Jack O’Connell made a name for himself playing delinquents. Has he changed? Not if his new role is anything to go by
“I’ve got gaping nostrils,” says Jack O’Connell, wiping his nose with a tissue he’s rescued from the depths of his back pocket. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed?” I hadn’t, actually, I say. “You’re just being polite, Louise,” he says, in that now recognisably deep, Derbyshire drawl. “Right, what was the question again?”
Chatting with O’Connell for 45 minutes is a disarming affair. Not just because we’re squished together on a table so tiny I keep accidently kicking the leg (and him. Sorry again, Jack). There’s his unquestionable charm, sure. The boyish grins. The effing and blinding his way through sentences. But there’s also a laddish, unpredictable side to him that bubbles under the surface of his Fred Perry polos. When we first sit down, I ask about his ShortList shoot. Does he enjoy those things? “Nah,” he says. “It’s f*cking boring, isn’t it?"
Or take the subject of his new play, The Nap. O’Connell plays a young, Sheffield-born snooker player, Dylan Spokes, who’s fending off pre-second round nerves, his ex-con dad and a local gangster called Waxy Chuff. In keeping with the play’s theme, ShortList arranged to meet O’Connell in a suburban town snooker hall, 20 miles from nowhere. As he expertly pots a red, then a blue, I mention the play is described as a ‘comedy thriller’…
“I dunno,” he interrupts. “I can tell you the name of the critic who wrote that. But let’s not, for security reasons.”You get the impression he’s caught between two Jacks: the burgeoning, hot Hollywood property who shakes my hand, dressed in Paul Smith jeans, swaggy Burberry jacket and one particularly expensive-looking Victorinox watch. But then the lad from Derby emerges, the one who graciously describes his upcoming film, HHhH, as a job “that’s torn me a new bumhole” and you can’t quite connect this Jack with the guy who Angelina Jolie once flew up to meet in her helicopter. “Sorry for the turn of phrase,” he grins.
O’Connell is now, so everyone keeps saying (ShortList included), a bona-fide film star.
The Derby De Niro. The lairy kid from Skins whose turn in brutal, low-budget prison drama Starred Up made the entire world sit up and stare. He followed that up by effortlessly leap-frogging into the arms of the Hollywood elite. Well, into the limbs of Angelina Jolie, who met O’Connell at the Dorchester Hotel in London and pretty much offered him the lead in her upcoming film on the spot. That film was Unbroken, in which he played Olympic track runner and PoW survivor Louis Zamperini.
Adoration, accolades and a Bafta Rising Star award followed. And then, well, nothing. We didn’t hear as much as a peep out of O’Connell last year. Now the fuss has died down (slightly – he has three films out this year), how’s he feeling? “Good question,” he says. “Up and down. Cause I realise what I have to do if I’m going to achieve what I’d like to as an actor. But then I have to be realistic and acknowledge that I’ve already gone further than I could have possibly hoped for back in the day".
He’s caught in a catch-22: keen to move away from past delinquents – Skins’ drug-addicted James Cook, the ‘Thug’ in The Hardest Part – who aren’t too much of stretch for a guy with a criminal record. But, then again, you don’t want to not play those roles so early in your career: “the idea of shutting doors was a bit daunting”.
The solution? Shove yourself on to a stage and play snooker in front of a live audience, night after night, of course. “It’s a pretty dark, seedy world,” he says of the The Nap, which is being shown, aptly, at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield (the World Snooker Championship has been held there since 1977). “A lot of gangland activity is on the fringes of the snooker world. A lot of money is exchanged, perhaps illegitimately in some cases. A lot of players are bribed into losing games."
So perhaps this is not too far removed from the tightly wound yobs he’s so good at playing. “Well, it was an easy decision to make,” he smiles. “I live 40 minutes away from Sheffield and it’s not the first time I’ve picked up a snooker cue. But the longer time’s gone, perhaps within this past year, you realise there’s a criteria. We’re in a business, after all. So [I’ve] just been trying to make sensible, smart choices instead."
Money Monster, O’Connell’s next project, slots very nicely into that category. Directed by Jodie Foster, he plays a disgruntled blue-collar investor who takes George Clooney’s financial TV presenter hostage on air. Our Derby lad terrorising Hollywood’s OG with guns and guerrilla warfare? Sounds about right.
Still, after working with ‘Angie’ (as O’Connell fondly calls her), was he intimidated walking on to set with Clooney? “Yeah,” he says. “That’s the right word. Intimidated. I don’t think star-struck is necessarily correct, you just don’t want to look a tw*t. Then you start reminding yourself to behave." Behave in what way?
“Just remember the whole gist. Remember why you’re there. He’s a bloke, he breathes the same air. You’re just there to do a job. Because it could be the last fortune you ever make."
Still, aged 25, O’Connell isn’t doing badly. Ten years ago he couldn’t afford the train fare to London for auditions, now he can’t decide whether he wants to settle in the Big Smoke or New York. After living in east London, and moving to the US to film Money Monster, he currently doesn’t have an address. Well, unless you count the house he recently bought his mum and sister in Derby: “It’s not ideal, but we’re dead happy there.”
In 2005, he caught his first significant break: four episodes in The Bill. As a young, wide-eyed 15-year-old, stepping on to a set for the first time was, as he puts it, bizarre. “Everyone’s using terminology you’ve never heard before,” he explains. “I remember thinking: ‘What the f*ck are you talking about?’ And I remember being with my dad. He’s not around no more so I treasure any of those memories [when I was] away working with him.”
As he says this, O’Connell turns his body, and stares in the direction of the door. The pair were close, he died of pancreatic cancer when O’Connell was 18. “I know he was proud, but he was always on the fringes. He never got involved, he’d just be there to give me a cigarette when I wanted one.”
A decade later and he’s just finished shooting Second World War drama HHhH. The biggest challenge, he says, is putting together a convincing Czech accent: “It probably sounds like a pile of p*ss.” There’s also Tulip Fever, out later this year, which is set in 17th-century Amsterdam and stars O’Connell as a fishmonger alongside the likes of Alicia Vikander and Judi Dench.
If he’s feeling any pressure to impress anyone, he isn’t showing it. “It’s gotta help, innit? All that praise. But there’s a very fickle side to [fame] as well. So you keep your feet on the ground instead of believing all the hype."
Not believing the hype is one thing, but O’Connell still oozes a healthy dose of Derby swagger. When I mention playing 007 at some point in the future, he doesn’t hesitate. “I’d be game,” he says, cocking his head to the side. “A few elocution lessons and I’d make a f*cking awesome James Bond wouldn’t I, Louise?”
Whether O’Connell’s “gaping nostrils” make it to the realms of A-list or not, you certainly can’t fault his confidence.
The Nap runs from 11-26 March at the Crucible Theatre; for tickets head to Sheffieldtheatres.co.uk. Money Monster will be at cinemas 27 May
[Images: Matt Holyoak]