Reel Talk is NME’s weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV
For most of his career, Jack O’Connell has been framed as the gobby, charming, scrappy kid. In the 2010s, if you were casting a young man roiling with internal rage, you’d be a fool not to call O’Connell first. He kicked his way into the public consciousness in 2009 as Cook in Skins, showing a talent for finding the sympathetic side of boys who make terrible choices. On the cinema screen he’s played equally magnetic youths, superb as a rookie soldier in ‘71 and as a violent young offender in Starred Up. But O’Connell is no longer a kid. This year he turns 30. He’s done his time as the next big thing. Now it’s about proving he is the thing.
When we speak to O’Connell, it’s only three days into the new decade. For most, this would be a time of reflection, peering through the remnants of the festive hangover and evaluating where the previous decade has put you. Yet O’Connell is not interested in looking back. Asked how he feels about the achievements of his 20s, he puffs out his cheeks.
“I try not to think about my career too much in retrospect,” he says. “I’m not much of an optimist when it comes to work-related stuff. My glass is always half empty. But I like that, it keeps me hungry”. By any measure, his past decade would be considered well over half-full, but for O’Connell this is not a time for remembering what he has done. It’s for focusing on what he hasn’t. “I feel like I’ve got a foundation there, but I just want to kick on now,” he says. “A lot of leading actors tend to do their really interesting, career-defining stuff in their 30s. That’s the conversation I’m having with myself. I want to lay my marker down.”
O’Connell’s latest statement is a reflection of the grown-up phase he’s now entered. His latest role, in Seberg, is one of his quietest ever, and it’s certainly not that of a boy. The film is based on the life of Jean Seberg, a cult actress whose short career peaked in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic Breathless. Seberg (played here by Hollywood heavyweight Kristen Stewart) was involved with black civil rights organisations, including the Black Panthers, which put her in the sights of the highly conservative FBI. O’Connell plays a fictitious government agent, also called Jack, who trails Seberg and gradually starts to see that the agency he’s given his life to isn’t always on the side of good. It’s a role that needs someone with O’Connell’s intensity because he spends an awful lot of time with only himself for company.
“[I’m] mostly surveying Jean Seberg from afar,” he says. “My side of the storyline felt quite separate and a bit abstract.” With relatively little dialogue or co-star time, it’s up to O’Connell to convey Jack’s moral transformation in near silence. He does this perfectly, of course. The nature of their observer-and-observed relationship in the film meant O’Connell and Stewart didn’t properly work together until O’Connell’s final day of shooting. “We’d be in on the same day, but usually I’d be somewhere else on the set, creepily watching her through some sort of scope.” Nevertheless, he says Stewart was “very sound.”
Many would argue O’Connell doesn’t need to be laying down any markers; he did that long ago. He’s been described as one of the best of his generation for several years. No actor of the last decade can boast a more impressive year than his 2014, when as well as ‘71 and Starred Up, he made his American cinema breakthrough with a leading role in Angelina Jolie’s prisoner of war drama, Unbroken. He was quite rightly given the BAFTA Rising Star Award thanks to that triple bill. One of the best of his generation has never been the aim though. He wants, has always wanted, to be one of the best ever.
“If I tried to act humble now I’d be contradicting a lot of my early interviews when I was coming up,” he says. “I made no attempt to disguise why I’m doing what I’m doing.” He’s right, go and read any interview of his from the last 10 years and you’ll find some version of the same message: “I want to be regarded as one of the best of the bunch. I still have that ambition. That doesn’t happen overnight.”
O’Connell’s journey to becoming one of the best ever started in Derby, about 17 years ago. 13-year-old Jack was not a natural student and was frequently in trouble at school. The one subject he enjoyed was drama, first at school and then at The Television Workshop, a charitably-funded organisation that trains young actors from all backgrounds. For a working class kid with no industry connections, it was a godsend. By the time he was 15, he’d already won his first major film role, as Pukey in This Is England. He continued working steadily and in 2009 he landed what remains his biggest TV role, Cook in Skins, a drama about teenagers that wasn’t afraid to show that they had sex, took drugs, and had mental health struggles. By the third season, when O’Connell joined, it was already a phenomenon. It made him famous overnight. In the same year, he shot his biggest film yet, Harry Brown, alongside Michael Caine. But just as his career was exploding, his home life imploded.
While O’Connell was filming Harry Brown, his father, Johnny, died from pancreatic cancer. “One of his dying wishes to me was for me to look after mum and Megs, my sister,” he says. Asked how that pressure weighed on someone so young and who was just kicking off a career with no job security, O’Connell is unequivocal. “That was fucking bang out of order of my dad to say that,” he says. “I could have been off galavanting and living a rock and roll lifestyle and not giving two hoots about people around me. But then I don’t think I’d have been a very nice person.” He has always taken his responsibility to look after his family “very, very seriously.”
