If anyone had a better 2014 than Derby-born actor Jack O’Connell we’d be very surprised.
The former ‘Skins’ star has gone from bit-part player to A-list Hollywood star thanks to a string of stellar performances in ‘Starred Up’, ‘71’, and ‘Unbroken’.
O’Connell is the headline star of Angelina Jolie’s stirring WW2 biopic which opens on Boxing Day amid a blaze of publicity but the actor admits there’s one film he appeared in this year that he’d much rather forget: ‘300: Rise of an Empire’.
Above: O’Connell in ‘Starred Up’
"I chose to do ‘300: Rise Of An Empire’ when I was kind of at a whim," O’Connell told us.
"I came away from the whole thing knowing full well what I was just involved in, and that wasn’t perhaps something that was going to help me flourish as an actor."
Read the rest of our exclusive interview with the breakout star of 2014 where he talks Angelina Jolie, weight-loss, and playing Louis Zamperini below.
Looking back to last December, did you ever believe then that you were going to have such an outstanding 2014?
No, because that would have be an audacious estimate. I was hopeful and we’ve been building all these years to put myself in the running for roles like these and that’s because I genuinely consider myself capable.
Out of ‘Unbroken’, ‘71’ and ‘Starred Up’, which is your favourite performance?
I’d like to think that I continue to get better and better, but that’s only because I’m at a stage in my career where that is allowed for. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve peaked.
It’s hard to pick a favourite out of the three, but Angelina wanted the best out of both of us: that was her term, that was the word she used. Since she offered me that, I had every intention of doing the same for her.
So, it’s hard to pick a favourite but I walked away from ‘Unbroken ‘feeling like I gave Angelina that promise. Or at least that I’ve kept that promise.
You were also in ‘300: Rise Of An Empire’ and from reading other interviews with you, it seems like a film you don’t look back on too fondly?
Yeah and I stand by that and all.
It must have helped you in Hollywood though?
Yeah, sure. It helped me get a visa that I was previously denied. I originally turned down ‘300’ to go work on this other film. I’m not going to name names because it wouldn’t be fair. But the film that I was originally attached to, didn’t do too well, but I was devastated at the time, because I’d lost out.
It was a franchise film and it was going to help bridge the gap. Little did I know that things would come full circle, and patience is a fine thing there. So is hindsight.
What’s been the biggest “pinch yourself” of the last 12 months?
I feel quite measured mate. I feel like I had a lot of time to prepare for this year. I’ve had a lot of good advice. Angelina made me fully aware as to how my life is supposedly gonna change.
I’m not sure I’ll get the “pinching” moment until I’m a little bit more settled. I don’t feel like the ship’s steady yet. I’m still trying to carve out a career that has me held in the same regard as the best of our country.
Until them accolades are met, or until them achievements are met, I’m going to resist pinching.
What is that level that you’re trying to achieve?
Being in a position where I can create projects. Have a production company. Know directors and start things from ground level upwards. Once I’ve found myself consistently asserted within that field, then any time in between I’m just chasing.
You don’t strike me as someone who suffers the vanities of Hollywood lightly though, is that fair?
Oh god yeah. It’s a conscious decision because I don’t need it. It’s not going to define me. I’m not looking for definition or identity.
I worked very hard to get recognition on that field and that’s because I did what I did. I made sure I was doing what I did to the best of my abilities for long enough for them to welcome me in. So, to court all of that scene now would be so fickle, it would kind of make the whole journey pointless.
But, I am a Derbarian - a working class Derbarian. And that might alter people’s imaginations or restrict people’s imaginations when it comes to playing roles that are far removed from myself. I
understand what that is a lot more now. I like the idea of remaining private but with such a strong sense of identity that’s sometimes quite difficult.
Louis Zamperini in ‘Unbroken’ is the role of a lifetime, how did you end up with it?
She put the word out, a global search. Angelina [Jolie] along with Francine Maisler] who’s a pretty influential casting director out there, so my agents, their ears pricked up. I think I was shooting something at the time, but I had to do this self-taping so I went back to my old drama college – well it’s more of a workshop, but they taught me well.
So I went back to the geezer that taught me and he put me on camera and grilled me, so I didn’t leave there until I was semi-satisfied with what we had. That meant when she was sifting through all the many tapes we had a polished version of the requirement and she responded to it.
She wanted to meet me personally so obviously, you don’t pass up an opportunity like that. Then from then on, I guess that’s where she found her conviction to go and pitch the idea of me playing Louis to the rest of Universal, which I can imagine would have been a lot easier said than done.
And it’s an arduous film to watch, was it arduous to make?
Yeah, but look, I don’t want to seek sympathy or oversell it but it was the biggest challenge of my life physically, mentally, emotionally. It was arduous.
But it had to be though because I had the great fortune of portraying one of the most extraordinary human beings I’ve ever been made aware of. It had to hurt. The fact that it did as well meant that I left that shoot feeling positive that I’d kept my end of the bargain.
You lost a lot of weight for the role, how was that managed?
Because I found out I’d got the role two or three months before the first day on set, so as soon as that role was in place and the deal was done I then started working with physicians, nutritionists, and personal trainers.
This dietician, the nutritionist, he mapped out a journey. He studied my weight and functions, because individuals differ, and he was mindful of that, so it was tailored. It wasn’t rushed.
The whole thing was kept quite safe and I think that’s important otherwise you’re in risky territory.
And where do you see yourself in 12 months time?
Hopefully doing more of the same. Hopefully more integral roles all in keeping with how I previously described it. I think I’ve got a very clear ambition.
I place a lot of emphasis on the jobs I choose not to do now as opposed to the ones I do do.
'Unbroken', which tells the incredible true story of Louis Zamperini, is in cinemas on Boxing Day.
Image credits: Press Association/Universal/Warner Bros.