Jack O'Connell (actor)
Jack O'Connell (born 1 August 1990) is an English actor. He is best known for his role In This Is England as Pukey Nicholls and as James Cook in Skins (2009–2010, 2013), which was followed by other lead roles in the slasher film Eden Lake (2009) and the television dramas Dive (2010) and United (2011).
O'Connell gave critically acclaimed performances in the independent films Starred Up (2013) and '71 (2014), and subsequently starred as war hero Louis Zamperini in the war film Unbroken (2014), for which he received the BAFTA Rising Star Award. He has since starred in the thriller Money Monster (2016), the Netflix western limited series Godless (2017), the biographical drama Trial by Fire (2018) and the BBC miniseries The North Water (2021).
O'Connell was born on 1 August 1990 into a working-class family in Alvaston, Derbyshire. His father, Johnny Patrick O'Connell, was an Irish immigrant from Ballyheigue who worked on the British railways for Bombardier until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2009. His mother, Alison (née Gutteridge), who is English, was employed by the airline British Midland before taking on management of her son's career. His younger sister, Megan, is an actress. As the grandson of Ken Gutteridge, a player and later manager at Burton Albion FC, O'Connell aspired to become a professional footballer. He played as a striker for Alvaston Rangers and was later scouted by Derby County FC, where he had trials. After a series of injuries ended his career, he wanted to join the British Army, believing it to be his only realistic option to make an honest living. His parents sent him to the Army Cadet Force when he was 12 with the aim of teaching him discipline, but his juvenile criminal record prevented him from enlisting in the army.
As a youth, O'Connell was in and out of court on charges related to alcohol and violence, and he received a one-year young offender's referral order when he was 17. Regarding his past transgressions, he has described himself as "a product of [his] environment". At age 16, O'Connell left Saint Benedict Catholic School with two GCSEs in drama and English. He later reflected on his "brutal" experience at Saint Benedict: "What I learnt aside from anything academic at school was probably very valuable lessons in terms of how to lie, how to play the game, how to play authority against itself." He took an interest in acting during the compulsory drama classes, and from age 13 he attended the free Television Workshop in Nottingham, where he trained in drama twice a week. He began attending auditions in London, where he sometimes slept outside because he was unable to afford a hotel. He eventually moved to Hounslow in London, working in between acting parts as a farmhand in Cobham, Surrey.
Since the start of his career, O'Connell has mainly played young delinquents; The New York Times writer John Freeman noted retrospectively, "If a British film called for a tough case, a grappler, someone with a bit of grit, chances were O'Connell got the part. [He] has delivered one gripping physical performance after another, bringing an electric authenticity to the portrayal of angry, troubled youth." O'Connell made his professional acting debut in 2005 when he played a runaway with anger issues in an episode of Doctors, followed by a recurring role as a boy accused of rape in The Bill. His stage debut came that same year after a rendition of the play The Spider Men by the Television Workshop was selected to be performed at the Royal National Theatre in London. O'Connell played his debut film role in This Is England (2006), a critically acclaimed coming-of-age drama set in the skinhead subculture of the early 1980s. At age 15, he was deemed too old to play the main character, leading filmmaker Shane Meadows to write the supporting role of the belligerent Pukey specifically for him.
During 2007, O'Connell appeared in television episodes of Waterloo Road, Holby City and Wire in the Blood. He played a 15-year-old pupil involved in a sexual relationship with his teacher in the play Scarborough, first performed at the Edinburgh Festival before its transfer the following year to London's Royal Court Theatre. Variety's David Benedict wrote of his stage performance, "His sincere grasp of Daz's innocent tenderness is, paradoxically, a sign of the character's—and the actor's—unexpected maturity." In the horror–thriller Eden Lake (2008), which received positive reviews, O'Connell played a psychopathic gang leader who terrorises a young married couple. He next starred as a juvenile delinquent in "Between You and Me" (2008), an educational film produced by the Derbyshire Constabulary, followed by a minor role in the ITV serial Wuthering Heights (2009).
O'Connell first found fame, chiefly among people his age, as the troubled and hard-living James Cook in the third and fourth series of the E4 teen drama Skins (2009–10). Grantland writer Amos Barshad opined that among his co-stars, which included Dev Patel and Nicholas Hoult, none "ever quite matched the luminescent, leering mania of O'Connell's Cook. As a preposterously ramped up bad boy, Cook was almost like a baby Tyler Durden." He won a TV Choice Award for Best Actor for his performance in the fourth series. O'Connell later reprised his role in the feature-length special Skins Rise (2013), which follows a twenty-something Cook on the run from authorities. He has said of Cook, "He's probably the most similar character to myself that I had the good fortune of portraying," though he noted that unlike Cook he had matured beyond adolescence.
In the vigilante thriller Harry Brown (2009), which polarised critics, O'Connell played an abused child turned vicious gang member. He impressed lead actor Michael Caine, who shouted "Star of the future!" at him during filming. His portrayal of a teenaged father in the BBC Two drama Dive (2010) earned him critical praise; Euan Ferguson of The Guardian described it as "a performance that is of an actor twice his years: mesmerising, comedic and soulful." The Daily Telegraph critic Olly Grant concurred, writing, "He was a revelation; nuanced, understated, wise beyond his years." Following a lead role in the Sky1 serial The Runaway (2011), set in the criminal underworld of 1970s London, O'Connell starred as football player Bobby Charlton in another well-received BBC Two drama, United (2011), which chronicles the 1958 Munich air crash that killed eight players of Manchester United.
