Jack O'Connell knew playing Louis Zamperini in 'Unbroken' was going to hurt
HOLLYWOOD — We've already caught up with Jack O'Connell once this year, but it's perfectly fitting to revisit the well here. He is, after all, having a truly breakout moment, one that actually seems more stretched across three years than bunched up into 2014.
For instance, though he popped up in "300: Rise of an Empire" back in the spring, "Starred Up" was his major coming out in US theaters this year. But that film debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in 2013 and he was breaking into the awards race for his work therein last season. "'71," meanwhile, debuted at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year and has hit theaters overseas already, but it's being held for a stateside release in February.
"Unbroken," though, will be the film that introduces him to the masses. We're seeing a star being born and, for his part, the tough-willed O'Connell is taking it in stride. We sat down recently to specifically discuss Angelina Jolie's latest film, basking in the Hollywood sun on a hotel terrace because, well, he just doesn't get to see enough of that back home in England. Check out the back and forth below.
"Unbroken" opens on Christmas Day.
HitFix: So taking on a role of this magnitude in a project this kind of grueling and sizable must have been daunting at the outset. Was there any trepidation on your part?
Jack O'Connell: Yeah, there's always an element. But it's just a case of how much you decide to listen to it. There was a lot I could draw upon positively. Once the role was mine, after 10 years of forging this career path, naive or not, I felt ready. I knew it was going to hurt. I knew I had to put aside my priorities in terms of comfort and I guess social life. But it's a worthwhile sacrifice. You're not going to make an impression or tribute the man as you're supposed to with a painless shooting experience. All of that seemed to equate and seemed worthwhile. Yeah, there is a doubt, but that can also motivate you. I felt in this case that it did.
You got to meet Louis Zamperini a few times. Was there anything elemental about the man that you kept hanging onto as something you wanted to really carry through in the performance?
Yeah, just that he has a quality where he was very reluctant to ever describe himself as anything extraordinary. He would always just consider himself one of many, and I think that's a testament to his era. I can remember my dad having that sort of thinking. And whether there is such a thing as selflessness or not, he surely came close. That came through in Laura [Hillenbrand's] writing, but I wanted to meet him and be able to put it down to the era. And having met him, I felt like I was able to.
When and where did you first meet him?
It was at his house, I think maybe four weeks prior to shooting. But that was like a set-up, where they set up like a studio in his front room. And I just felt intrusive, you know? I was so conscious already about coming across the wrong way, and that wasn't made any easier for me, the cameras, the lights and the small crew. It wasn't as relaxed and I didn't get as much out of it in terms of what I needed. So I insisted on a second meeting.
Why was there a crew? They were already documenting something?
They wanted it for the DVD extras. So they sold out on me. But that's why I insisted the second meeting needed to happen, and it did and we had time to just hang, me and him. We went through his old scrapbooks; you know, he's a big collector. He showed me his Nazi flag that he picked up from Berlin. So one of these things, just to be able to spend time in his presence and relax and enjoy the silences and not have an agenda. That was going to inform me a whole lot more than investigating or interviewing the man.
The story as presented is obviously a grueling one, so I imagine, as you've intimated, it was physically and psychologically difficult. Does any scene or moment stand out as particularly tough to work through in that regard?
Well the plank [that I hold over my shoulders at the end] made me faint twice. I passed out twice beneath it, so I reckon by rights that wins. But I've always struggled with that question. I mean I'm only using science as my reference point there, having fainted. The whole thing kind of merges into one mountainous effort. And even in hindsight now, I struggle to separate days apart from each other. And I sure as hell know that when I was feeling my weakest, the idea of portraying Olympic Louie seemed so far-fetched. Perhaps that was the most difficult.