With the Christmas Day release of Angelina Jolie’s latest directorial effort, Unbroken, quickly approaching, the Internet has been abuzz about her leading man, Jack O’Connell. The film, about the extraordinary life of U.S. Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, is the 24-year-old actor’s biggest stateside project to date, and critics are touting him as the next big thing. However, one look back at his impressive, young career and you’ll see he’s already bigger than you realized.
Before Unbroken, the Derby, England-born O’Connell made his acting debut in the British soap opera Doctors. From there, he made several minor TV appearances, hit the stage in the play Scarborough at the Edinburgh Festival, and had a small role in this year’s 300: Rise of an Empire. However, for a true glimpse at his remarkable, star-worthy talent, take a look at his career highlights.
He broke everyone’s heart in This Is England (2006).
Anyone who’s seen This Is England will tell you: it’s not an easy movie to sit through. The quietly tense film centers on a group of young skinheads in 1983 England who try to fit in with the subculture’s older, rowdier, dangerous crowd. The reemergence of one of the crew’s former leaders, Combo (Stephen Graham), who just got out of prison, divides the group as his English nationalist and racist views are forced upon the gang. Among that gang is O’Connell’s Pukey Nicholls, an aggressive and manic kid who stands up against their leader’s prejudice ways, only to be made an example of.
This was O’Connell’s first film, and an indication that the young star, then 15, wasn’t interested in being a teen heartthrob. No, this was a kid who was interested in material that would always be bigger than him.
He creeped people out in Eden Lake (2008).
Opposite Michael Fassbender, O’Connell creeps everyone out as this horror-thriller’s ruthless villain. Here, O’Connell plays Brett, the gang leader of a group of delinquent teenagers who terrorize a vacationing couple (Fassbender and Kelly Reilly) at a remote lake in the English countryside. From stealing their car to threatening their lives, O’Connell’s Brett stops at nothing to make life hell for the couple just because he could.
At 18, O’Connell commands the screen with a sense of control and intensity characteristic of actors twice his age and experience.
Watch O’Connell and his Unbroken cast discuss working with Jolie on Big Morning Buzz Live.
He made Skins, the second generation, unforgettable.
E4’s Skins, the second generation, is what put O’Connell on the map across the pond. Thanks to the series, which aired from 2009-2010, he cemented his reputation as the go-to actor to play The Messed-Up Kid. For two seasons, O’Connell embodied James Cook, the local high school’s self-destructive womanizer whose life spirals out of control with the campus’ hottest student, Effy (Kaya Scodelario). When he’s not having sex in classrooms and drinking himself into oblivion on the beach with his troubled girlfriend, he’s out at bars, getting into fights with anything and anyone that’ll pay him any mind.
While the character sounds like the archetypal bad boy, O’Connell brings depth to the performance. Every line he utters as the broken and abandoned Cook hits like a swing to the stomach, and you can’t help but want to reach into the screen and fix him in every scene he carries.
He proved himself as a leading man in 2013’s Starred Up.
Not your typical prison movie, the critically-acclaimed Starred Up follows O’Connell as Eric, a young delinquent who’s transferred to an adult prison, only to be met face-to-face with his estranged, incarcerated father (Ben Mendehlson). More than crime drama, the film is an exploration of a father-son relationship under the most extreme circumstances. As Eric goes through a therapy program with some of the prison’s most violent criminals, his father rages against it, allowing the film to work in issues of racism, homophobia, and corruption within the system.
Starred Up premiered in the UK last year, but made waves in the U.S. festival circuit in 2014. And just like the film saw his character come into his own, so did critics and casual moviegoers alike recognize the arrival of Jack O’Connell.
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