His next film, the theatrically released Weekender (2011), showcased the Manchester rave scene of the early 1990s. Though the film received poor reviews, O'Connell's "dumb but sparky sidekick" was called "a godsend" by Tim Robey of The Daily Telegraph. Similarly, the thriller Tower Block (2012), about flat tenants under attack from a sniper, received mixed reviews, but The Hollywood Reporter critic Jordan Mintzer singled out O'Connell as "the standout [of the cast]" as the building's protection racketeer. Following his turn as a soldier in Private Peaceful (2012), an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, he co-starred as the apprentice of a hitman played by Tim Roth in The Liability (2012), both of which met with mixed critical reception.
O'Connell's career breakthrough came when he starred in the independent prison drama Starred Up (2013). His portrayal of a violent teenager incarcerated in the same prison as his father received widespread critical acclaim; Entertainment Weekly critic Chris Nashawaty wrote, "O'Connell bristles with terrifying hair-trigger unpredictability. Watching him, you feel like you're witnessing the arrival of a new movie star." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone agreed, describing his "mad-dog incarnate" portrayal as "a star-is-born performance." O'Connell next starred in another acclaimed independent film, '71 (2014), portraying a soldier deployed to Belfast at the height of political violence in Northern Ireland. He was director Yann Demange's first and only choice for the part. Writing for Empire, Nev Pierce opined, "In a superb ensemble, O'Connell is outstanding," adding, "We know he can do violence, but here he holds the screen with no swagger—just a simple desire to survive." He received consecutive nominations for the British Independent Film Award for Best Actor.
Following a supporting role as an Athenian warrior in his first blockbuster, 300: Rise of an Empire (2014), O'Connell played his first leading role in a major Hollywood picture, Unbroken (2014), directed by Angelina Jolie. He portrayed Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American Olympic distance runner who, as a bombardier in the Second World War, survived a plane crash over the Pacific and was held for two years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. To prepare for the role, he underwent a strict diet to lose almost 30 pounds and worked with a dialect coach to mask his thick Derbyshire accent. The resulting performance was positively received; Richard Corliss of Time concluded, "Jolie has made a grand, solid movie of the Zamperini story, but O'Connell is the part of Unbroken that was truly worth the wait." For his work in Starred Up and Unbroken, O'Connell received the Breakthrough Award from the National Board of Review. He additionally became the tenth recipient of the publicly voted BAFTA Rising Star Award. In August 2021, it was announced that O'Connell had joined the cast of a film adaption of Lady Chaetterley's Lover, playing the lover, Oliver.
After his father died when O'Connell was 18, he coped in part by engaging in self-destructive behaviour, later commenting that he "didn't stop partying for like seven years". While living in Bristol during his tenure on Skins, he acquired a reputation in the tabloids as a "party boy", a "bad boy", and a "bit of rough". He regularly gave interviews while hungover. His childhood nickname "Jack the Lad" (a phrase meaning "a conspicuously self-assured, carefree, brash young man") is tattooed on his arm.
O'Connell's troubled youth has influenced his work, resulting in him playing mainly delinquents for the first decade of his career, while his juvenile criminal record initially prevented him from being cast in Hollywood productions as he was unable to obtain a U.S. visa. By age 24, he had largely changed his lifestyle, saying, "I'm not trying to have the most fun I've ever had ever, anymore. That used to be the mentality every time I left the house." He has credited Angelina Jolie, who directed him in his first Hollywood film Unbroken, with influencing his outlook and described working with her as an "intervention".
On 20 June 2016, World Refugee Day, O'Connell, as well as Holliday Grainger, featured in a film from the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR to help raise awareness of the global refugee crisis. The film, titled Home, has a family take a reverse migration into the middle of a war zone. Inspired by primary accounts of refugees, and is part of UNHCR's #WithRefugees campaign, which also includes a petition to governments to expand asylum to provide further shelter, integrating job opportunities, and education. Home, written and directed by Daniel Mulloy, went on to win a BAFTA Award and a Gold Lion at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity among many other awards.
|2006||This Is England||Pukey Nicholls|
|Black Dog||Chris||Short film|
|2009||Wayfaring Stranger||Bobby Brewer||Short film|
|2010||The Hardest Part||Thug||Short film|
|The Somnambulists||Man 10|
|Private Peaceful||Charles “Charlie” Peaceful|
|2013||Starred Up||Eric Love|
|300: Rise of an Empire||Calisto|
|Shelter||Charlie Miller||Short film|
|2016||Money Monster||Kyle Budwell|
|2017||The Man with the Iron Heart||Jan Kubiš|
|Tulip Fever||Willem Brok|
|2018||Trial by Fire||Cameron Todd Willingham|
|Jungleland||Walter “Lion” Kaminski|
|2021||Little Fish||Jude Williams|
|2022||Lady Chatterley's Lover||Oliver||Post-production|
|2005||Doctors||Connor Yates||Episode: "Like Father, Like Son"|
|The Bill||Ross Trescott||4 episodes|
|2007||Waterloo Road||Dale Baxter||Episode #2.9|
|Holby City||Davey Hunt||Episode: "Trust"|
|Wire in the Blood||Jack Norton||Episode: "The Names of Angels"|
|2009||Wuthering Heights||Shepherd lad||1 episode|
|2009–2010, 2013||Skins||James Cook||Regular: 18 episodes|
|2010||Dive||Robert Wisley||Television film|
|The Runaway||Eamonn Docherty||6 episodes|
|2017||Godless||Roy Goode||Miniseries; 7 episodes|
|2021||The North Water||Patrick Sumner||Miniseries; 5 episodes|
|TBA||SAS: Rogue Heroes||Paddy Mayne||Upcoming miniseries|
|2008||Scarborough||Daz||Royal Court Theatre|
|2015||The Nap||Dylan Spokes||Sheffield Crucible|
|2017||Cat on a Hot Tin Roof||Brick||Young Vic|
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