A re you here to see man?â asks a Spanish waiter as I walk through the cafÃ© garden, and points towards the table just beyond the loos where Jack OâConnell stands, his hand raised in a solemn hello. Yes I say. Yes I am.
To sit in the dark and watch Jack OâConnellâs work, from the very earliest characters he played (a boy accused of rape in The Bill, Pukey the skinhead in This Is England) through to self-destructive lad Cook in teen drama Skins and the boy incarcerated with his dad in prison drama Starred Up, followed by a squaddie in Northern Ireland in the Troubles film â71, is to watch a slow portrait of contemporary masculinity. What OâConnell does, with his eyes and voice, and careful violence, is show the vulnerability beneath his charactersâ cracked shells, and Iâm keen now to find out how much of them is him, and how much of him is them, and what heâs learned about masculinity.
Unfortunately, though, it is 2021, and it has never been harder to talk about being a man, yet this is how we begin.
âItâs quite aâ¦ complex topic, isnât it?â OâConnell says, taking a swig of his juice (flavour: red). âI grew up in a lot of genuinely macho environments. My dad played football for a team until I was seven, and I can still remember that musk of the dressing room.â This was Derby in the mid-90s, when his late dad, an Irish immigrant, worked on the railways. He wanted to be a footballer too, but injuries got in the way, and then a hairdresser, because it looked glamorous, and then he wanted to join the army, but his juvenile criminal record ruled that out. âThe environment with my uncles was a jovial one, with hilarity, honesty.â He leans back. âI donât think the term âtoxic masculinityâ is very helpful though. It makes me feelâ¦ a certain way to see menâs lives getting clouded by it, and burdened.ââI grew up in macho environmentsâ: Jack wears jumper by Wales Bonner, trousers by Sefr both at matchesfashion.com), watch by jaeger-lecoultre.com. Photograph: Jason Hetherington/The Observer
The waiter gives a jolly thumbs-up from across the room.
âMen are a chastised group within society. But my experience with male-dominated crowds was always that they wereâ¦ gentleman.â Is he sweating slightly? He wipes his face, tanned after shooting in the North African desert, a series about (âOh, youâll love thisâ) the foundation of the SAS. âMisogyny is a pig-ugly trait, but you could also call it a self-absorbed, self-serving self-centredness. And no one likes a selfish cunt.â We relax for a second. âItâs tough. I mean, I read the Guardian. And a lot of time I feel targeted, just by virtue of being a lad.â
I feel bad. I intended this to be a gentle celebration of Jack and his trade, the question about men simply a fun way in, but of course I was ignoring the political fog that weâre sitting in. Would he like something to eat? I join him in an avocado toast. âI suppose, with my work, Iâve been able to explore âmasculinityâ, and those type of themes, and hope to do justice to the reality of them, as opposed to showing them in 2D.â OâConnell started acting at school, where drama classes were âa welcome change from being sent to face the wall in the corridor,â and was soon accepted into the Television Workshop in Nottingham. They met twice a week and all day Sunday, and it seems to have saved him from the kind of life he went on to play on film. On the day he was starting a show at the Royal Court in London he was in real court waiting to find out if he was getting a custodial sentence; when he came to London for auditions heâd sleep on a park bench. He has a rare talent; he credits luck. âIâm hyper-aware of just how much fortune has been involved, a series of events that simply would not happen now.â
He ticks them off on his fingers. âWell. My dad got free travel because he worked on the railway. They donât do that any more. The workshop that I trained at now has to charge people. At school, drama was compulsory, now itâs off the curriculum. I mean, I would not know how to advise a young lad from an area like mine how to get into a career like this.â Heâs 31 now and has got more political with age. âOf course, I watch PMQs and listen to LBC, because, well, I pay taxes.â And whatâs he seeing? âThe worldâs going backwards, isnât it? Which goes against the agreement, doesnât it? The agreement that we pay into society and hope that decent decisions will be made.â Does it make him angry? âSometimes. Sometimes it makes me energised.â
