Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Next Big Thing Jack O’Connell on Nude Scenes, Starred Up, and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken

If you recognize Jack O'Connell as the rascally Cook from the British series Skins, then congratulations: You got in on the ground floor, because soon enough, everybody's going to be asking who the 24-year-old actor is. The cornerstone of O'Connell's rising Hollywood profile will come this Christmas when he stars in the highly anticipated WWII drama Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, but in the meantime, you can check him out in this week's gritty British prison drama Starred Up, which makes good use of O'Connell's bravado and tightly coiled intensity. (Two traits he shares with Jolie, in addition to their plentiful tattoos.) Last week, the English actor rang up Vulture to talk about how far he's willing to go onscreen.

A lot of actors would have been nervous to get as naked as you do in Starred Up — both emotionally and physically.
It's potentially scary, but in this film, the story warranted it. The director wouldn't have been able to use wider angles if I didn't go starkers, you know? I'm not gonna be gettin' nude at every opportunity — that's not what it's about — it's just that artistically, it felt right. I'm a professional, though, and it's my responsibility to protect myself. Sometimes, productions will ask things of you that they aren't supposed to, and they will be naughty and bend the rules. The bigger productions, not so, because there are too many people watching them, but I did a short film recently and once or twice, I had to refuse to allow a trained yet fully grown crow to peck meat off my face.

That's a long story, mate, but the main point I'm making is that I like to consider myself daring but there's a line, too. There's a line where I have to protect myself.

You really manage to disappear into your characters, but at the same time, you have to use the skin you live in, and that’s covered in your own tattoos. When you get a role like this, do you come up with some rationale in your mind as to why your character might have that sort of ink?
Yeah, that’s a good question, because I'm considering that my tattoos — perhaps one or two, more so than the others — have become a bit of a hindrance. They were definitely a mistake I made when I was growing up, and you kind of have to come up with a background of some sort for the role and have discussions with the director about them. For Starred Up, we just made them look like they were done in an even worse fashion, so it worked for the character and suggested that these tattoos were required in prison, but I am taking my top off a lot on-camera, and if it's not a case of getting them airbrushed out — which comes with its own consequences — then I have to try to incorporate them in. Artistically, I don’t really like the tattoos anymore anyway, apart from the one on my ribs. And my arms are an absolute mess! I’ll have to look into sorting that out.

There's a level of commitment and intensity to this role that's pretty incredible. To what extent does a character like this seep into the rest of your daily life?
I don't know, mate, I kind of got a lot out of my system growing up. I knew what it was to be in trouble very early on. I don't like to tempt fate when I act — I do my job and then I try to contribute to society in other ways, by being a decent human being. I don't need no particular excuse to start acting up. To ask if it seeps into my life, well, it's like acting a traffic warden if they're so anal in their personal lives. D'ya know what I mean?

Still, do you have to rearrange your life when you’re shooting a film like this?
The benefit to staying in Belfast, a city that I didn't necessarily know, was that I could kind of isolate myself and I had a sort of tunnel vision. Thankfully, I didn't have to navigate the day-to-day hindrances, like bills, but I try not to let my working life consume my personal life too much, neither. I find I benefit from a cutoff point. Then again, I've never had to live a role that's completely far removed from myself, so maybe that would be a different matter.

When you're taking on grueling films like this and Unbroken, to what extent are you seeking out things that will challenge you not just as an actor, but physically and emotionally as a person?
I think that's the reason why we all do it, essentially. It's to gain experience, for which my tolerance levels have perhaps been bettered for future roles. I feel a huge sense of achievement when I do those films, and that sort of speaks for itself as well. I just want to move forward responsibly, I guess.

When you come out the other end of either one of those movies, are you a different sort of person in tangible ways? Or are they simple jobs, and once they’re complete, you can shake them off and move on to the next one?
You know, as much as I commit myself 110 percent when it's required of me — and I continue to do so if required to stay in character to that extent — in my day-to-day, I'm more focused on my personal life, which I enjoy and take a lot from. In order to preserve that, I have to acknowledge that my job's a job, and that in order to play the next role, I have to be a blank canvas.

