Jack O'Connell does not like taking it easy.
The 24-year-old English actor has no complaints about getting banged around in the brutal British prison drama “Starred Up,” which opens this week, or his physically trying portrayal of Olympic runner and World War II survivor Louis Zamperini in the upcoming “Unbroken.”
Well, maybe just one.
“I'm unemployed, but none of the above,” he says over the phone from the U.K.
It's unlikely O'Connell will be out of work for long. Headlining “Unbroken,” what may be the most anticipated prestige production of the year, will certainly increase demand. Plus, those who see his shrewdly feral performance in “Starred Up” will know they've met a new force in cinema.
Directed by David Mackenzie (“Young Adam,” “Asylum”) in sequence at an actual abandoned prison, “Starred Up” is the story of a teenage offender, O'Connell's Eric, so violent that he's transferred from a youth facility to an adult penitentiary — where his estranged father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) has been serving hard time.
Eric quickly establishes his dangerous bona fides to Dad, administration and the general population. Yet there's a therapist on duty, Oliver (Rupert Friend), who coaxes the volatile lad into his anger management group sessions (the screenplay was written by Jonathan Asser, who has worked with prisoners in that way).
Whether this will calm Eric down, or if Neville will allow it to, makes for sustained high tension.
That noted, O'Connell thought hard about finding the man inside the animalistic Eric.
“Anything that I receive, workwise, I always seek the reality the best I can,” he says in a robust Midlands accent. “I try to introduce humane traits. If they're not necessarily on the page, then it's up to me to invent them.
“Eric was a pretty blank canvas, but there were parameters. I was more interested in playing someone who was perhaps smart — not academically, but who certainly had access to his brainpower. I think they're the most threatening in a fight and intimidating characters that I've encountered. I thought that made him somebody worth watching as opposed to somebody more predictable, perhaps.”