ANGELINA JOLIE is a woman of many talents – actress, director, humanitarian, mum-of-six. Jolie hand-picked former Skins star Jack O’Connell to play Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner and US airman who survived in a raft for 47 days after a plane crash during World War Two, only to be caught by the Japanese Navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
“There was a huge pressure, I guess,” admits the actor, who debuted in teen drama Skins in 2009 as the self-destructive Cook.
“When I got the news, there was an array of emotions. I first felt very incapable, and I’ve since learned that Angie did too. This was an enormous task that we didn’t know we’d be able to achieve... It took a lot out of us at the time, and so here we are now, feeling very validated.”
Zamperini died in July this year, aged 97, but prior to filming in Australia, O’Connell got the chance to meet him in Los Angeles.
“I remember two words of advice in particular from Zamperini: ‘Be hardy’, which I still haven’t worked out; I don’t know the distinction between hardy and obnoxious, perhaps,” he adds with a smile.
“But I guess as an individual, seeing the way his brain ticked, and how relaxed and popular he was around women – effortlessly – these were things I needed to discover before portraying him.”
O’Connell also took inspiration from author Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller Unbroken, on which the film is based.
“There was one snippet which I found priceless when I was out in Australia, and that was the description of Louis that, like many of his generation, a common trait between them was that they’d approach everything, no matter what it was, with good cheer.
“So many pennies dropped then for me. I thought, ‘Well, what do we know in terms of adversities, really, in our generation, without having experienced anything to that scale?’ I thought that was priceless, and that gave me a little key, a little window into that era and what cheer might be.”
O’Connell’s respect for Jolie, who coincidentally was a neighbour of Zamperini’s, “goes through the roof”.
“She really led by example throughout. I think that’s a great metaphor actually, for how I felt under her leadership – she’s capable, so there’s no reason I can’t be. I was comparing myself there to a wonder woman!” he adds, grinning.
Jolie was also hands-on when it came to testing out stunts – including one in which Zamperini was ordered to hold a huge log over his head as punishment by a cruel camp guard.
“She got under the plank before I turned up,” O’Connell marvels. “She was figuring out how I felt and all that kind of stuff. She couldn’t resist, she wanted to get stuck in there.”
Playing emaciated prisoners of war meant O’Connell and his co-stars, who include Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson and British star Luke Treadaway, had to drastically reduce their calorie intake – leaving them dreaming of some decent grub.
“A good fry-up – oh, I would have killed for a fry-up,” he says, sighing. “Pasties, oh, home sweet home, yeah. Beer, Guinness – I couldn’t go near Guinness for however long. I was hallucinating, and then, Sod’s Law, we finished the diet and my stomach had shrunk, so even when it was time to eat, I couldn’t.”
O’Connell briefly harboured ambitions of joining the forces himself, after his parents sent him to Army Cadets as a youngster.
“Whatever experience I had in the army, I find very useful on set. The whole idea of standing to attention, dealing with authority, helps your day along,” he notes.
He left school with just two GCSEs but discovered a talent for drama, and began successfully auditioning for roles – having a father employed by the railways meant he was able to catch a train to auditions for free.
His first professional job was in BBC soap Doctors in 2005, followed by roles in The Bill, Waterloo Road and Holby City. His film debut came in Shane Meadows’ This Is England (2006), and he recently appeared in the action film 300: Rise Of An Empire and ‘71, a thriller set in Belfast during the Troubles.
He now owns his own flat in London and is rumoured to be dating model Cara Delevingne, his co-star in upcoming film Tulip Fever.
“I think that was all with one eye slightly focused on now, doing all of that,” O’Connell says of those youthful train journeys. “Because, hopefully, there was a way out of where I’m from, a chance to really define myself and do something with my life.
“So it is very humbling, recalling all of that, to be here now.”
Unbroken is in cinemas on Friday, December 26