Opening on Christmas Day is director Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. The film tells the incredible true story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), a former Olympian and WWII bombardier whose plane crashed at sea in 1943. Zamperini and two crewmates floated adrift for 47 days and 2000 miles, eventually finding themselves caught by the Japanese Navy and sent to a POW camp where Zamperini was targeted by a sadistic overseer. While Unbroken could have ended up a movie of the week on Lifetime, Jolie has crafted a film worthy of your time and money. For more on Unbroken, check out six clips, the trailer, and all our previous coverage.
At the New York City press day I landed an exclusive interview with Jack O’Connell (who’s name you better get familiar with because he’s the real deal). During the interview he talked about what the past year has been like, working with Angelina Jolie, what it was like making Unbroken, how he prepared for the role, future projects, if he’ll go to Sundance for director Yann Demange’s ’71 (which is one of my favorite movies of 2014), and a lot more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
Collider: Last time I saw you was in February in Berlin and I knew you could walk outside and be anonymous. Has the anonymity ended?
JACK O’CONNELL: Well, I don’t know. London seems to be very different to here, in the UK even if you are a superstar celeb there is a way of privacy and things get more relaxed. Unless you’re a fucking household name, which I’m not. But yeah, not at home. Not a lot’s changed, I guess, until Unbroken started kicking off. Now there’s a little more interest, I must say. But I’m not the be all end all, and I’m sure I can shake that off whenever necessary. There’s a lot of things I can do. I think I understand the question. You mean, since February do I feel any more famous?
Well especially after Unbroken and the fact that ’71 is going to get U.S. release, there’s an element of – Can I go into Starbucks and order a coffee without people being like, “Hey aren’t you that dude?”
O’CONNELL: I don’t know. I don’t know if I probably lead that cosmopolitan a lifestyle. I’m only to and from the pub usually at home, or if I’m working thankfully they put on cars for me. I don’t know, people seem to engage in conversation with me a lot more enthusiastically now, people I didn’t necessarily really know before. Everyone seems to want to ask me shit, at the minute. But I’m still tight with the same people I was tight with in February anyway.
Jumping into Unbroken, when you look back on making this film, is there a day or two that always sticks out in your brain like, “I can’t believe we did that.” Or a very tough moment you were happy you were able to accomplish.
O’CONNELL: I kind of had my head down swinging for such a long time, I can’t really dissect days. It’s quite a blur, you know? When you’re working fifteen hours each day with minimum time sleeping, more or less. I know that the plank sequence made me faint twice. I blacked out twice under that fucker.
Was the plank super heavy?
I’m assuming it was the heavier version that did you in?
O’CONNELL: No, it was the lighter one by that point. I think it was when we were up close and we were trying to cut to the scream. I was trying to really nail the scream that he gives to the bird, and I guess the combination of everything. My vision went and I kind of dropped.
I can’t even imagine what that moment was like on set. I’m sure some people were a little nervous.
O’CONNELL: But it’s very insignificant to the reality of what we’re portraying, either way.
When you’re taking on a role like this, which is so important and playing someone who truly dealt with incredible situations. What was the thing that you looked at again and again to help you prepare for this? I’ve spoken to a lot of actors that have portrayed real people, and a lot of them say that they always look at this one picture, one video, one chapter of a book that helps them get ready for the role and keep in the headspace. Was that something that applied to you as well?
O’CONNELL: Thankfully I’ve met the fella’, so I constantly had that to draw from. [Laughs] Brad Pitt lent me a little Dictaphone thing, like a cassette recorder, and I really liked the authentic fucking dated nature of that process, of putting this cassette player on during our conversations, mine and Louis’s. So I had this borrowed cassette thing that I took to Australia with me and that was constantly there to listen to. So if I was bored and shit or if I was killing time usually I’d just be listening to that. Not to hear him speak. It wasn’t particularly useful at all for the voice, because obviously I’m dealing with a 96 year old at that stage, but the essence of him, the kind of thing that might have made him – I had to research from the geezer I met, I had to research what made him tick from that point onwards. So yeah, that cassette tape, that was endlessly helpful. And in makeup, the make up people, they’ve got photos for references all the time, so there’s certain photography I can’t really escape because it’s in my day to day routine. But I remember looking at it and feeling like I could connect and get an insight to the man, what’s going off behind his eyes and what have you. And then there’s the parallels between us, like I love me mom, and he loved his mom, and dad, and family and that. So there’s certain parallels there too.
Talk a little bit about the way Angelina liked to work in terms of how many takes she likes to do versus the way you like to work. Is it one of these things where you liked doing a shit load of takes and she wants to the minimum? Talk about that dynamic.
O’CONNELL: Yeah, so if she got it she was happy to move on and she’d let you know. Sometimes that would be two takes in, three takes in. With us, I guess she felt like she nurtured something that felt organic anyway in front of the camera. Thankfully we got actors of Finn Wittrock, Domhnall Gleeson, and Garrett Hedlund’s caliber to turn up on these sets and pretty instantly grasp it. Anything that involved much dialogue, or acting, shall we say. The technical stuff we had to get right, and if we didn’t get it right we wouldn’t be able to make the movie. I’m talking like fucking fake albatross feet landing on a life raft. So the technical stuff weighed heavily on us, because that needs a certain amount of takes, because as I say, it’s technical. So the way she wrestled both of them different requirements, it was quite seamless. I never found the technicalities interfering with what I was trying to do – apart from when they was telling me to put my hair in fucking place out there on that raft. Why would my hair be in place on a fucking life raft stranded in the middle of the pacific? Who am I trying to impress? [Laughs] Anyway.