With a film like Starred Up, surely you’ve got to have a lot of trust in your fellow actors when you’re going to such an intense, unpredictable place.
And that was important because we were all kind of improvising. We kept a lot of the group scenes spontaneous; we had our themes, and we stuck to them, but we'd trust each other to not have any selfish agendas because it would ruin the scene. So you have to find that trust in rehearsals, once you suss that everyone is on the same page and knows the difference between acting and being, as it were. In terms of the stunts, everything had to look like there was some jeopardy to it. We didn't want any beautiful choreography — it had to look messy and scrappy. I certainly benefitted from some of the supporting roles being cast with highly trained stuntmen, because they were able to make everything feasible and also safe. You do have to look out for yourself, you know? That's my moneymaker, my face! [Laughs.]
Angelina Jolie can be formidable as a celebrity and as an actress, but what was she like as a director on Unbroken?
Certainly on-set, she's incredibly fair to everybody at all times, and incredibly encouraging — I took a lot of support from her. It wasn't necessarily the things she said, even; in the thick of it, with each take, I always felt assured that she was on my side. And that's what allows me to take risks and feel more comfortable with what I'm doing. We became a lot more motivated by working with her, we did.

By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 26, 2014 at 10:59AM

At 23, Jack O’Connell has been a mainstay in British cinema for close to a decade, but he's about to break out in a big way.

[Editor's Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today's pick is "Starred Up," which you can read about below and catch On Demand.]
At 23, Jack O’Connell has been a mainstay in British cinema for close to a decade, having made his screen debut in Shane Meadows’ "This Is England" and starring in the gritty teen drama "Skins." But the actor’s star is about to get a whole lot brighter: This week, Tribeca Film releases "Starred Up," in which O’Connell plays an angry prisoner clashing with authorities. While "Starred Up" premiered to great acclaim at Telluride and recently found more support at the Tribeca Film Festival, O’Connell has already surfaced again as the lead in the Berlin Festival selection "’71," a brutal war drama featuring the actor in nearly every scene. He also recently surfaced with a supporting role in "300: Rise of an Empire"; later this year, he will be seen as main character in Angelina Jolie’s latest directing effort, "Unbroken," a biopic about Olympic champion Louis Zamperini’s experience in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. In short: O’Connell is about to be everywhere. And for a young man who acted out as a teenager — to the point where he had a track record that delayed his American work visa — this moment has been a long time coming. In New York for the Tribeca premiere of "Starred Up," O’Connell spoke with Indiewire about what he has learned about his career ambition and how he hopes to apply it going forward.

'Starred Up'
I've worked a long time to deal with the whirlwind. It's been a long time in the making for me, and a lot of hard work too. I think it might be overwhelming if I thought it was undeserved. It was definitely an uphill battle trying to get myself the recognition. Now I’m at the point in my life where I kind of feel I know what I want to do with it.

The work that I've done so far demonstrates my intention as an actor and hopefully one day a filmmaker. I'm quite content with the level of integrity I've been able to preserve, and I haven't had to compromise myself at all. The jobs I've turned down are probably as crucial as the jobs I've decided to do. If I wanted the cheap roles in this game I would have gotten them by now. That's not what I'm out for.

I hate exposition. I feel very patronized when I'm being force-fed information and not allowed to do the thinking myself. With that preset already a priority of mine, I was keen. And David [Mackenzie, director of "Starred Up"] is the same way, he tells stories very finely. He doesn't force it. So that was already there, and I had a lot of respect for David as well, which I knew would translate as well with or without the dialogue. Certain things don't require words. We're not in a particularly articulate setting. I think that the relevance of actions compared to words have always fascinated him privately. So to be able to just feel these things and hope that it'll be conveyed well by David in the edit, or what have you, there is a level of trust there. I didn't really doubt that David would use what we gave him responsibly. There was always a level of certainty.

