Jack O'Connell's Journey From British Bad Boy To American Hero
In playing prisoner of war Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's second directorial effort, Unbroken, the former Skins star earned the role that could transform his career. It's a challenge O'Connell eagerly accepted and an opportunity he didn't take lightly.
In February 2013, Angelina Jolie launched a worldwide search to find the star of her second feature film as a director. The Oscar-winning actor had decided to pick up a long-gestating 50-year project in Unbroken, the true story of American hero Louis Zamperini. The son of Italian immigrant parents, Zamperini broke records running in the 1936 Olympics, survived 47 days adrift at sea after he and two fellow members of the U.S. Air Force crash-landed during World War II, and endured intense physical and mental torture in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp for more than two years.
Understandably, the casting notice for Louie, as Zamperini was called, required someone “with a lean, athletic, ‘runners’ build or someone who is willing to change their physicality for the role,” and someone who was “capable of extreme emotional range and depth.” Eventually, Jolie found her ideal actor in then-22-year-old Jack O’Connell, from Derby in the U.K.
At the time, O’Connell’s year was quickly filling up. He’d already signed on to star in the continuation of the hit Brit teen drama Skins, revisiting the self-destructive, womanizing teen James Cook, who launched his career in 2009; he was also cast in the gritty crime drama Starred Up as a juvenile offender transferred to an adult prison; and he had won the lead in ’71, a historical action film about a young British soldier who’s accidentally abandoned by his unit during the deadly Belfast riots of 1971.
But Unbroken had the potential to do more for O'Connell's career than any other project he’d previously done. And O'Connell himself knew it upon reading the script for the first time.
"I definitely was hopeful," O'Connell told BuzzFeed News in early December, looking pensively out the window at Columbus Circle from an expansive midtown Manhattan hotel suite. He filmed his audition with his younger cousin, an aspiring actor, and metaphorically crossed his fingers. "I considered myself against perhaps other actors that might've been seen for it. I understood by that point that I can run alright and I'm not Italian, but I'd do whatever I could to look Italian," O'Connell said with a chuckle. "Certain factors went in my favor, certain factors didn't.”
Working for O'Connell's benefit was that he had spent nearly a decade playing troubled young men, a shared characteristic with Zamperini himself in his early days, before he got into running. "I think it made me getting the role a little easier — that factor in Louie — with whatever Angelina might've seen me do prior to Unbroken," O'Connell said of Zamperini, who spent his younger days sipping alcohol in bottles painted white to look like milk and hiding under benches to see up girls' skirts. Young Louie could’ve easily grown into what fans of Skins know of O'Connell from his role as teenage rebel Cook, who spent more time getting high than in class and got into a fight at every bar he ever walked into.
But O’Connell wasn’t looking to rehash the past. “I hate to repeat myself, man,” he said. “And I don't really respect that."
In fact, O’Connell was looking for a role unlike the ones he’d had before. "The nature of my career is, if it's good enough, I have to consider it," he said. "I'm always auditioning for other things perhaps, but, you know, I can't always be bitter that I'm not given them because of a lack of imagination on the casting side of things — roles that I think I'd be capable of stretching myself to, but production companies sometimes don't really want to experiment, unless you're renowned for it. That's the kind of reputation that I'm chasing down."
O'Connell's first step towards achieving that distinguished reputation was going after the lead in Unbroken. "The piece alone, I obviously felt compelled to chase it down … I think because of the factors I was instantly aware of — Universal project, Angelina Jolie at the helm, playing a very important character — even as early as then, you know, you're hopeful that these factors kind of equate to a successful film," O'Connell said. "The whole thing seemed enormous anyway from the beginning. I knew it was a different caliber of possibility than the ones that I'd been offered before."
O'Connell was then contacted about meeting with Jolie at The Dorchester hotel in London. So, he drove from his hometown of Alvaston, a suburb of Derby in the East Midlands region of England, to meet with the actor-turned-director — "rags to riches," he joked. "She found the fact that my accent was so far removed from the one I was doing for Louie, she found that amusing apparently," O'Connell said with a laugh. "She led me to believe that she thought I was American from the tape. So, that was flattering. Bless her. She made me feel easy about it actually, from very early."
