Jack O’Connell Starred Up for new prison film

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JACK O’Connell is late, but at least he is apologetic. Rather than muster a creative excuse, he happily admits that he was out last night.

“I felt pins, man,” says the 23-year-old, who can currently be seen in little more than a loin cloth and “too much spray tan” in the stylised action movie 300: Rise Of An Empire.

Jack O Connell playing Eric un Starred Up. Pic: PA

Jack O Connell playing Eric un Starred Up. Pic: PA

“I had to get in shape, but I’m always up for bettering myself, widening my toolbox,” says the actor, who is receiving rave reviews for his portrayal of a young offender prematurely moved to an adult jail for being too violent in the uncompromising movie Starred Up.

Unless you are of the Skins generation, chances are you are not familiar with O’Connell, but this Derby lad has been quietly establishing himself as a leading young talent since he debuted as the self-destructive Cook in E4’s teen drama in 2009.

His success lies in his charismatic, seemingly effortless performances, which have not gone unnoticed. Following a global search, Angelina Jolie cast him as the lead in her new film Unbroken, which chronicles the life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War Two.

Given her fearless reputation, it is unsurprising Jolie was hands-on. “There were some occasions where she was testing out the stunts I was going to be doing before me. I was like, ‘Be careful Angie!’” O’Connell recalls, laughing.

He wasn’t star struck in her presence - not through early onset jadedness, rather a desire to get on with the task at hand.

“I find focusing on that more beneficial,” he says. “There’s a level of professionalism that I’ve got to up keep if my working relationships are going to be successful.”

He was not entirely immune to the surreal aspect of the situation, though.

“Sometimes I still have the same mentality as this little kid from Derby. The most famous person I’d met as a youngster was Stefano Eranio [a footballing hero] and I remember how I felt. But now, as opposed to getting too excited, I feel really humbled.”

Unbroken will be released in December and it is already being touted as a strong contender for next year’s awards season.

“I’m just thankful this has happened at a time when I’m mature enough to handle it wisely and with sensibility,” he says, oblivious to how this might sound given his age.

But O’Connell is something of an old soul. There is a quiet, contemplative streak that has been belied by the reputation he has forged in playing mouthy, troubled characters - Cook, Pukey Nicholls in Shane Meadows’ This Is England and ring leader Brett in horror thriller Eden Lake among them.

O’Connell agrees. “I usually find myself playing characters who are cocksure.”

That includes Eric, his character in Starred Up, who seems destined for a life behind bars.

“I don’t consider it an absolute must that I approve of every character I play. It’s just best to understand them and I find Eric very easy to understand,” confesses O’Connell, who has one criticism of his performance.

“It wasn’t that extreme a leap in terms of that whole demeanour. It runs parallel with the kind of figures I grew up with.”

He doesn’t describe his upbringing as ‘deprived’ but there was not a lot of money. “My mum and dad worked hard for a living so I benefited from that, whereas perhaps a few people from the same street were surviving off the state,” he says.

His father was employed by the railways, and the free train travel meant O’Connell could make auditions. From a young age, he had a pragmatic approach.

“I’d made the decision to join the army by the time I was 16, if acting didn’t happen,” he says.

The idea was “totally against” his mum’s wishes, so she was relieved when the acting took off.

His first professional job was in the soap Doctors in 2005, followed by a short recurring role in The Bill. This Is England and Eden Lake aside, the next three years included pop-up appearances Waterloo Road and Holby City before he achieved greater recognition in Skins.

“To me, the only obvious route, or only plausible one, was to work hard enough over here,” he says.