Jack O'Connell: How the 24-year-old went from troubled youth to Bafta winner

The Unbroken actor was welcomed into the luvvie gang at last night's Baftas, but it's not been an easy ride for the Derby lad

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The Independent Online

Jack O'Connell left school with two GCSEs and has gone on to become Britain's most promising new dramatic talent by picking up the EE Rising Star award at Sunday night's Baftas. Just how did he do it?

Derby born

O'Connell grew up in the Midlands city with his parents. His father was Irish and worked on the railways and his mum worked for airline British Midland. He described his comprehensive school as "brutal" and "rough as f**k" and, aged 12, he was sent to boxing and army cadets. O'Connell wanted to be a professional footballer, but a knee injury aged 16 killed that dream.

Troubled youth

O'Connell got two GCSEs - a C in English and a B in drama - and left school aged 16. He told the Guardian that starring in 2014 prison drama in Starred Up wasn't "much of a stretch". Talking of how he nearly ended up with a jail term, O'Connell said: "When I was younger, I got into a lot of trouble and was made to feel guilty for a long time. I was in and out of court, and then I had a young offender’s referral order for a year.

"And that was at the time when I was trying to be an actor at the Royal Court," O'Connell added. "I was in real court the day I was starting a play called Scarborough at the Royal Court in London – waiting to find out if I was getting a custodial sentence."

He didn't get a sentence and said that the alleged crime, which he hasn't discussed in detail, was for "defence purposes".


Fame academy

While his school might have been "rough", it sent him to the Television Workshop in Nottingham - a highly regarded institution that trains young people for stage and screen work. He won his first screen role on Doctors aged 15, then The Bill, This is England, and Skins.

Famous Skins alumni includes Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel, X-Men actor Nicholas Hoult, and new Pirates of the Caribbean star Kaya Scodelario.

Raw talent

Looking at Britain's upper-middle-class, Eton-and-Harrow dominated acting scene, O'Connell's rough, gutsy performances are a blessed relief. O'Connell's sheer lack of a cut-glass accent makes him a pretty thrilling addition to Britain's roster of talent.

He talks passionately about the edgier elements of film-making. Speaking to The Telegraph about Starred Up, he explained why shooting on-set in a prison meant so much to him. "Having access to this prison meant we could film sequentially. So however much [conditions filming in a real prison] took their toll, it was made up for by the fact that we could just let the story unfold."

Shunning celebrity

Unlike so many young actors, O'Connell's not been bowled over by the novelty of his new-found fame. He moved to London in 2014, and says that a big night out for him is more likely to be down his local pub. 

Big backers

His friendship and working relationship with Angelina Jolie has undoubtedly given his career a leg-up. She cast him in the lead of World War Two drama Unbroken, in which he plays an athlete taken prisoner by the Japanese. Jolie described O'Connell as the "least Hollywood person I've ever met" and her seal of approval has brought him to a global audience.

O'Connell has said that her influence has been enormous. He said she "taught me a lot". He added: "The main thing I’ve taken from working with her is how genuinely selfless she is. That’s what I want to be. Being on call all day, every day – I feel really determined off the back of it. And I feel really fulfilled. Now I’ve got this sense of belonging. And thankfully I’ve been able to flirt with Hollywood a little bit without having to compromise at all."