Oscar-Worthy: Jack O’Connell Breaks Out of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken

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Every once in a while, we put our money on a horse and that horse actually pays off big time. When we first saw Jack O’Connell in Yann Demange’s ’71 earlier this year–don’t worry, that’s coming out soon!–we were convinced that we were seeing an actor whose star was on the rise and that we’d be hearing a lot more from him. 

We may have been slightly late to the game as O’Connell had already made an impression in his native country on the popular show “Skins,” but his roles this year in ’71, Starred Up and in Angelina Jolie’s upcoming war drama Unbroken are sure to make him better known on this side of the pond. 

In Unbroken, O’Connell plays the late Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who joined the Air Force when the United States entered World War II. When his plane crash landed in the Pacific Ocean, Zamperini was adrift at sea for 47 days before being found and captured by the Japanese, leading to two years of imprisonment and torture before finally being released.

Jolie’s second feature as a director covers Zamperini’s life leading up to his ordeal in the Japanese POW camps and it’s a truly inspiring story made even more powerful by what O’Connell put himself through to make Zamperini’s situation more realistic.

While O’Connell has a tough battle getting noticed by the Academy for his performance with so many other great leading actor roles this year, we see his performances this year as being very much on par with Michael Fassbender in Hunger or Tom Hardy in Bronson. Similar to those actors, O’Connell has an on-screen presence that guarantees many bigger things in the years to come.

ComingSoon.net spoke with O’Connell earlier this year when his movie Starred Up played at the Tribeca Film Festival, but more recently, got on the phone with him to talk specifically about working with Ms. Jolie on Unbroken. Although he plays an Italian-American in the film, O’Connell has a fairly heavy British brogue in real life and uses a vernacular that you might expect from a working class character in a Charles Dickens novel rather than one of Great Britain’s top up and coming stars. We also tried to get him to open up about whether he might star in Terry Gilliam’s problematic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in a role previously to be played by Johnny Depp.

ComingSoon.net: When I spoke to you back in April at the Tribeca Film Festival for “Starred Up,” were you still shooting Unbroken or had you already finished?

Jack O’Connell: In April, we had finished.

CS: I was curious about the transformation you went through during the course of the movie, because Louis loses a lot of weight on the boat and in the POW camp. I wondered how you pulled that off. If you took a break in between and shot some stuff later.

O’Connell: We started on the raft. We started a little way into the raft sequence, and then it was a case of withering down from that point. We went hungry on the raft, then worse on the raft and then each prison camp was shot chronologically. And then I had to regain strength to become the Olympian.

CS: To shoot the earlier stuff. That’s what I figured but it’s still amazing to watch it unfold in chronological order.

O’Connell: Yeah, but it was necessary though, hey?

CS: Let’s go back a little, because when we spoke in April, we didn’t get to talk too much about this. We were talking about “Starred Up” mainly and “71” which I’ve seen again since we spoke. I assume you heard about this role along with all the other actors going out for it, but what were your first meetings and auditions for Angie like?

O’Connell: I dunno. I remember my first meeting she did a real good job of presenting herself as a total equal to men that I didn’t notice at the time, but I’ve since discovered later on that she was nervous about meeting myself. So then you get a little insight into the human that you’re dealing with that detaches herself from the superstardom quite handily so that I could, too, as early as the first meeting. From that point onwards, I just felt like I had her on side. I felt that she was championing my version of Louie and my pitch to the studio in hopes I’d end up in the role. I felt like I was her choice, whether the studio agreed with her or not.

jackoconnellunbroken2CS: Did you have a chance to spend time with Louie? I know he passed away since last we spoke, but were you able to spend time with him either before or afterwards?

O’Connell: Yeah, I spent three separate meetings with the man in total, twice prior to shooting and then a third and final meeting, which obviously we didn’t know at the time that it would be the final one. I was hopeful to be able to spend a little bit of time with him hereon, but that’s not going to be case now unfortunately. The two meetings beforehand I had an agenda, the third one I didn’t so I perhaps preferred the third.

CS: What kind of questions did you have for him? Did you want to try to get into where his head was at during that time beyond what was in the screenplay?

O’Connell: Yeah, I wanted to work out how he kept his thoughts all linear on the raft and how he wasn’t just spiraling out of control. So he pointed out that he always had the finish line in his sights, however far that finish line was. He always saw one. That helped me reason with him on the raft and throughout the prison camps. I guess he was literally onto the running track. That was a much more obvious parallel on the track, but to use that logic elsewhere was a good indication to receive anyway from the man. Then I believe that sometimes when you’re trying to investigate something, perhaps it’s best to not interview, so I wondered how I could be indirect with what I was trying to research. Mainly, what I was able to gain after connecting with him face to face, I was able to see how his brain works. How he regards himself and that is as an ordinary, average man with perhaps more stories to tell then the next guy. He’s from a very hardened generation, because of their life experience. I think but that said, he was very reluctant to ever glorify himself overly so that was good to know, so I felt like I was able to play a very grounded version of him then.