OâConnell was 17 when he was cast in Skins, and during the rehearsal week they went to Glastonbury. They got there late on the Friday night, and were met by the original cast â the Nicholas Hoult and Dev Patel generation â for âa bit of a passing of the mantleâ. There was, he remembers grinningly, âout-and-out outrageousness everywhere you lookedâ, and then suddenly he was famous, for playing a hedonistic criminal in what the Parents Television Council called âthe most dangerous television show for children that we have ever seenâ. That character, he says, was âHalf created for me and half by me. Yeah, there were certain traits that bled into my own life for sure. Did I play up to it? Probably. And did I pay for it eventually? Definitely. You start thinking that really is your personality. And itâs not until things calm down a bit that you actually get a bit of clarity. So while most people were either finding their feet with their careers, or getting into higher education, we were thrust into the centre of a very popular teen programme.â He shakes his head. âIt catches up with you.â What happened? âEva, I donât want to get myself into trouble, this is a Sunday supplement. But, you know, eventually the wheels come off and something explodes. And you start looking around eventuallygoing, âOh fuck, none of my original mates want to talk to me.ââ And now? âWhere things are at the minute, I really, really cherish.âHard knocks: Jack OâConnell as Pukey, right, in This Is England. Photograph: FilmFour/Sportsphoto/Allstar
After the Skins wildness had died down, OâConnellâs next big break was a call saying that Angelina Jolie wanted to meet him. She cast him as Louis Zamperini in Unbroken, about a man who competed in the 1936 Olympics, crash-landed as a Second World War bombardier and survived 47 days at sea before being made a POW for two years.(Over the decades both Tony Curtis and Nicolas Cage had been attached to star.) âWalking in for that first meeting was nerve-wracking. Itâs a funny one, when you meet Americans. Because if you have a strong regional accent,â he gestures to his strong regional accent, âthereâs a danger of being misconstrued as their equivalent of a conservative redneck whoâd vote Trump. In Angieâs case that did not apply. Which in my experience is quite a rare thing.â When they started working together on Unbroken in 2014 she chartered a helicopter to Derbyshire to take his family out for dinner. âAnd working with her kind of bumped me up a few levels on the list.â The list! The list. When actors talk about the list, always with the same blank shudder, I imagine a biblical scroll, complete with social media rankings, possibly written in blood. âRight, thatâs why I deleted Instagram.â Why? âGeorge Clooney told me to. It took about three years from him giving the advice though for me to take it. Itâs show business, isnât it?â
Itâs because of this that he feels some self-loathing after certain projects. âI hope this doesnât come across as too pretentious,â he says, leaning back, âBut when Iâm working, I like to be as unselfconscious as possible. If youâve watched yourself a lot, it can find its way into your thought process, and for me it started to border on vanity. So Iâve knocked social media on the head for a bit. The best art happens by accident, when youâre not deliberately trying to manufacture something, youârejust zoned in and present, not when youâre thinking about how itâs going to look on telly.â The social media sobriety started at the beginning of the pandemic, when OâConnell moved back to Derby with his mum. Every weekend during the lockdowns they went to the virtual pub â the Bell & Castle on Burton Road did a live feed â âand it gave us all a big Saturday night in. GenuinelyMade a huge difference.â He learned to make pizza. His lockdown was, he says smiling, ânot extraordinaryâ. By which he means, exactly how he likes it.
