Back to Black's Jack O’Connell: 'I met Blake and I think he really loved Amy Winehouse'

Actor Jack O'Connell at BAFTA in London (PA)
Actor Jack O'Connell at BAFTA in London (PA)

Sitting opposite me on a sofa in the Corinthia hotel, dressed all in off-white, Jack O’Connell half-smiles, does that exhaling thing people do when they’re deeply contemplating something and then – in response to my very first question – says: “All right, well… this one’s loaded.”

I have always really, really liked Jack O’Connell. Who hasn’t? As a teen he was – by miles – the best thing in Skins, with much more of a natural edge than any of the other breakouts; reflective of a sometimes tough working-class upbringing in Alvaston, Derbyshire. He has been incredible in 2013’s Starred Up and the following year’s ’71 and plenty of other things since. But more than that he just seems – has always seemed – like a decent, humble sort of a guy. When, for example, he later tells me that he’s just made his directorial debut with a music video for Paul Weller, he is fizzing with the kind of obvious excitement you cannot help but find endearing.

I thus wish that I didn’t have such problems with Back to Black – directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, and in which O’Connell of course co-stars opposite Marisa Abela’s Amy Winehouse as Blake Fielder-Civil, now known as Blake Fielder – and problems, in particular, with what an easy ride it gives the latter.

Marisa Abela and Jack O'Connell in Back to Black (Courtesy of Dean Rogers)
Marisa Abela and Jack O'Connell in Back to Black (Courtesy of Dean Rogers)

It lets him off the hook for introducing Winehouse to class A drugs, despite the fact that he is on record accepting responsibility for this. It credits him, via scenes that feature O’Connell dancing around the Good Mixer pub in Camden, with introducing Winehouse to the music that directly inspired her biggest and most enduring songs (Mark Ronson, by the way, is only mentioned in passing and not featured in the film). But most of all, it portrays her as violent towards him, to the extent that, I think, anyone taking this version of their relationship as the reality might be inclined to side with Fielder.

And thus that first (yes, admittedly loaded) question has to be: does he not think it goes too easy on Fielder? Or does he think the long-time villain in the Winehouse story has had too much of a hard time?

“I mean… there’s a big answer to this question, isn’t there?” he says. “Because you’re talking about someone who’s been very, very f***ing publicly vilified. And chastised a lot. And whose privacy has been kind of spilt out onto the street for everyone to sort of pick at and point at and whatnot. I don’t think we hound famous people in the same way that people hounded Amy, these days. Or I’d like to think we don’t.

It’s very clear with Amy that she had a genius mind... I don’t think she would let anyone walk all over her

Jack O’Connell

“To suggest that Blake is everything we read about him and think we know about him,” he continues, making good on his promise of a big answer, “I think that demeans Amy as well. I think it’s very clear with Amy that she had a f***ing genius mind. There was a level of genius to her work. And I don’t think she would let anyone walk all over her, not in the way that’s depicted in the press.”

What about the depiction in the film? Were there differences in the final cut compared to the first script he read? “Yeah.” Like what, for example? “Just naturally … like decisions that get made in the edit.” But were there any narrative choices that surprised you in the final edit? “Erm … not in terms of narrative, no. But there is a potential very dark version of this story. And I think there was a conscious decision to not go there.”

Really? “Only to a degree. And I think there’s a flavour of that. And there’s an essence of that, and I think it’s handled with taste. Sam didn’t want to make a biopic on Amy Winehouse which is objective and beat by beat and whatnot. This is a reimagination, and it is fictitious – we’re being guided by her lyrics. And where Blake exists in her lyrics. We’re not trying to say, ‘Look, this is what happened and this is how it happened.’ It’s not historically factual in that way.”

O’Connell did get to meet Fielder. “I got on with him, man. And obviously, you think you know the fella based on what’s out there. I went into this meeting with an awareness of who Blake is or how he’s portrayed. But I just found him to be a really genuine fella.”

How did Fielder feel about the fact there was going to be a film about him and Amy? “He was weary, man. Because all of his prior experiences with publicity have been quite negative. So yeah, he was weary. And that was important – just to sit with him and be courteous.”

There’s a key line in the middle of the film where one of Fielder’s mates suggests that, now that his ex is rich and famous thanks to an album that is largely about him, it must be tempting to go back out with her. “It was never about the money with me and Amy,” he says. Having met him, does O’Connell believe this? “I think so. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, God yeah. I mean, when we were talking about football there was obviously the odd conversation where we’re digging in to this period of his life. And I don’t know, I just feel like you can sense when someone is being genuine.”

They spent “a good afternoon” in each other’s company, “and there didn’t seem to be any indication of an ulterior motive. He just spoke about this… this person that’s the love of his life, you know what I mean? He’s sharing something with me about a time in his life and there’s obviously a whole array of emotion. But I felt like he was sincere, like he f***ing sincerely loved this girl. And then another thing was – and I kept going back to this – you’re dealing with twenty-somethings. I’m portraying him in my thirties and I’m kind of going, ‘Look, I wouldn’t want the shit I was getting up to back then in the public domain in such a way’. No one would want to be held to account for stuff they were getting up to in their twenties.”

I spent a good afternoon with Blake — he just spoke about Amy as this person who was the love of his life

Jack O’Connell

Though he was very young, O’Connell himself remembers the Camden scene of that time. He was living in London “just kind of bouncing around” and breaking through as a (very, very) young actor. So young, in fact, that, rather than the Hawley Arms or the Dublin Castle or any of the Winehouse haunts, he was “just going to places that would serve me. Down to the Globe and all that. I couldn’t get served at the Dublin Castle at that point.”

He was, though, old enough to know that “in that period, everything was so rife. There’s a different attitude towards that, towards that kind of lifestyle these days. Back then it was like it was glamourised.” It is, he says, “a difficult one to explain to someone who didn’t know Camden back then”. And he thinks that what happened to Winehouse and Fielder was “such a f***ing circumstantial thing. Her blowing up into this just… massive superstar, by virtue of her music being f***ing excellent. So, of course you’re going to be susceptible to some of the downsides to that. D’you know what I mean?”

Back to Black will be released on April 12