, is banged up in the same institution for fourteen years.

But intense sparring suggests a fractious, competitive understanding and resentment for their current status.

It's O'Connell's tour de force which carries proceedings, harking back to an immature Gary Oldman's simmering danger and Tim Roth's fledgling savagery.

Noticeably slighter than his on-screen bulk in a fitted polo shirt and slim jeans, the 23-year-old's performance travels from shocking savagery to tearful vulnerability and lays the question if today's penal rehabilitation system is failing its subjects and churning out a dirge of damaged offenders.

Jack, whose late father was born in the Kerry seaside village of Ballyheigue, approached Eric with centred focus, ignoring outside opinion.

"I didn't prejudice at any point. There wasn't a distinct outline to Eric, so I felt there was enough room for me to do something honest with him.

"I didn't want him to be at war with the world. I wanted him to have some form of solace and be at least a little bit comfortable in his own skin.

"And that was a result of my own experiences of characters who I consider, flawlessly hard. They don't project insecurities outwardly, that's considered weak. They're not bullies and they won't pick on the weak or individuals and that's a key factor in what I saw in Eric too."

Starred Up is released at a stage in O'Connell's career as he teeters on the edge of prominence.

The actor's currently skimmed out in oil and loincloth, flexing his lithe masculinity in 300 sequel, Rise of an Empire, signifying his Tinseltown debut.

And he's just wrapped after three months Down Under on Angelina Jolie's sophomore directorial effort, Unbroken, chronicling the life-story of Olympic athlete and World War Two POW survivor, Louis Zamperini.

Puffing out his hollowed cheeks, he rolls his eyes on the mention of the stunning Oscar-winner.

Every interview since the announcement that Jolie single-handedly selected the actor from a thousand-strong worldwide search, has naturally come armed with feverish enquiry; did he melt on the first encounter? Does her stardom irritate the helming process?

"It does get surreal meeting someone of that scale and being from where I'm from. It's humbling and I find myself spontaneously grinning.

"But there's a mentality where I'm meeting Angelina that I tried to employ," he explains, rehearse-like. "If I just focus for now and do a good enough job, where does that lead me?

"Somewhere much more exciting than melting when I first meet her. If I can pay her that due responsibility, I'm not only meeting a superstar, I'm demonstrating the skills that got me to where I am and hopefully bettering them."

With only one previous attempt behind the camera – Balkan war drama, In the Land of Blood and Honey, which received middling response – how did Jolie compare to O'Connell's previous head chefs?

"She's has some work rate on her. It's kind of extreme, the selflessness she approaches her work with and the sacrifices she's willing to take on a personal scale. She's a mother of six and a wife, it's definitely widened my tolerance and my expectations for myself."

International lenses chased Angelina, Brad and her six-strong brood as they nomadically trailed between shoot locations around Australia, from Sydney's Cockatoo Island to the Gold Coast. It inevitably gave Jack a valuable insight into celebrity superstardom.

"I don't know many people in Angelina's position but I certainly know the way that she jostles with it is one that I hope for myself should that ever be necessary."

He had a similar taste of the fame game himself while briefly courting pop culture pariah, Tulisa Contostavlos back in 2012. Jack found himself splashed all over the red tops as the former X Factor judge's bad boy squeeze. How does he look back at the experience?

"I'm face value, them sort of fickle factors don't come into the running of judging people. I just tend to knock around with who I fancy at the time.

"And me and Tula, we still speak. And the one thing it did confirm to me is that the public persona put out by the media is leaps and bounds from the individual themselves. So that definitely made the whole celebrity thing a lot less appealing to me."

Having furiously pirouetted a packet of Marlboro Lights between his index finger and thumb, O'Connell now places a cigarette between his teeth, anxiously anticipating my departure from his suite in London's Soho Hotel.

With dyed jet black tresses and a 'couldn't give a fuck' air, I mention it's oddly reminiscent of a young Colin Farrell.

"Well I've no problem hearing that," he cackles for the first time during our encounter. "I actually get a lot of my identity from my dad and my Irish heritage. The city I'm from, we've a really strong community from Ireland.

"I used to Irish dance at the age of four onwards and it was, you know like, very proudly green white and gold set up.

"And you know what," Jack cheerily adds, "I used to think Ireland was another part of Derby. When you have no geographical reference whatsoever, there was one point where I thought Derby was humongous, at least enough to fit a separate country."

"How was I to know there was a bigger, badder world out there? Bless my sweet little ignorance..."

  • Starred Up is in cinemas March 21

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