[Laughs] That’s funny. What have the last few months been like in terms of – I’m sure that you’re having more meetings or being offered more scripts to read. What has that process been like for you? Actors want to get to that position where they can pick a project and get a really good script offered to them, and you’ve had a little bit of an interesting run, so what have the last few months been like?
O’CONNELL: Yeah, a lot of dinners here and there and meeting people. There’s a lot of face value still in Hollywood, which I really appreciate, and you find yourself doing the rounds a bit. The scripts – yeah, there are more scripts, but certainly on account of the fact that I’ve got an American agent now so anything that’s happening or floating around over here he’s got tabs on, so it will be brought to my attention. Whereas before my U.K. agent couldn’t really offer that. It was only really the jobs that actually came over seas in search. So yeah, I’m getting to know different American writing now and hearing about different American directors I wasn’t formerly aware of. And it is the epicenter over here, particularly in LA. The way America appreciates cinema is different from anywhere in the world, I think, and second to none. Compared to what’s at home, especially.
Well, especially in LA.
O’CONNELL: Yeah, it’s celebrated and supported. I don’t just mean by the individuals, but financially as well people are throwing money at certain projects. Whether or not they’re the right ones to be throwing them at, I don’t know. That’s someone else’s argument. But yah, it’s impressive for me to see coming from Britain anyway. And beginning to suss out the industry there, finding myself over here in the states now, like I say, in the epicenter of it, I find it all navigatable….navigatable?
I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. I don’t know English very well, it’s a second language.
O’CONNELL: Navigable. Well, I feel able to navigate it anyway. But yeah, reading scripts is actually quite a relaxing part of the job. Strangely relaxing. This is a whole different ball game.
I’ve spoken to actors who say they work for free and they paid for the publicity. I don’t know if that’s true for you, but a lot of people have said that.
O’CONNELL: I heard that one for the first time last night from Jodi Foster.
I think it’s also, not to disrespect my peers, but some journalists – and maybe I’m one of them – ask some really dumb questions.
O’CONNELL: This is painless, actually. This is painless. It’s the questions that don’t really matter, you know. Like when people ask me “Do you think you’d be a footballer if you wasn’t an actor?” What I can I say to that? Maybe? Maybe so.
Sure, you might be an astronaut too.
O’CONNELL: [Laughs] Or worse, you know?
A hundred percent. What are you thinking about for the future? Are you thinking about doing more U.K. gigs over at home? Are you thinking your next thing or two could be in America?
O’CONNELL: Tricky, you know? I haven’t really got that clear a futuristic outlook yet. Only as far as my next job, which is Jodi Foster directing, Money Monster. It’s a good fucking film by the looks of it, and it’s going to allow me to come back to New York and work over here for the beginning of next year. I’d love to have a clearer outlook on the rest, I’m actually going through a difficult time at the minute deciding. It’s all very well considered, anyway, is the point there.
It’s interesting because, again, I’ve spoken to other actors and I think from the outside it looks so easy to pick your next project, but you’re in a rare moment that is to be cherished where you probably have a few different things you’re being offered that you can do, and it’s about which one is the best for you, for your career, who you want to work with, what has the chance of getting seen – you’re weighing all that, I’m sure.
O’CONNELL: Certain jobs are for the business really, because they get an audience, they get a global audience, like I say, for the business. Certain jobs are as an artist. If I can keep moving forward and strike some form of balance between them two, then I’m going to feel content.
Christian Bale did that very well. He did a number of indies and of course Batman and now Exodus, but he manages to jump back and forth really well. I mean, I really love his work.
O’CONNELL: There’s some good examples of actors paving the way for the likes of myself – Robert Downey Jr. is a fucking awesome actor and a very successful business man now. So if there’s a way of doing both, then fuck it, that’s a version of success too. But I’d like to remain integral as an artist first and foremost.
O’CONNELL; When is it?
It’s the end of January – Oh you might be filming – but it’s around that time, and I know ’71 will be there and I’m sure it’s going to get a very loud ovation after that screening.
O’CONNELL: Do you reckon?
Oh my god, dude, ’71 is unbelievable.
I’m saying this to you as a movie fan, that movie rocked me in February. I love that movie and everyone I know that’s seen it raves. You should look online and look at Twitter or Facebook and look at what people say.
O’CONNELL: Yeah, the reception’s been brilliant.
Dude, it’s awesome.
O’CONNELL: But I struggle to picture people getting up on their feet and wailing and that. Is that a bit like Sundance though? Is that how things go at Sundance? Are they an easy crowd?
No, people respect filmmakers and movies, and it costs money to go as a film fan. It’s a great place for cinema, and I think that it will probably play the Eccles which is a 1200 seat theater and it will be a very loud reception. I’m telling you from an outsider, you should go, I think you’d have a really good time.
O’CONNELL: Yeah, that would be moving. That would be moving if it was to…
Oh there’s no way it doesn’t get a big reception. And also what’s great is the movie will play like four or five times at different venues, and usually the filmmaker and sometimes the stars will go to each screening and do a brief Q & A after, and it’s people who really love movies. And there’s a really intimate thing on the buses where people are always talking each day, “What have you seen? What’s good? What do I need to see?” People are always adjusting, trying to get tickets.
O’CONNELL: Yeah, bless ‘em. At home we don’t really have the standing ovation like cheer for cinema.
Yeah, that happens in Sundance.
O’CONNELL: Cool man, I want to go partake in one.
A lot of my friends who are actors will only go when they have a movie there.
O’CONNELL: I’m going to go into the endings. I’ll just time it so I can go into the endings of all the good films and take part in the cheer.
Unbroken opens Christmas Day.