My character in "Starred Up" is a very complex individual. So as long as I do justice to that, it holds the story together, and you’ll be interested enough to follow. It would have been very boring for me to walk around very angry all the time, with a chip on the shoulder, almost sympathetic to himself. I had no interest in that. To know that, I had to be a little bit older than Eric. I only learned what that was recently. Eric's nineteen, and he's had to come to terms with being a man, being an adult at nineteen.

At school I had problems with the idea of authority. I didn't really find all of the topics very relevant. I got distracted very easily and I just wanted to have a laugh. I just used to enjoy making people laugh a lot in school, and that landed me in trouble, so there's a conflict. I wasn't a bully or aggressive to people, it was mainly just trying to have a sense of humor. I guess what I didn't know then, but what I know now, is that for some reason, in a classroom environment, that's a threat to the order, so they try to whip it out of you. But that's part of my persona and my character. To be in a form of institution where you're deemed as a problem, it has a negative effect. I did what I did because I was there, and there is stuff that I did that to this day I'm sorry about. I would never try to justify it. I made mistakes. In a working environment, the way things have worked out to come full circle, I feel very privileged that I'm allowed to introduce the life experience I've got into characters like this. It's projected on a scale where a lot of the world can see it, it's available to a lot of the world, and hopefully it'll influence people in some way.

It's always been my intention to be a diverse actor. I think it's important if I'm going to respect myself as an actor is to have a diverse CV.  I did get the opportunity to portray Bobby Charlton [in the TV film “United”], who was a footballer in the 50s and 60s. He's from a different part of the world, a different era, and that's one credit to the CV that I'm so thankful for. I think without it, there is a violence to my other roles, and I might typecast myself. If I'd have approached "300" trying to do what I did with "Starred Up" or "Skins," playing a fellow with that sort of ethos, then I'd deserve the criticism. So it's important to me to avoid that, because the actors I respect are versatile. In my defense, I don't really get to choose a lot of the time. There is a pattern developing, and I don't really like it. I'm trying now to focus on separating myself from that.

I'm not a particularly angry individual. I got to sort it out for what it is growing up, and people who have gone other ways are more frightening than myself. I get to use that in my work, but I don't identify with it. I consider myself fortunate that I can bring my experience in to benefit my art, but it's not me.

Growing up, Gary Oldman has been a big role model of mine. Also Tim Roth, I've always loved his performance. A more recent example would be Tom Hardy. He decides to do what he does for his reasons, but I like the way he's been able to stay as Tom. He's not been warped in any way. And when you see these people who persevere, it seems possible. But it does get a bit mad.

With Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken," I felt like I'd been working a long time to be trusted with a role like that. I finally I felt like I had an opportunity to break away from exactly what I was nervous about. So I just welcomed it. I tried to treat it with a level of respect that would enable me to portray the guy responsibly. That's how I avoided anything that might be a comfort zone. I was well away from my comfort zone for three months. It was integral. It gets to a point where there are so many real-life decent stories that have occurred, so many inspiring people who were heroic, it doesn't really stand to repeat franchises and supernatural stuff. I don't need explosions or special effects, unemotional shit like that. If you've got nothing else, you've got a good story, and a good team, and they'll find a way to avoid fucking up.

It wasn't until I got "Unbroken" that I was able to obtain a work visa. It was not easy to do, I had to go to a lot of meetings. It’s insane, because I felt like I did the time for whatever crimes I did. I don’t think I’m a hazard to anyone else. What's different now is that I have a future. I didn't know if I  had a future back then. It was difficult to still be judged as that reprobate that I've been working as a long time to separate myself from. But I just knew that there was only one way to combat it, which was walking the walk and not talking the talk. That's why I'm reluctant to talk the talk too much now. Now, thankfully, I've proven myself. What really gets me going these days is work.

Indiewire has partnered with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand to kick off Indie Film Month. Enjoy exceptionally creative and uniquely entertaining new Indie releases ("Under the Skin," "The Congress," "The Trip to Italy," and more) along with classic, Throwback Thursday indie titles ("Swingers," "Black Swan," and more) all month long on Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand. Go HERE daily for movie reviews, interviews, and exclusive footage of the suggested TWC movie of the day and catch the best Indie titles on TWC Movies On Demand.

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