From director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, the indie drama Trial by Fire tells the true-life story of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a poor, uneducated man with a violent streak and a criminal record who found himself on death row in Texas in 1992, after being convicted of the arson-related homicide of his three young children. While in prison, he unexpectedly finds an ally in Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), who realizes that his sentence was a result of questionable methods and inaccurate conclusions, and sets out to attempt to save him before his execution.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, British actor Jack O’Connell talked about what made him want to be a part of Trial By Fire, how deeply he researched the life and story of Cameron Todd Willingham, his experience working with Laura Dern, filming the execution, and what he hopes audiences take from seeing this film. He also talked about playing a bare-knuckle fighter in Max Winkler’s next film Jungleland, and what appealed to him about the BBC mini-series The North Water.
Collider: I was very impressed with your performance in this film. When you started out on this project, did you believe that Texas had executed an innocent man? Had you formed any thoughts or feelings on this story, when you first read it?
JACK O’CONNELL: Not immediately. I had to dig a little deeper than what the script, alone, allowed for. The script is our telling of it, and we’re trying to say that he was innocent, fundamentally. Without being biased, that’s our point of view. That’s shared, across the board, with the people that put the film together. But I had to dig a little deeper, to try to figure out exactly what my version of the events was. I really don’t think that I would have taken an interest into playing Todd, if I thought he’d actually done it. I’m not sure I’d want to play that man.
There’s the original article that David Grann wrote for The New Yorker, the letters between Cameron Todd Willingham and Elizabeth Gilbert, the transcripts of the trial, and seemingly endless amounts of research that you could do for this. How deeply did you dig into all of the materials that were out there, and how much did you just stick with the script?
O’CONNELL: It’s just whatever feels helpful. You might turn to something that you’ll find is very, very helpful for your research, but then eventually it might also run a bit stale. So, if it wasn’t the transcripts that we were reading, we were reading the letters between Todd and Elizabeth. I also thought it was key to try to understand Todd, at that time, and figure out where he was from. He was born in Oklahoma, so he was an outsider to that place. All of those things offer you information. What was cool about this was that he’s not well known to the point where I had to really imitate him, or feel obliged to walk like him, talk like him and speak like him. I didn’t have to get too obsessive with it.
What do you feel like the letters gave you? Did it change how you viewed him, to be able to read his words?
O’CONNELL: Yeah. I felt like, reading those letters, you get certain clues to where his mood was at, what his emotions were, and the pattern that they would talk in. At the beginning, it felt like the conversations between Todd and Liz, a lot of time, was Todd maintaining his innocence. It was very important for him to put that across to Liz, whether he thought she believed him or not. As they got to know each other a little bit more, you can see that Todd gets a bit more articulate and eloquent, so he obviously studied more and became more learned, and better with words and language. That was really insightful and indicative of the fact that he was growing up, maturing, and maybe finding himself in a place of almost enlightenment, having all of his liberties stripped from him. He was still energized towards learning. I wonder if that helped him live outside of those four walls, a little bit. When you read someone’s memoirs, it’s very helpful.
You and Laura Dern primarily spend your scenes together within the confines of a visitation booth. What was it like to share moments like that?
O’CONNELL: We were just face to face, in that confinement, with not a lot of room to maneuver, so it became more about what we were saying to each other, as opposed to how we were saying it. In reality, I think Elizabeth really helped Todd, mentally and physically. There was a lot of therapy that Todd received from Elizabeth, probably even without her meaning to. There was plenty to think about, and to try to discover, in those moments. It was quite nice that we were restricted, in that way.
What was it like to have someone like Laura Dern to play off of?
O’CONNELL: I love that woman. I probably shouldn’t say that. I really don’t know her that well. I think she’s top of the box. She’s a great person to work with, off camera, and on camera, she gives you plenty. It’s always new and organically feels fresh, and you get to react to it organically. In the moment, she’s very truthful with what she offers. And she’s hilarious. She really is a funny fucker, that one.
We pretty much know throughout the film that the execution is coming. You know that moment is going to happen, and it weighs heavily over the story. What was that like to shoot?
O’CONNELL: Yeah. It was quite a heavy day. In some ways, you do know the ending to this movie. The facts of the story are public knowledge and available to all, so I knew it was coming. I probably put too much pressure on myself. If I don’t feel like I’m convincing myself, then I don’t feel like I can convince others, but how can you imagine what somebody is going through when they’re about to get a lethal injection. You can only really guess, and it’s only an educated one, at that. Thankfully, I’m not really in that predicament, and I hope I never am, so you have to just guess. If you come away from it and it feels a little bit exhausting, and you feel emotionally affected, then it might have just been worthwhile.
What do you hope this film teaches people about this man and about the criminal justice system? What would you like audiences to take with them from seeing it?
O’CONNELL: That you can’t always get that stuff right. There is going to be some form of error somewhere because it’s a manmade system, so you have to account for human error. Are we then in a position where we’re able to dictate whether somebody lives or dies, based on whether a court system finds him guilty or not, when we know it’s not 100% correct, every time? That’s the thing that I’d like people to think about.
You also did Max Winkler’s next film, Jungleland, with Charlie Hunnam. What made you want to be a part of that project? What was it that appealed to you about that story and character?
O’CONNELL: I really wanted to do a boxing story, of some degree. I felt like I was working hard in the gym, and I’m not going to be in the prime of my life, all my life. I loved Jungleland on paper, and I loved getting to know Max and Charlie. It was quite interesting because the character was originally written as 17. It become a case, then, of just trying to mature him on the page. I didn’t want to play a 17-year-old. I don’t think anyone would find that convincing.
How did you find the experience of playing a fighter, especially a bare-knuckle fighter?
O’CONNELL: It was good. I found it very enjoyable. I enjoy the gym-related stuff, anyway. I enjoyed the stunts. We were working with good lads. Every scene felt safe. We were in Boston, shooting it, in Massachusetts and the neighboring areas to Boston, which is a fight capital. I got to play in some cool gyms with some cool boxing dudes. I feel like that world is quite fascinating. I’m very interested in it. I find that the really talented boxers that rarely lose are also proper gentlemen. They’re not so much brutes, like people would imagine. So, I was just keen to work out the psychology of all of that and the reality of it.
You’ll also be playing the lead in The North Water, opposite Colin Farrell. What was it about that character that you found interesting?
O’CONNELL: It just seemed new for me to be playing an ex-Army surgeon, in that period. He’s obviously very intelligent, to a degree, and perhaps more academic than I am. It just felt new and like a bit of a departure. I think the writing is brilliant. I love the story, and I love Patrick Sumner’s inclusion within the story. I find him a likable fellow, as well. It’s quite nice to go into something, where I like the character.
Trial by Fire opens in theaters on May 17th.