Just when you thought the historic cast of Skins were done crawling out of the woodwork, here comes Jack O’Connell to blast them out of the water.
The last decade has seen a smattering of Skins alumni changing the face of modern film. And it’s not just the British film industry that’s taken advantage of their graduation. Arguably Dev Patel was the one to kick things off with Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Since then he’s gone to star in the likes of Chappie (2015) from South African director Neill Blomkamp, and this year’s The Man Who Knew Infinity. On the lighter side of things, we have Nicholas Hoult, who rose to fame in About a Boy (2002) before gracing our screens with his appearance in Skins. Since then he’s gained international approval with his depiction of Beast in the X-Men prequel trilogy, before spinning us out with his revved-up demeanour in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). And lest we forget Kaya Scodelario, who’s taken a stab at the post-apocalyptic YA franchise (currently on hold) Maze Runner.
As you can see, Skins has afforded us some great young talent, and there’s no doubt that their reign will continue, especially as they keep cropping up in Game of Thrones (Hannah Murray, Joe Dempsie). But we’re here to talk about Jack O’Connell. He has long-since left his Skins playground, and will shortly be appearing in Money Monster alongside some people you might have heard of – George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Giancarlo Esposito.
One of the main reasons for O’Connell’s success could be that he is one of the strongest character actors we’ve seen rise through the ranks in the last few years. He’s gone from playing rough and ready maverick Cookie, in Skins (2009-13) straight to Starred Up in 2013, effectively bolstering his career in epic fashion. Starred Up was a million lightyears away from anything we had seen O’Connell in before – the film follows the story of Eric Love, who is moved from a juvenile facility to the big, bad world of maximum security prison when he turns 18. O’Connell impressed his audiences with his depiction, portraying Love’s journey from a loud-mouthed, abhorrent criminal, to a scared, vulnerable, way-out-of-his-depth small fish in a big pond. And perhaps this was the perfect film for O’Connell’s breakout – being ‘starred up’ from Skins to the mainstream.
Although O’Connell had been a familiar face on British television since 2009, and he pricked up Hollywood’s ears with Starred Up, he didn’t really enter the realms of A-list material until he was taken under the wing of Angelina Jolie for her second directorial attempt, Unbroken. And let’s face it, Unbroken was an extraordinarily hard watch, a biopic of Louis Zamperini, the Olympic athlete held prisoner in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. One issue for O’Connell in this regard, and the thing that was the only real criticism of Unbroken – it really is a study of the cruelty inflicted on these prisoners, and so doesn’t give its audience much in the way of character. In this respect, there was very little room for O’Connell to breathe in terms of earning acting kudos. No matter, it certainly did the trick, earning him the role of Gary Hook in ’71. Yes, another war film. But this time it’s set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in, you’ve guessed it, 1971. Is anyone else starting to see a pattern emerging here?
But it certainly hasn’t been a smooth road to the top. Before reaching Skins fame, O’Connell had had several brushes with the law, eventually spiralling into a drink-driving arrest at the age of 17. But it’s safe to say that the industry has forgiven him, continuing to offer him roles. Perhaps it’s even this hard-living attitude that has helped him in his career, given that his first real acting role was as Skins bad-boy James Cook. And perhaps we can attribute his film choices since to these harsh beginnings.
Starred Up, ’71, Unbroken, 300: Rise of an Empire, and now Money Monster. What do all of these roles have in common? They’re hard characters living in hard conditions. And not a chick flick or comedy in sight. But that’s something to be grateful for – because O’Connell lends incredible gravitas to every role he plays. All of these roles show a magnetism to the dark side – although underneath it all these are characters that are inherently vulnerable, they are also in most cases violent, angry, and completely jaded by life. Ever since his film debut in This Is England (2006), O’Connell has displayed a predisposition to playing troubled teens.
Which brings us to our next question. What next for Jack O’Connell? Surely he must be planning a foray into the rom-com, zom-com, YA, or whichever genre budding superstars get involved in nowadays? Jack O’Connell has made a career from playing somewhat ‘broken’ characters (and yes, that includes Unbroken) and so the fear is that when he departs from this he won’t have a leg to stand on. Sure, he’s great at playing soldiers, criminals, and confused school boys, but is there more to him than this? It could be that we haven’t had enough exposure to O’Connell as of yet – we’ve really only had him as a household name for less than two years. And in that time he’s made some serious waves, not only being taken as the protégé of Angelina Jolie, but playing the leads in some of the most brutal films of the last few years. Let’s face it, none of his films are a nice, easy Friday night watch.
Either way, O’Connell is here to stay. Having a look at his reel, it isn’t that surprising that they’ve cast him as Kyle Budwell in the upcoming Money Monster. O’Connell’s had a great run of late, picking his role so carefully that he’s avoided the missteps that a lot of young actors face at the beginning of their career (condolences, Kit Harington). If his accomplishments to date are anything to go by, Jack O’Connell will be around for a while.