But it wasn't necessarily an easy process from thereon out. O'Connell had to do an incredibly physical screen test in a cell — an experience he called "very rough." "I needed something as I was down I guess 'cause I was getting hit," O'Connell said, fidgeting with his fitted pants. "So I was underneath this random crew member Angie had assigned to arrive in the scene and start beating the fuck out of me. And I didn't really fancy it a fourth time, so I got up and started having it with him. I just stayed in the accent so they thought it was a performance. But really, I was a little bit pissed off this guy was hitting me."
By then, "I felt like I was one of Angie's favored choices," O'Connell said confidently. (Jolie later cited that screen test as the moment she and Zamperini knew he was capable of bringing the story that meant so much to both of them to the screen.)
But it also wasn't easy to convince Universal that O'Connell was the right man for the part, one that was originally imagined for Tony Curtis so many years ago. "She had to campaign. She kind of fought in my corner. So I felt like she believed in me enough to do that and instilled that belief into me," O'Connell said. "It gets frustrating if you don't necessarily get offered them opportunities. That said, this was a particularly enormous opportunity with the kind of budget where people aren't necessarily up for experimenting. They want results." Eventually, Jolie had Universal convinced that O'Connell could give them those results.
Nine months before Unbroken's release, while promoting Starred Up at the TriBeCa Film Festival, O'Connell was already preparing to respond to the backlash about his casting. "I know certain people are a bit perplexed as to why me, a relatively unknown Brit, was cast in the first place," O'Connell told BuzzFeed News at the time."I mean, I respect that opinion — it's not the most imaginative one because I feel like regardless as to my nationality, I'm still able to appreciate and respect the bloke."
When O'Connell speaks of that "bloke" — Zamperini — his appreciation is apparent, from the way he talks of their personal interactions to his mention of letters he wrote the man he was playing from set but never sent. The war hero and Olympian died in July 2014 at the age of 97, just months before he would have finally been able to see his life story retold on such a grand scale. Though O'Connell didn't know much about Zamperini before the audition process began, Jolie and Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Zamperini's biography, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, provided endless resources. "Angie had compiled this whole file together that was like his story from birth, more or less — pictures and insight on the man," O'Connell said. "When I got the role, I started reading the book. I didn't want to get into the book before getting the role in case I didn't end up with the role and I'd have to put the book down 'cause it was too heartbreaking."
Shortly before filming in Australia began, O'Connell met with Zamperini at his Hollywood home, an interaction he called "a bit awkward" because of the setting. "It was filmed for a DVD extra. There were cameras and lights. I was pissed off actually. I felt short-changed," O'Connell said. "We were in this fellow's house and I could tell he was a bit unsettled by it, even if he wouldn't let on. It kind of felt a bit intrusive, so I made a point of seeing him again in more private circumstances. I was grateful of the second time — that meant I had a chance to actually talk with him, not only for me to connect with him, but in this case, it was important for him to connect with me too and feel assured that I was the man to do it. So I shook his hand at the end of the second meeting and I said, 'You're in good hands, Louie.' And he said to me, 'I know.'"
But Zamperini did have some notes after having seen O'Connell's audition. "He said that my language was terrible," O'Connell said of the then-96-year-old. "But I thought, 'Yeah, I can address that problem, Louie. Don't worry, mate.'" But in April of this year, Zamperini's initial feedback had seemingly struck a chord with O'Connell. "I'm still nervous about the accent actually," he told BuzzFeed News. "He's a national treasure, really. I wanted to approach it with a level of maturity still, but I didn't already have the accent … It is unnerving because it's going to sort of broadcast on a large scale."
That pressure, however, wasn't something O'Connell had time to dwell on. "It was an enormous weight, but you have to do your best to keep it secondary," he said. "There are step-by-step things that you can do to fulfill whatever responsibility you've been given," which, for Unbroken, included working with a dialect coach. "You just got to take it daily, suss out what's most important, and keep making progress with all the necessary attributes simultaneously. So obviously, the more you're left dwelling on the ins and outs, the ifs and buts, it's not going to serve you well at all."
