Mr Jack O’Connell
From Derby to Hollywood and back again: the football-mad “Jack the Lad” playing the fame game by his own rules
Mr Jack O’Connell can’t stop rubbing his head. “Sorry,” he says. “I’ve just had me hair cut. It’s a bit addictive.” A high-and-tight – very high, very tight – he refers to it as his “publicity tour cut”. The on-set hairdresser demurred at first, telling him that he couldn’t cut it any shorter without getting the clippers out. Mr O’Connell’s response? “Best get the clippers out, then.”
He’s no stranger to the shaven-headed look. For his first major role, in Mr Shane Meadows’ This Is England, Mr O’Connell donned bovver boots, acid-washed denim and a Harrington jacket to play teenage skinhead “Pukey” Nicholls. This time around, though, he’s not out to make a fashion statement. “It’s just more practical, innit?” he says, running a hand back and forth across his head. “You don’t have to worry about it. With so many cameras around, you can’t help but become a little self-conscious.” Such is life for one of this generation’s most promising young actors.
In the 10 years since This Is England, the noise surrounding Mr O’Connell has been building steadily. First, he landed a plum role in cult teen TV drama Skins, as the charismatic lager lout James Cook – which he jokingly describes as “not much of a stretch at the time”. He followed this with a series of critically acclaimed movie appearances in films such as Harry Brown, ’71 and Starred Up. It wasn’t until 2014, though, when he was hand-picked by Ms Angelina Jolie to star in her second directorial project, Unbroken, that the noise became deafening.
And you get the feeling that this could just be the start: things are likely to shift up another gear in May when he takes the new ’do on tour to promote his next project, Money Monster. The movie tells the story of Lee Gates, the brash host of a business TV show and supposed guru on all things Wall Street, who is taken hostage live on air by an angry investor, played by Mr O’Connell, who has just lost his life savings on a bad tip. The cast and crew give a fairly accurate representation of the kind of company that Mr O’Connell now keeps: the movie’s director, Ms Jodie Foster, and his two co-stars, Mr George Clooney and Ms Julia Roberts, have five Oscars between them.
The experience of being surrounded by a constellation of stars hardly seems to faze Mr O’Connell, though; he appears just as excited to have met the movie’s scriptwriter, Mr Jamie Linden. “The movie’s obviously going to have global appeal,” Mr O’Connell says. “George is a worldwide megastar. Julia is a worldwide megastar, too. But Jamie, who wrote it, can definitely tell a tale. He’s a name I’m definitely going to be looking out for in the future.”
That’s the future. But what of the past? The general consensus among moviegoers and critics is that Mr O’Connell has long been destined for stardom. Still, that doesn’t make his journey from working-class middle England to the red carpet any less remarkable. How did a young tearaway with a tough upbringing and a “Jack the Lad” tattoo on his shoulder become the toast of Tinseltown? The answer, of course, is a lot of talent, a little bit of luck and an insatiable desire to get out, go somewhere and be somebody. “I’m of the opinion that if I’d stayed there, in Derby, I’d have done something drastic,” he admits. “A one-way ticket. Just get lost and see where I end up.”
You get the feeling he could have ended up somewhere very different indeed. Instead, he got lucky. For all this talk of being born on the wrong side of the tracks, it was the tracks that gave him an escape route. His father, who worked on the railway, was able to provide free rail travel for his family, and this allowed Mr O’Connell to travel down to London for auditions. Without this, he says, he might never have become an actor. “Other young lads from around there had no way out. So I suppose I can say that I’ve been fortunate.” Not as fortunate as some: he has admitted before to sleeping on the streets while waiting for his train back to Derby the next morning.
His father died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 58, leaving a then 18-year-old Mr O’Connell to take care of the rest of his family: his mother, Alison, and younger sister, Megan. “It was tough, he says, rubbing a palm over his head. “But motivating.” Last year, he used the money he earned from Unbroken to buy his mother a house in Derby. She moved in just a few months ago, in time for the family to spend Christmas in their new home.
For all his burgeoning Hollywood status, it’s still difficult to disassociate Mr O’Connell from the provincial East Midlands town that he grew up in and in which he still lives. There’s his accent, for starters. American GQ referred to it in 2014 as “rakish”, which it is not. As polite and well-mannered as he is, there’s as much chance of him landing a role in Downton Abbey (above stairs, at least) as there is of Mr Eddie Redmayne being cast as Conan the Barbarian. “I cling onto it,” he says, of his local identity. “It’s where I learned a lot of my early lessons. Someone told me that if you’re 22 before you move away, you keep your accent for ever. I hope that’s indicative of the mindset, too.”
Then, of course, there’s football. He had trials for Derby County FC as a youngster and remains as ardent and knowledgeable a supporter of the club as you’re ever likely to meet; a casual conversation with Mr O’Connell doesn’t necessarily require a working knowledge of lower-league English domestic sport, but it certainly benefits from it. He can’t wait to see if the Brewers get promoted to the same league as the Rams, for instance, to reignite the local Derby County vs Burton Albion rivalry. Meanwhile, his views on nearby Nottingham’s two prominent teams border on the controversial: “I don’t have a bad word to say about Notts County. Their neighbours, Forest, however, I detest. Honestly, I’d very much prefer that they didn’t exist.” Find some common ground with Mr O’Connell and you’ll soon forget that he’s friends with people with names such Angie, Brad and George. He seems completely unfazed by fame: it’s as if he sees straight through its glittering facade.
I’m reminded of this a few days after our interview. Dressed in a tuxedo as sharp as his new haircut, Mr O’Connell is at London’s Royal Opera House presenting Mr John Boyega with Bafta’s EE Rising Star Award – an award that he won himself back in 2015. It’s the only Bafta to be voted for by the public – but that isn’t all that’s unique about it. As Mr O’Connell goes on to explain to an audience including such Hollywood royalty as Messrs Leonardo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg, “[it’s] also special because it’s blue in colour. Which makes it rare.” In an evening packed with gushing, earnest acceptance speeches, how refreshing it is to see one of the acting world’s most exciting young prospects step up on stage and, in a thick Derby accent, say something completely silly.