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The Derby De Niro

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Starred Up sees Jack O’Connell stab, kick and claw his way into the big league. Jimi Famurewa meets the Derby De Niro

He can’t believe it, can’t fathom it, and actually sits back for a moment to gather himself.

He rubs his dyed jet-black hair (which we’ll come to) and shakes his head. Jack O’Connell has seen and done plenty in his 23 years on the planet, but he’s not having this. The subject causing such disbelief and bafflement? Christian Bale’s recent 43lb transformation from muscle-bound superhero to full-blown Seventies butterball.

“I don’t understand it,” says O’Connell in a deep, Derbyshire drawl. “That he can be Batman and then turn up on a job like American Hustle looking like a human hog roast? That’s the part of the job that really makes me nervous. I’d probably enjoy doing that to myself, but it’s the aftermath that would put me off. That’d be me for the rest of my life, mate. I wouldn’t stop."

Whether he’s prepared to down doughnuts and multiple tubs of Häagen-Dazs in the name of his ‘craft’ is just one of the things O’Connell has to consider these days. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Alvaston-born actor has become one of Hollywood’s hottest properties, leaping effortlessly from enormo blockbusters such as 300: Rise Of An Empire to critical catnip in the vein of upcoming Troubles-set survival flick ’71.

So what’s turned the lairy kid from Skins into Britain’s most exciting young actor? Look no further than his role in the film I’ve come to discuss with him today; brutal low-budget prison drama Starred Up.

Earning rapturous reviews since its festival debut late last year, it’s a spectacular piece of British filmmaking featuring a career-making central performance. But don’t for a second think any of it came easily. As O’Connell notes after tales of busted bones, puke-smeared fingers and shivering nude scenes, “I don’t think there was a day on this shoot when the crew envied me.””

Locked up

Based on a script written by former prison counsellor Jonathan Asser, Starred Up is the tale of Eric Love (O’Connell). An explosively violent 19-year-old inmate who is prematurely moved – or ‘starred up’ – to an adult lock-up that houses both his lifer dad (played with slurring, quiet menace by Ben Mendelsohn) and a correctional therapist (Rupert Friend) determined to help quell his bubbling rage. It was a world, and a role, O’Connell felt an instant connection with.

“I remember Skyping with David [Mackenzie, the film’s director] and giving him my insight into what I’d already experienced in terms of Eric’s route,” he says. “I think that reassured him. I had a recognition of these sorts

of characters and knew the difference between lads that definitely are handy and lads that think they are.”

Eric, it’s fair to say, is ‘handy’. In the shank-or-be-shanked world of prison, he prowls around like a shaved Staffie in Reebok Classics, biting flesh, doling out kerb-stomps and, at one point, arming himself with only a table leg and

a liberal coating of baby oil (“A real prison tactic,” says O’Connell) to take on a troop of guards. Like A Prophet and Scum before it, Starred Up shoves us into a grimly realistic vision of prison life, defined by its own rules and slang, soundtracked only by echoed screams and the clank of locked cells. It’s no surprise then, to learn that O’Connell and other cast members spent time with real inmates before shooting. “I met a geezer who was once dubbed Wandsworth’s most violent inmate and he was a really pleasant man, which surprised me,” says O’Connell. “He knows what his fists can do. He knows he’s capable. I wanted to introduce that to Eric.”

Laid bare

Some members of the cast, it transpires, even slept in Crumlin Road Gaol – the decommissioned Belfast prison where Starred Up was filmed. O’Connell chose not to. Was it a symbolic statement about the dubious benefits of method acting? Erm, not quite.

“I chose not to stay in the prison because there was no central heating,” he says, flashing a grin. “Even in Wandsworth they have f*cking central heating. If I wasn’t on set, I was sleeping. I just wanted to crack on.” And crack on he did. Despite passing up a night behind bars, O’Connell threw himself into every aspect of the four-week shoot.

He had to go to hospital with a damaged fist and threw up for real (“I thought, ‘I want that Bafta,’” he laughs) in a scene when Eric’s battered body finally gives in. However, this seems like nothing compared to the, ahem, small matter of a prolonged bit of extreme nudity in the freezing cold. Were there any nerves about going ‘full Fassbender’? “I just decided to bite the bullet,” he reasons. “Even though it was the middle of February in Belfast and lukewarm water was as much as they could help me with because of steam issues. I was pleasantly surprised with the final product, actually,” he pauses for a beat, smiles again, “I didn’t realise they had that sort of budget for VFX.”

That said, stripping off isn’t something O’Connell is hoping to make his trademark. He won’t go as far as criticising his role in pec-flexing Athenian romp 300: ROE (democratically branding it a “different discipline”), but he admits it has somewhat put him off the leading-man meat grinder of tentpole franchises. “I was asking myself questions about the character [in 300] because I didn’t feel I’d workshopped him enough,” he says, tactfully choosing his words. “But then I got on set and I realised how much was physical. I mean, there was a lot of time spent in the gym.”

Thug life

O’Connell, it transpires, is very much an actor with a capital ‘A’. Away from the wide-boy swagger he talks loftily about “his method” and “keeping characters nearby”. He’s not about to declare himself his own hero, McConaughey-style, but there’s a lack of “aw shucks” deprecation to him that’s refreshing. And he’s keen to move away from the intimidating oiks – priapic party-starter Cook in Skins, someone simply billed as ‘Thug’ in The Hardest Part – that he admits aren’t a huge stretch. “If I’m going to be regarded properly as an actor I have to distinguish between my roles,” he adds. “That’s up to me and it’s a challenge I need.”

The first example of pushing himself is the reason he’s sporting unnaturally black hair at the moment – playing real-life sprinter and PoW camp survivor Lou Zamperini in Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-courting biopic Unbroken. It’s a huge role for him (one made possible after “Angie”, as he calls her, saw a special early cut of Starred Up), but he tried not to be overawed and “repay her for the generosity she showed me by making it f*cking awesome”.

So what next for Jack O’Connell? His new films will open some previously deadbolted doors and he says he’s had serious conversations with Shane Meadows about reviving his film role as Pukey Nicholls in TV spin-off This Is England ’90 (“Shane still calls me Pukey,” he adds). If it happens, great, but as with his visceral, combustive work on screen, he doesn’t want to overthink it. “I don’t know what my method is yet and I don’t know what circumstances I work best under,” he says at one point. “But not knowing is serving me well so far.” As you watch him all but take a snooker ball in a sock to his acting competition, it’s hard to disagree with that logic.

Starred Up is at cinemas nationwide from 21 March

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