The 24-year-old star of Oscar-nominated film 'Unbroken' sits down with us and talk about the film and what is next for him.
Perhaps Angelina Jolie was on to something when she described Jack O’Connell as the “least Hollywood” person she knows. The 24-year-old actor definitely lives up to that notion, when I meet him in New York City for the Unbroken press round.
For starters, he carries a pack of cigarettes – something some of his Hollywood peers would pooh-pooh. Then, unlike his Unbroken co-star Miyavi – who turns up looking dapper in a sophisticated, dark suit and with his hair slicked back – and his director Jolie, who’s dressed formally in a blazer, O’Connell walks in sporting a buzz cut, casually dressed in a grey long-sleeve shirt with jeans and sneakers.
It is easy to presume that when O’Connell is not acting on the set of a film, he’d rather be who he really is – a young man from Derby, England, born to an English mother who worked in the refunds department of an airline company and an Irish father who worked on the railways; with a deep, deep, love for his hometown football club Derby County FC.
Having read about his extreme dislike for doing press junkets – he singles it out as the worst part about being famous! – I’m not too shocked to hear him sigh to Miyavi about his next round of interviews as I squeeze pass them at the hotel corridor to get ready for my one-on-one with him.
When the introduction is over, and we are left alone for 15 minutes, I bring up the subject of football – specifically how he felt when his football team Derby County lost to Queen Park Rangers in the May 2014 play-off. It was a crucial match that Derby needed to win to guarantee them a spot in the English Premier League for the first time since 2008.
O’Connell laughs at the question as he stirs his cup of tea – how very English of him – and recalls, “I took my sister along (for that match) and we were certain of a win. QPR was down to 10 men and we were pressing.”
He expresses disbelief at how QPR forward Bobby Zamora scored the winning goal in the last minute: “I assumed he had retired. He just rocked up and (expletive) devastated all of us.”
Growing up in a working-class family, O’Connell once dreamt of being a football player himself. His dream almost became a reality too – he was training for a professional football career when a knee injury put a stop to it.
“I felt that I was destined to do something more,” shares O’Connell, who was 16 at that time.
While the injury crushed his football career, it did lead him to acting – which he took up as a distraction while he was injured. However, it did not dampen his frustrations, that he ended up engaging in tomfoolery.
“If I couldn’t afford something, I’d steal it. Thankfully, I never got to the severity of organised crime,” he deadpans.
He even considered joining the army, as it seemed like the only way to get a job in Derby at that time. A situation he describes as “signs of the time we live in, mate.”
Luckily, O’Connell broke through in acting thanks to the role of bad boy James Cook in British teen drama series Skins. That was six years ago. Just this week, O’Connell became the recipient of the Rising Star award at the 2015 Bafta Awards (the British version of Oscars).
O’Connell believes his life experiences gave Jolie credible reason to cast him as Louis Zamperini, the main subject of Unbroken, an Olympian and World War II veteran who spent 47 days on a raft in the Pacific and then two years as a prisoner of war.
“I didn’t have a privileged life growing up and I don’t need it now as well. I think she considered that as necessary to portray someone who is also deprived of a lot growing up.”
Another thing O’Connell has in common with Zamperini is their love for their mothers. It’s something O’Connell cheekily says he doesn’t mind bragging about. “That was very easy for us to connect with – the idea of not seeing her again, you know ... She played a role at home for us.”
He adds: “She put a lot of hard work for me. She did that to elevate me out of an area that, statistically, was set against you.”
When O’Connell got the call confirming he got the role in Unbroken, he shared the news with his mum first (who is also his manager). “I was upbeat and happy, until I realised I had to start dieting because we were going to start shooting soon,” he says with another laugh.
A laugh that continues as he remembers his meeting with Jolie. According to him, he was slightly hysterical before it happened.
“I was concentrating on Angelina Jolie, the superstar. Then in our first meeting, she presented herself as a humanitarian. She promised that she was going to do her best and I made that promise as well.”
Committing to the role, O’Connell went on an 800-calorie a day diet to look the part of a POW. He kept on losing weight during filming too. One time it was due to an added ingredient that made eating a raw fish for a scene nearly impossible.
“We had beards made from yak. Yeah, from yak testicles! When we were eating the raw fish, we got yak hair all over it. That bit was rough.”
Next up, O’Connell is acting alongside George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Money Monster – a film directed by another A-list Hollywood actress, Jodie Foster.
He quips in his Derbyshire accent: “I just love me a driven alpha female.”
Speaking of love and female, O’Connell is rumoured to be dating supermodel and Tulip Fever (due later this year) co-star Cara Delevingne – a rumour which he neither denies nor confirms. All he says is: “I’m quite happy with my love life. It’s a good love life.”
One thing he has no problems talking about is his hometown. His blue eyes lights up when I ask him about his favourite place in Derby.
“That’s a nice question. I grew up in that city. There were trees I climbed as a kid. One place for certain is the Derby County football stadium. I can guarantee that if I’m home and Derby is playing a game, I’ll surely be there.”
I tell him I’m surprised he didn’t name a pub. Chuckling, he says: “I’m tempted to. But I don’t want to be seen as an alcoholic in Malaysia.”
Unbroken is currently playing in cinemas nationwide. The film is nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.
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