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Jack O’Connell:
Tough Act to Follow

With an acting career that spans noughties bad boys, Victorian doctors and ‘50s racing drivers, there are no limitations to where
Jack O’Connell can take his work next.

Jack O’Connell wears the leather racer jacket by COS.

For an actor best known for playing volatile young men, Jack O’Connell (he/him) comes across as anything but. Down to earth and buzzing with genuine enthusiasm for his craft, each new role distances the 33-year-old further from the bad-lad characters that defined his early career. It’s a journey that has taken him from his Derbyshire hometown to Hollywood, shooting everywhere from the Arctic to Africa, all the while taking down tired preconceptions about what performers from less privileged backgrounds like his own can achieve.

Growing up in working-class Alvaston watching movie legends like Tom Hanks, Gene Wilder and Julie Andrews on TV, it was football not filmmaking that O’Connell first saw as an answer to his increasingly negative experiences of adolescence. Talented enough to grab the attention of clubs like Derby FC, his skills on the pitch later proved invaluable for his role as England star Bobby Charlton in BBC's United, and sport maintains a presence both on- and off-screen.

Football fell through but passing his drama exams, against the odds, inspired a move to London to study acting and shortly after O’Connell was cast in seminal teen drama Skins, the UK’s indie sleaze forerunner to Euphoria. A launchpad for other homegrown acting talents including Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel and Daniel Kaluuya, Skins introduced him as the self-destructive James Cook, a student struggling with drink, drugs and identity problems, who ultimately becomes good. Away from the perceived parallels between its storylines and O’Connell’s own teenage misdemeanours, Skins was a platform for him to explore masculine stereotypes, bringing an unexpected depth and sensitivity to brawny male characters, something he continues to do in films from Starred Up and ’71 to Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

No doubt, then, that he’ll deliver the same complexity and compassion in his role as Blake Fielder-Civil, the divisive ex-husband of Amy Winehouse, in the upcoming biopic of her life Back to Black. Here, ahead of its release later this year, he talks about better representation in an unbalanced industry, the impact of exercise on his mental health and keeping up with culture without showing off about it.

Jack O’Connell wears the colour-block funnel-neck jacket by COS.

‘Style sends a message. One day you’re feeling it, another day you might not be bothered.’


ESCAPING STEREOTYPES

‘I'm not sure how I moved away from playing bad lads to be perfectly honest, but I like the word ‘rangey’ to describe what I can do – although I’m not sure it’s actually a real word! I find it very thrilling that there are opportunities in acting to do near enough anything. I hear that Tom Cruise is off to space for his next project.’

FASHION MATTERS

‘Style sends a message. One day you’re feeling it, and you want to put it out there. Another day you might not be bothered and so you put that out there instead. James Cook from Skins and I always had similar tastes, I still dress most closely to him.’

TACKLING REPRESENTATION

‘I have seen things drastically decline since I started in terms of opportunities for less privileged actors. Avenues once available to me are now shut because of lack of funding and yet again there is a distinct shortage of working-class performers in the industry. It's a societal issue. The first thing that needs to change is that arts should be made accessible across the entire educational system as a priority, not a luxury. Then we need to figure out how to subsidise scholarships more fairly, as drama school simply isn't affordable to the vast majority of people in this country. It’s all very doable.’


Jack O’Connell wears the leather racer jacket by COS.

‘I love the diversity between the characters you can play, and the places you get to discover doing this job.’


CULTURAL AWARENESS

‘I like to stay up to date because I enjoy exploring things, old and new. It’s not in a bid to stay ‘current’.’

ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES

‘I love the diversity between the characters you can play, and the places you get to discover doing this job. I've shot at the North Pole playing a Victorian surgeon and the Sahara Desert as an SAS legend. All pretty mental.’

MENTAL FITNESS

‘Exercise is definitely key; I can't think straight without it.’

SWITCHING PERSPECTIVES

‘I'm always reluctant to say what’s coming up next as I don't want to jinx it but, all being well, I'll be hopping behind the camera for the first time soon. So I'm very, very excited.’

QUICKFIRE Q&A

Do you prefer being online or off-grid?

Off-grid

Three things your hometown is famous for?

Rolls Royce, Tomb Raider and the world’s first ever factory

One piece of clothing you live in?

A tracksuit (which I’m wearing now)

Favourite Amy Winehouse song?

This week? Tears Dry On Their Own

 

Words by Ben Perdue
Jack O’Connell wears the Spring Summer 2024 collection. Photography Karim Sadil. Styling by Jane How.

 


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