Weâre meeting to talk about The North Water, a beautiful but grim survival drama set on an 1850s whaling ship. It was shot in the Arctic on two boats â one modern, with a bar from which OâConnell and his co-stars Colin Farrell and Stephen Graham would stare at the glaciers with a pint in hand, and the other a replica of a period whaler. Viewers who havenât read the novel that writer-director Andrew Haigh based the series on get a hint of whatâs to come from the Schopenhauer quote it opens with: âThe world is hell, and men are both the tormented souls and the devils within it.â OâConnell plays shipâs surgeon Patrick Sumner, a man who attempts to bring order to an increasingly brutal voyage. There is blood, there is devilry. But apart from that, it sounds like it was lovely. âIt was amazing â the constant awareness of the threat of polar bears, occasional visits from walruses popping up from under the ice. It made for something altogether unforgettable. And I was dying to work with Andrew Haigh. Heâs got an element of sadism to him; he takes a weird sense of pleasure in the darker stuff.â Which OâConnell revels in.âMisogyny is a pig-ugly traitâ: Jack wears mustard shirt by basicrights.com, brown trousers by Sefr at matchesfashion.com, watch by jaeger-lecoultre.com and shoes by grenson.com. Photograph: Jason Hetherington/The Observer
âWith any actor, you try to work out what they need from you as a director,â Haigh tells me. âSome actors want to be looked after, others wantto be pushed. Jack wants to be hurled into the air without a crash mat. If I am something of a sadist for sending us up to the freezing Arctic in the pursuit of authenticity, then heâs undoubtedly a masochist when it comes to crafting his performance. He is so deeply committed to finding the gnarly truth of a moment.â Preparing for scenes, Haigh would watch OâConnell retch and swear and howl. âI remember once trying to persuade him that he didnât need to throw up for real. He was having none of it.â He adds, âI think Jack was interested in playing someone actively questioning how to live among men rather than blindly following, a man trying to break free from the constraints of traditional masculinity.â
Colin Farrell plays Sumnerâs sociopathic counterpart, a hulking harpooner called Drax â a man who enjoys a kill and moves among the crew like a violent bear; the two men are drawn to each other, despite themselves. Farrell poured himself into the character, bulking up on multiple breakfasts, sleeping on the replica ship, not washing for weeks. âAnd you didnât even get to experience his smell. The smell of man it was.â He chuckles darkly. âNotes of cheeseburger.â
One of the things OâConnell has learned in his half a life of acting is that, if heâs lucky, he can walk away from a project with more than just a paycheque. âRemember, I didnât experience higher education, so any role that I play is a gateway â this was a gateway into reading the Iliad and philosophy. Stuff I wouldnât have found if I was still milling about Derby. Itâs made me want to go back to school. Iâm going to study history.â What would he be doing if he wasnât doing this? âHonestly, nothing good.ââThank you, I feel âseenââ. Jack OâConnell as Patrick Sumner in The North Water. Photograph: Nicolas Bolduc/BBC/See-Saw Films
Itâs this knowledge that means, when heâs not working, he likes to play golf. âLikesâ is perhaps not the correct word. He does it so the time off doesnât pull him under. âYouâve got no choice with golf but to be there for three hours. Iâve taken it up in a big way because itâs long and youâre outdoors, and it fills time, which, you know, is good for me. The devil makes work for idle hands.â
Then his juice is gone and suddenly weâre talking about men again, and heâs worried heâs going to be misunderstood. The conversation slows, from a jaunty sprint to an awkward plod, as though weâre walking through treacle. âIâm wanting to ask you to look after me here, you know,â he says. âI wish we could have a better conversation about this, but itâs so easy to sound like youâre fighting for the other sideâ¦â Iâm not trying to set him up, I promise. I want to talk about masculinity from the perspective of a man who has spent his career going to physical extremes to show the vulnerability of violent men, and how what it means to be a man has changed since he was growing up. âRight,â he says. âCook worked at the time because laddishness was part of his world â we were watching Booze Britain and Geordie Shore. I wonder what that character would look like today. Thank you for that thoughtful summation of my career. I feel âseenâ. But itâs soâ¦ quizzical. Your own identity is one of the most challenging things to understand. As a man, you have your own power and agency, and itâs about learning where that is beneficial, and where itâs poisonous. Thatâs not a phenomenon thatâs particular to men though; weâre all trying to work out what our meaning is arenât we? And weâre all fallible.â He picks at his uneaten avocado thoughtfully. âIâm trying to listen more. Iâm trying to be better.â
The North Water slows into a more existential horror story as the episodes pass, and Sumner must find increasingly extreme ways to stay alive on the ice. I ask OâConnell about a scene steeped in pain and madness, where, having killed a polar bear he climbs into her warm guts and lies inside its skin waiting for death. âI have no prior experienceobviously, of being devoured,â he says, sensibly, âSo I just thought, OK,â and he raises his eyes, his brow set with a familiar gravity, âLetâs make this sexy.ââ And then he cracks up.
The North Water will premiere on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer on 10 September at 9.30pm