“Couldn’t tell yer, mate”. “Ain’t saying that, no.” “I ‘an’t a Scooby Doo, chief”. Anyone who first came across Jack O’Connell in Unbroken, the tale of an Italian-American who endures almost impossible hardships during the Second World War, would assume the clipped syllables and strangled vowels pouring out of his mouth are in preparation for another role. A British soldier, perhaps. A footballer? But no. The accent is very much his own. And proudly so.
Born in Derby, an unremarkable town in England’s Midlands most famous perhaps for being the home of Rolls Royce engines, pottery and the intermittent achievements of its football club, Derby County, O’Connell’s working class roots burst through with almost every sentence. Indeed, when his Unbroken director, Angelina Jolie, presented him with the New Hollywood award in 2014, she described him as the “least Hollywood person I know”, before delivering the typically regional introduction of “Ey up, me duck”.
For those keeping a closer eye – and ear – on his career, it’s a voice he’s used to great effect in the film 71, about a young paratrooper thrown into the gathering maelstrom of Northern Ireland, and the TV drama Skins, about the trials of 17 year-olds in Bristol. Thanks to Jolie, though, who offered him his breakout role as Louis Zamperini, he has demonstrated he can speak any way a director wishes – or, indeed, act his trousers off without saying a word.
Both qualities helped him land his latest part as a plucky, hard-bitten outsider in Money Monster, in which his Queens truck driver seeks revenge on the financial news host who served up a stock tip that cost him everything.
As ShortList discovered, fighting his corner helps explain how he got here.
In your latest role, you play Kyle Budwell, a guy who has lost everything in the recent crash. Is his plight one you recognise?
Definitely. Unlike some of the other characters I’ve played, it made a nice change to be in agreement with him and his reasons, and the more the story pans out, the more we learn about him. He may seem unhinged, but he’s a driver from Queen’s with a baby on the way, so whatever his actions are, they’re justified on some level, I think. He’s gone to an extreme but for a quite admirable purpose.
It’s another combative, aggressive role for you. Was there a worry you might start to get typecast?
Not really. As an American movie, the principal audience won’t have seen me in my earlier roles. Also, it put me on the same set as George Clooney and Julia Roberts. I can’t turn that down. Right now, I don’t have the luxury of choice; it’s not a case of this role or that role yet… I’m lucky to get any opportunities.
You come from an industrial town, one that’s gone through hardships since the recession. Do you know people in Kyle’s situation?
Well, my dad, for one. He was made redundant, totally cast aside, even though he’d been working at the same place for 25 years. He was someone who worked hard, was promised a reward at the end of it and it didn’t happen. So, yeah, I know these stories. I’m not going to deny the fact that, as an actor getting regular work, I am detached from those struggles a little bit, but I look at where I come from and the guys I grew up with, and simply staying on the straight and narrow is a massive achievement.
Any of my mates who have managed that I’m extremely proud of. They’re constantly being picked on by the system. That’s how it is. Now, I don’t have a clue about how to change it and I don’t think I’m qualified to open my mouth in the press about it, either. Although I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone doing a Kyle Budwell…
I’m not going to argue with that. I think it’s important for any level of artistry, whether it’s filmmaking, storytelling, what have you, to reflect the truth. And if there is corruption or malpractice and people are being told to not be mindful of it, I think it’s our role to inform, to tell people what’s happening.
Did you learn a lot about the financial crisis, and Wall Street in general, when making this film?
I do feel more educated on a topic and a world that is concealed from view… concealed by design, in my opinion. It’s deliberate. So, I feel very grateful to have been educated by Jodie Foster, the director, who told the tale with an honesty it requires.
Talking of learning, what did you get from George Clooney?
A lot of professionalism, that’s for sure. He was never late. He always knew what he was going to do with his character and he had a confidence that he was in control. But you learn all the time from everything you do, not just from the likes of George. I’d never really worked in a US studio setting before and to have the support of a hard-working, knowledgeable crew was great. Being able to shoot exteriors in the middle of New York, recreating a scene with the NYPD in the middle of the city… all that. I wasn’t trained to do this; my apprenticeship has been at work. I’ve just done a play in Sheffield and I learned more there, probably, than I would on any film set.
Tell us about the US accents. How easy is it for you to switch?
ADR, mate. Automated Dialogue Replacement! No, it’s just getting into a booth and doing it until it comes out right. In order to be spontaneous with a character, you really need to live in the accent and some days I found it hard to shake. I also worked with voice coach Jerome Butler and he was amazing.
Do you want to broaden out further? How about a rom-com?
I wouldn’t rule it out. But I’ve found that whenever I’ve chased roles, I’ve been rejected. That’s the reality of being an actor, so you tend to accept what you’re offered. But I’m not panicking about it just yet.
Do you find it difficult to believe a lad from Derby has got this far?
Maybe. But even when I was a kid in Derby, it was certainly my intention to get this far… I always had that aspiration. And I’ve been working hard at this for a while so it hasn’t felt like a sudden arrival to me. Now that I am in this position, I’m certainly not about to disbelieve it, that’s for sure.
Money Monster is in cinemas across the UAE from May 26.