By the time Jack O’Connell was 12, he had undergone a series of lurching career changes and hit upon his final profession as an actor. Initially, just into double figures, he was on track to be a footballer. Growing up in Derby, he played for a team called the Alvaston Rangers every weekend, and attracted academy interest. An unruly child, his parents also sent him boxing and to the cadets in the hope he would learn some discipline, and for a while, he thought he wanted to join the army. But he put his sporting and military dreams aside when he took a drama class at school and discovered he had a penchant for acting, too. It would be just a matter of years before Michael Caine was declaring him the “star of the future” on the set of thriller Harry Brown, and Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown was conspiratorially imparting industry advice: “Don’t be nervous—have a purpose.”
Despite being launched, pretty stratospherically, into Hollywood, O’Connell heads home as much as he can. “Some of my favourite people are still in Derby. Mainly my grandmother,” he says. “And my mum. Bless her.” Now, he is returning to the West End stage, to star alongside Sienna Miller in Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, playing an aloof, embittered alcoholic, aptly named Brick.
O’Connell grew up with an Irish father who worked on the railways and an English mother who worked in the refunds department of British Midland. Was there anyone else dramatic in the family to draw inspiration from? “There was a bit of drama floating around, but not professionally,” he says, referring not, I think, to the thespian sense of the word. “My dad’s side of the family. There was always something backing off with them. Funny, as well. Do you know what I mean? Funny lads.
“And then my mum’s mum is like, six generations Derby. Her grandad owned a cinema in Derby. It was the go-to cinema, so I must have inherited that.”
Jack O’Connell in rehearsals for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
It was O’Connell’s drama teacher who first spotted his talent and encouraged him to go to a television workshop in Nottingham which, he once admitted in an interview with the Guardian, he only bothered going to because he was chasing a girl. “And I did end up copping off with her as well … she was dead fit an’ all.” That score settled, his enthusiasm soon became authentic, and he started attending auditions with an older student, the actor Michael Socha. Heading down to London on discount train tickets obtained via O’Connell’s father, the pair would sleep rough on benches when they couldn’t afford a hotel. It paid off. In 2006, O’Connell landed the role of Pukey in Shane Meadows’s coming-of-age film This is England, and was then cast as the troubled, drug-addicted James Cook in Skins, the Bristol-based teen-angst drama that launched the careers of Kaya Scodelario, Nicholas Hoult, and Dev Patel.
O’Connell’s career started snowballing, but his professional and personal identities began to split incongruously. He was becoming famous, but at the same time, he hadn’t outgrown his life as a disorderly teenager from Derby. When he was 17, he was arrested for crashing his mum’s car whilst drunk-driving. He went to court for sentencing on the day he started rehearsals for Scarborough at the Royal Court, which was met with rave reviews. A lot of emphasis has been placed on these wayward years. Does O’Connell find it irritating? Maybe even edged with snobbery? He is not keen to elucidate but says, and not without humour, “I wasn’t stuck in front of a computer screen, anyway, through my teenage years, so it all contributes.”
It certainly did all contribute. O’Connell swiftly became known for his instinctive ability to produce deft, nuanced performances shot through with a coiled, very masculine, physicality. He appeared in prison drama Starred Up, ’71, set in Belfast during the Troubles, and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, where he played World War Two prisoner of war and long distance runner Louis Zamperini, a role for which he shrank down to an emaciated seven stone.
He became close with Jolie during filming, and cites her as a formative role-model. “She was never late,” he says. “She had time for everyone, and she left it all at work. She put her all into the project, and that’s what the best artists do. If you do any less, you can’t really expect too much. It was great to see a titan like her operate.”
And did he pick up notes from working with a titan? “Hopefully. I’ve not been late on this project yet.”
Jack O’Connell in rehearsals for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Centred around his favoured themes of greed, deceit and death, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was Williams’s favourite of his plays. Set on a plantation, where the bourbon flows freely, the curtain rises on patriarch Big Daddy’s sixty-fifth birthday, as his predatory family gathers around to win his favour and fortune. “What a pack of trashy people these accomplished actors perform,” wrote Bosley Crowther in a 1958 New York Times review of the film adaptation, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.
Before he was handed the script, O’Connell hadn’t actually heard of Williams (“which is criminal”), but after a period of intense rehearsals, he now speaks about the writer with a vivid poeticism. “One of the best things about Tennessee’s writing is that he deals with the complexities of reality,” he explains. Brick, hollowed by isolation, exhibits Williams’s skill for creating monstrous, fraying, vulnerable characters who are indelibly hemmed-in by their surroundings. “[Brick’s] a lot of things,” O’Connell says. “He’s got a drink problem, but it’s not built from curiosity: he’s just sick to death, almost literally. Of the mendacity that exists in life.”
Would he feel pressure taking on such a towering piece of theatre alongside Miller, whose position as star of stage, film, and the tabloids will doubtless attract intense international scrutiny? “Only if you didn’t prioritize the work,” he says. Besides, he thinks the play will resonate well with a contemporary audience. “The themes are still relevant, if not more relevant. That’s Mr Williams.”
What, then, are his favourite lines in the show?
“Maggie, you’re spoiling my liquor!”
“Lately your voice sounds like you’ve been running upstairs to warn somebody that the house is on fire!”
“That’s all you’re getting.”—Isobel Thompson
Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell star in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
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Credits: Charlie Gray