For a long time though, O’Connell did live quite a rock and roll lifestyle. The loveable tearaway screen persona was one he maintained off-screen as well as on, and he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. He told The New York Times he “didn’t stop partying for seven years” in his twenties – and other interviewers would write cheerfully about him arriving hungover. He’d tell stories about how he spent his teenage years “in and out of court” for charges relating to violence (he’s never gone into detail because, as he told The Guardian in 2014, it was “quite serious” and talking about it was “only going to bugger me up”).
Today he is quieter, more careful. He often answers as if concerned he might say the wrong thing and declines to elaborate on innocuous subjects, like his favourite actors of his generation. He’s particularly careful when we discuss the subject of Hollywood movies. He hasn’t really pursued them. Unbroken and Money Monster, which was directed by Jodie Foster and co-starred George Clooney and Julia Roberts, are his only big American parts. (Seberg is American, but more art-house than Hollywood).
Given his age, credentials and profile, O’Connell seems just the sort of actor who should have been on the radar for anything from Marvel superheroes to Star Wars leads and Batman villains (he’d make a great Riddler) to James Bond. Hollywood loves a young, hot Brit. Has he ever even been in the running for those types of projects? He starts by picking his words quite carefully.
“In my experience, it kind of gets political in the process of booking them roles. That’s not an area I consider myself well enough versed in to be able to comment. I haven’t booked them roles. I don’t have experience of working on them kind of movies. I wouldn’t be closed minded to it.” It’s a weird answer, to what is essentially a yes or no question. Perhaps he’s being mindful not to say anything to jeopardise future opportunities. Or maybe he just has little to say about Hollywood. It’s not something he considers essential for his plan to becoming great.
“You can be a great actor without being a big actor,” he says. He’s absolutely right. He has what it takes to be a Tom Hardy or a Leonardo DiCaprio, but that doesn’t seem to be where he’s looking. Asked who he’d like to emulate, he says, “I’ve just been working with Tom Courtenay (on The North Water, a sea-faring television drama he was shooting for much of 2018). One of the greatest actors of all time.” Courtenay has been working for over six decades. He’s never been what you’d call a movie star, but with roles in brilliant films like Billy Liar, Doctor Zhivago and 45 Years, he’s part of the fabric of film history. That is what O’Connell wants.
O’Connell also reveres Courtenay because he achieved recognition through hard work alone. He was a working class boy from Yorkshire, with no obvious path to the cinema. “[He] came up at a very different time,” says O’Connell. “[Actors like him] pushed things forward and made it possible for lads like me from not very fortunate backgrounds to come up.”
The lack of opportunity for working class kids is something O’Connell is passionate about fixing. He owes his career to arts funding, through both his school drama classes and The Television Workshop. Yet this is something the government has repeatedly cut in recent years. Asked how he feels about the current state of things, he sums it up as, “not very positive.” The school he attended (Saint Benedict Catholic School) has, he says, largely removed drama classes from the curriculum.
“I think society suffers with that. I think the industry suffers. I think the impact has become apparent on screen in particular.” Asked to clarify, he says, “I think that is a statement enough in itself. I don’t want to indulge too far because I don’t want to sound bitter.” It doesn’t sound bitter, but what we think he’s getting at is that the vast majority of young British actors tend to be from privileged, moneyed backgrounds; people who had the opportunity to pursue acting as a hobby and didn’t need to worry about making a living immediately. Pushed, he chooses not to clarify, but says, “If I were born any later, there’s an argument that any ambition I had toward this career would be pointless.”
The start of his 30s should bring O’Connell one of his biggest – and potentially best – roles. Later this year he’s due to play Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder in Twisting My Melon, a biopic about his early days. It’s being written and directed by Matt Greenhalgh, who has strong form in this arena, having scripted Control, the 2007 film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Although he was barely born when Happy Mondays were at their height, O’Connell has been a Ryder fan for years.
“Fucking hell, man, I was listening to his music as a kid. At 13 I used to DJ his music,” he says. “What he did as a working class lad from Manchester-slash-Salford, it’s colossal. He’s a working class hero that people wrote off from the beginning. Even if you don’t have anything in common with him, there’s enough in his story to garner sympathy, to garner fascination. In a lot of ways, he’s one in a million.”
O’Connell’s attraction to the Ryder role neatly sums up everything his career has been about. He’s had obstacles in his path since day one – an underprivileged background, the early loss of a parent, breaking an industry with no connections – but he’s always had one thing: hope. That’s what he sees in the Mondays’ story. “Shaun’s trajectory gives people hope,” he says. “He came up in a difficult time for decent, honest music. He had his career stunted by people in suits who took him to court, but he stuck to his guns.” O’Connell has, arguably, done the same.
‘Seberg’ is in cinemas from January 10
Design: Simon Freeborough