CS: Obviously, this shows a very specific part of his life, while covering some of his past for background. I almost feel as if I want to know more about him after this ordeal. There’s a mention at the end that he went back to Japan and we see him running the torch at the Olympics, but I feel it would be just as interesting to find out about after he was imprisoned in the POW camp.

O’Connell: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Perhaps a sequel. Apparently, he had his post-traumatic stresses, but he also found himself a beautiful wife that mothered his children and those children grew up to love him. I spent time with them all in their company, and they had adoration for the bloke. Whatever he had to go through, to see him eventually end up where he did. I dunno, I find that quite promising for myself.

CS: One of the things I enjoyed was the camaraderie between Louie and the others, either on the plane or in the raft or at the prison camps. I know a lot of that is having good actors who can pull that off, but did you get to spend a lot of time with these guys to establish that, whether it’s rehearsals or other means?

O’Connell: Not anything extra special at the time. We were still up against it, so we did need to hit the ground running, and I feel very fortunate that we did. I had put that down to the mentality that the other boys approached this job with. Everyone felt very fortunate, so we all had that in common. Yeah, we did need to nurture some sort of organic dynamic for what happened in front of the camera. I put that down to the level of experience that everyone else had, which enabled us to then achieve that. There was perhaps more time with myself and the boys on the raft then there was for the prisoners of war, because the boys on the raft, we did have the rehearsal period, and we did have more time together. I really benefited personally from that camaraderie. 

CS: What about having someone with a lot of acting experience directing you? You’ve worked with a lot of different directors, both those who are experienced and newer ones, but I’m not sure if you’ve ever worked with a director who is an actor in their own right. Did she take a different approach to working with the actors on the performances that you noticed?

O’Connell: I’m careful with this one because I’ve been misquoted in answering this question before. I’m not in any position to suggest that it came from any more empathy than the majority of directors that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. I do think that there was something already preset there for her with which she can approach this challenge with. An empathy that was perhaps that very accessible to her that she didn’t need to necessarily work too hard with, having an expectancy of what she requires from directors. That kind of made sure that every intuition was one that she could trust, I felt, so she was always accessible. She’s got so many realms that she has to juggle, so many other departments wanting answers from her. Yeah, I really did benefit from her being able to see things my way at the drop of a hat. But like I say, I’m very reluctant to put that down solely to her acting credits. I would never be ignorant enough to suggest that directors are incapable of doing that without experience in front of the camera.

CS: Having spoken to actors who’ve worked with Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and others who once were actors working with other directors, I wondered how that translated to their directing, especially in this case when she’s not acting in the movie. When they’re acting in the movie, they can influence the other performances.

O’Connell: Well, for example she just went on to “By the Sea” with Brad where she was both acting and directing and I imagine that’s a fairly different experience altogether.

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CS: Did you feel this movie was a lot bigger scale than anything else you’ve done (except maybe “300”) especially with the ocean scenes? I understand that it wasn’t done on a huge budget.

O’Connell: No, it did differ, but anything I’d learned prior to now really benefited me, being used to the hustle and bustle of low-budget British cinema. Being used to the restraints of budgets with British filmmaking and what have ya, I felt like I could already deal with those frustrations. Thankfully, I’ve got ten years of work behind me as well, so I didn’t really feel problematic with my inexperience. I was just keen to learn, so I felt like I was in good stead. It all seemed to evolve quite naturally I feel.

CS: You made three really strong back-to-back films. I liked “300” also but that was a smaller role, but “71,” “Starred Up” and this film are just fantastic. Have you made some really conscious decisions about how you wanted to approach your career after finishing “Skins”?

O’Connell: Yeah, sort of. That’s why I consider myself quite fortunate with this one is that I’m able to announce myself to other areas of the business, globally and domestic to here. I’m also involved in something very integral and very heartfelt and hopefully a fitting tribute to an extraordinary man. I feel like I’m not only here but I get to experience it genuinely. I’m not pretending to anybody or promoting something I don’t believe in, and we’re still on a mission. There’s still a job to be done and so I’m holding no illusions. My introduction to this side of the work has been, as I say, genuine.

CS: So it seems like you’re picking movie that you’re very passionate about and it doesn’t seem like you’re taking acting jobs just to be working like some actors who’ll do whatever they get. It seems like you’re doing serious things that you believe in beyond just being a paycheck.

O’Connell: Sure, yeah, no, sure. It all has to be carefully considered. I’m reluctant to use the term “pick movies” because I’ve had to work and I have to take what is given, and thankfully they’ve become passion projects because everyone’s reasons on set echo one another’s.

CS: I’ve heard rumors that you might appear in Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote movie which he’s been trying to make for decades. Is that something that might logistically happen?

O’Connell: It was a lot more likely last week, but I don’t think they should have released what they released so that makes it more difficult. I’ve got some decisions to make regarding that. 

Unbroken opens nationwide on Christmas Day, Thursday, December 25.