By David Hennessy
Yann Demange, the director of television drama such as Top Boy, transports the viewer back to a time when Belfast was the most terrifying station for any British soldier in his exhilarating and tense debut, ’71.
Jack O’Connell’s performance in the lead role of Gary Hook, a soldier who is separated from his unit and left to fend for himself in the menacing and unfamiliar city, confirms him as a leading man whose career is only going up.
Derby-Irish Jack, whose father came from Ballyheigh in Kerry, has already starred in E4’s Skins and been British Independent Film Award nominated for his turn in Starred Up. Next, he can be seen in the true story Unbroken, the directorial debut of Angelina Jolie, where he plays World War II hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini, a former Olympic track star who survived a plane crash and then spent years living in several Japanese prisoner of war camps.
Draining both physically and mentally, ’71 and Unbroken have been physical shoots for Jack but you won’t hear him complaining: “If I’m portraying people like Gary and “Louie” Zamperini, I’m never gonna hurt as much as they did and they still allegedly made it through so I’m always sort of dwarfed by their example and that keeps you going a bit, that gives you a kick up the arse.
“I’m actually craving the sleep deprivation and the hurt again. There’s an emotional exhaustion too and if you’ve got both to contend with, you’re really being made to work for your money. I don’t feel like I’ve been pushed to my absolute extreme. It was hard enough, ‘71, but it didn’t break me. I do probably feel myself overdue a pretty relaxed role but that’s unambitious.
“One thing you don’t experience in the cinema is how cold it was, that’s one thing you’re exempt from and then they’re spraying me down with water to make me sweaty. I would have been much happier providing my own sweat, they can’t warm the water up because it steams.
“If I wasn’t cold, I was extremely hot trying to do the pursuit sequences in a f***ing heatwave in Blackburn in march. I would always argue that it was more intense. I don’t deserve any extra credit for that, I knew what I was getting myself into. If we’re going to feel exhausted watching it, something has to give onset. We don’t have the sort of budget to make my life any easier on things like this.”
Aged 15, Jack considered joining the army. Did being so close to making the same career choice as his character help inform his character? “Yeah, in areas that probably go unnoticed. The shape of my beret was taught to me by cadets. Just little tricks like that helped me feel like a soldier. There were times where if it was getting boring onset, I would just go and do some drill just to help stay in that mindset. I haven’t looked back since becoming an actor, I’ll tell ya that much.
“Sometimes you’re battling against the elements too. You’re filming on a residential area so you have an element of real life 2013 constantly hindering your illusion of 1971 so I’m not sure how beneficial is to be super rigid and strict about becoming method in that role but it does benefit me, certainly.”
Jack has spoken with pride about his Irish Catholic upbringing so the Troubles were no foreign topic for him. He liked ‘71’s range of Irish characters that come from both sides with neither unrealistic or demonised: “It was key for me that neither side of the divide was depicted with any form of bias or prejudice. I never felt like the story had tried to sway my opinion, it was just depicting what we regard as the truth. However fictional, I read it as the truth because we’re in a real life premise.
“I think it’s a credit to the casting because it gave an opportunity for us to not only portray their stories but also use some of the most exciting young actors in Ireland at the minute: Barry Keoghan, Killian Scott.. All of which put in these sterling performances which is gonna help us fully depict a fair version. Otherwise we’re taking sides.”
Irish actors Richard Dormer, Charlie Murphy, Martin McCann and David Wilmot are also among the supporting cast while Sean Harris and Paul Anderson play the renegade undercover MRF officers.
Did Jack have an opportunity to do some research on the Northern Ireland of the 1970s when he was in Belfast filming Starred Up? “I suppose it was an opportunity there for that but I’m very nervous of crossing my wires anyway. I think Crumlin Road Gaol had a vast history, a wealth of all that information potentially but even for our purposes shooting Starred Up, it was unhelpful.
“By the time I got back and ‘71 was a reality, I felt aggrieved that I had just come from the epicentre of it, the film I was about to go and shoot, and I hadn’t come back with any more resource. But for Gary, I didn’t need to know the ins and outs. He was a naïve squaddie. He was there surviving for his own paternal reasons, for his younger brother, and that’s a role that he’s had to adopt himself. That made me validate his naivety and made me feel a bit too educated on this particular topic.”
Gary is Jack’s most relatable character yet and he does well to create this despite there being such little dialogue. Writer Gregory Burke explains: “He can’t say much. He can’t say anything. As soon as he opens his mouth, he gives himself away so he’s not going to say anything to people, he’s going to try and get through situations by not opening his mouth because he doesn’t know which side’s which.
“One of the difficult things if you’re casting a movie in great Britain which needs a young working class actors who looks like they’re working class, it’s quite difficult to find them. A lot of the actors who are doing well in Britain are guys who are privately educated and there’s a certain way they look. They’re genetically different. If you put them in a squaddie’s uniform and put them in a movie, you’re not gonna buy it because they don’t look like they’re from that area or that milieu. Of course, Jack does.”
“It’s the first time I’ve felt privileged (to be working class),” quips Jack to this.
Gregory continues: “Thirty years ago, if you went to cast a role like that, there would be 25 guys there and all of them brilliant and all of them quite successful. Nowadays, it’s much rarer to find someone like that .
“What he does brilliantly is he has that physicality of being able to convey a lot of stuff without saying anything
There is a poignant exchange when Jack’s injured soldier tells Charlie Murphy’s character as she cares for him that Nottingham and Derby do not get on that well although when asked why, saying ‘I don’t know really’.
“It proves that conflict, tribal conflicts are everywhere as well. There’s fault lines wherever you look, if you look hard enough,” says Gregory.
’71 is in cinemas now. For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World.