When the winner of the 2015 EE Rising Star award left the stage at this year’s BAFTAs, the host of the event, Stephen Fry returned to the microphone chuckling. “So lacking in confidence”, he said as the applause died away, a wry comment which, as it echoed around the Royal Opera House, could not have been more apt in its summation. For Jack O’Connell, 2014 was a remarkable year; he appeared in no less than three major motion pictures, receiving awards for all of them as an outstanding breakthrough performer. O’Connell’s portrayal of a volatile young offender in Starred Up proved to be one of the most nuanced and complex performances of recent years. Critics also praised his mature portrayals of soldiers suffering great hardships in ’71 and Unbroken respectively, the latter ensuring O’Connell’s entrance into the American consciousness. Yet it is the confidence the actor possesses, alluded to by Fry, which makes the Derby boy stand out from the crowd.
A product of a firmly grounded upbringing, O’Connell attributes his outlook to his parents, who tried to teach him discipline through boxing lessons and enrolment in the army cadets. But his call to acting would come much later. Despite a teacher’s encouragement to pursue an acting career because, in his own words “it was the only class I did anything in,” it was only when O’Connell attended the Television Workshop in Nottingham run by the tireless Ian Smith that acting became anything more than a chance to “show-off”. With encouragement from his mother and fellow actor and close friend, Michael Socha, the drama itself became important and O’Connell considered a career. The decision was undoubtedly a wise one as, having landed his first role in Shane Meadows’ modern classic This Is England; he went on to cut his teeth playing a series of ever more challenging roles to become established as the bright talent we see today.
This is quite telling as O’Connell, still only 24, can now command the attention of the large Hollywood studios which so often rebuff young talent in favour of established actors. It is his grounded charm which is at least partly responsible for this. Nothing is more attractive in Hollywood than new actors with unique flair and O’Connell certainly has that in bucket loads; furthermore his Unbroken director Angelina Jolie described him as “the least Hollywood person I’ve ever met” in terms of attitude. Regardless, O’Connell is fully expected to rise to the heights of the A-List; however David McKenzie, who directed him in Starred Up, hopes he does not forego “strong, uncompromising stuff” in favour of “big buck fantasy franchises”. This is the balance that he must find as a young actor, lest he fall victim to the negative consequences of stardom.
O’Connell doesn’t deny his goal of accruing wealth: more than once he has expressed a desire to buy his mum a house, “putting her somewhere under the sun” to repay her for all the support she gave him growing up, but it is doubtful he will abandon artistic integrity for monetary gain. Citing his recent experiences travelling the world and filming in Australia, O’Connell acknowledges that his eyes have been opened to new cultures and interests, maturing him, reaffirming his dedication to his profession. His experiential bubble is now far wider than when he grew up in Derby, a whole universe he’d be a fool not to sample. The classical music fan and art enthusiast of today is a far cry from the self-confessed troublemaker who initially took up acting to show-off and pick up girls.
So it is armed with this attitude that Jack O’Connell steps into the unknown, uniquely gifted with nearly unlimited possibilities in front of him. With a BAFTA to his name he can expect his talents to be hot property for writers and directors alike in the coming years. His job now is to maintain this form and take the advice of David Mackenzie on board: to not shy away from the tough, uncompromising films which gave him his start, and to live up to the potential for which he has been recognised.