In addition to mastering an American accent, one of the first steps O'Connell had to take in becoming Zamperini was losing approximately 30 pounds to play the scenes in which the vet is stranded at sea (which the first half of Unbroken explores), and then the scenes at the Japanese prison camp (the latter half of the film, in which he is even more gaunt). "I got weak first and then weaker, some more weaker," said O'Connell, who worked with a team to ensure he was dieting as healthily as possible. "If we had just eaten whatever we were allowed to eat and if I had food in my belly, I felt like I had done an injustice to what I was supposed to feeling. The weakness definitely helped with the performance. It was an instant key in, an instant insight into the hunger that these boys were dealing with."
Unbroken was filmed out of sequence: first the raft and camp scenes, and then the running scenes, for which O'Connell had to appear to be at the height of health. But the actor had very little time to get in shape to re-enact Zamperini competing in the 1936 Olympics 5,000-meter race in Germany. Though the runner finished eighth in the event, his final lap of 56 seconds broke records. "I had nine days to get strong again for the first running scenes. That was rough, very rough," O'Connell said. "That meant a lot of time in the gym. And my stomach had shrunk so I couldn't even eat all the food that I was fantasizing over."
But O'Connell’s younger years spent playing soccer certainly helped him get in Olympic-esque shape. "That was the hope originally and if I'd have carried on, and wasn't injured or distracted, I'd be playing professional football nowadays, I reckon. I've got good reason to believe that," O'Connell said confidently, referring to the multiple knee injuries he endured. But as the curtains were closing on his professional soccer dreams, another career opportunity was budding.
"I was at school in a certain time where all schools had to become an academy or something. The secondary school I went to, mainly because I was Catholic, they decided to choose performing arts for their chosen field, and that meant drama was compulsory to us on a twice-weekly basis,” O’Connell said. “We were just fucking about for an hour. I actually encouraged us to engage with each other instead of being sat there, writing shit down, getting in trouble if you have conversations.”
Soon enough, O’Connell’s school referred him for the prestigious Television Workshop in Nottingham, a program that actors Samantha Morton and O'Connell's Skins co-star Joe Dempsie (Game of Thrones) passed through. "It's not a school or a college. You don't pay for it. It was just like a hobby thing, but you had to audition to get in," he said, unwrapping a cigarette lighter, but not actually lighting up. "They met twice a week as well and then, every now and then, they'd do projects and it had to be taken seriously, at the cost of only you looking like a prick while you're doing the project either on stage or in front of strangers or shit like that. That was the currency in it … I started doing more there and the geezer [Ian Smith] who ran it took a liking to me and then started casting me in more important roles within that workshop. We had access to auditions because they were funded by ITV. They're not anymore. They cut the funding, the stupid fucks. Short-sighted. But I think I'll get back involved with them as well as soon as possible and start funding them myself."
That generosity could, at least in part, be attributed to O'Connell's experience with Unbroken, both in terms of playing Zamperini and being directed by Jolie. "I feel like I want to be as selfless as both Angelina and Louie demonstrated to me," he said. "I spent a long time with Angelina and I never saw her thinking about herself. She never made one comment that was regarding her well-being, unless it was something regarding the work, or something relevant, something outward. I think that's what it is to be selfless and I think it's very difficult to achieve."
O'Connell is also thinking deeply about his next career move and how to ensure Hollywood executives and audiences alike see him as more than just the bad boy. "I'm getting to the stage now where I've got to be careful with my next few roles," O'Connell said. "If they are on the wrong side of the law ever and the reasons are too similar to the ones that I've already explored with my work previously, I'm just not really going to get taken seriously as a versatile actor."
And for O’Connell, Unbroken is that first step. "I know that doing films like this well might mean that I can start being hopeful about doing more films to this degree," he said confidently, clearly having thought strategically about his post-Unbroken career. "First and foremost, it's like, Do my characters matter to the audience that's going to be seeing them? I think that's the case with Louie and the majority of roles that I've done. So I'm going to work forward with that same mentality."