The tattoo on his right bicep says it all: the nickname "Jack The Lad" ("lad" being British slang for a bad, bad boy) hovering above the laughing and frowning drama masks. That contradiction of crude yet charismatic, square-jawed yet boyish, and reckless yet disciplined has endeared Jack O'Connell to audiences who've come to anticipate his portrayals of unpolished ruffians who are nevertheless possessed with an inner core of determination.
That determination was forged in O'Connell's childhood, as the oldest son of an Irish father and English mother scraping by in working class Derbyshire, England. His early life was in constant opposition to bullies and authorities at Catholic school, and he spent much time in and out of juvenile court. His parents tried to rechannel his violent energy into athletics, including boxing and football, but a knee injury disqualified him from a professional career.
A future in the military -- or, possibly, in prison -- awaited this marginal student, but a required drama class at school provided an outlet where his energy (and skills in prevarication) could be put to constructive use. Training stints at the Royal Court Theatre and Nottingham's Television Workshop put him in contact with other actors willing to mentor the restless teen. After many months of traveling to London for auditions (and sleeping on park benches), the 15-year old actor landed the role of a young tough in the Thatcher-era skinhead drama This Is England.
After paying his dues in many bit parts, O'Connell at last broke out of the pack after being cast as shameless party boy James Cook in the frank teen drama Skins, earning not only the admiration of many fluttery-eyed fans thrilling to his Casanova antics, but to directors who valued his authentic proletariat aura. More roles, like a British soldier stranded within a Belfast riot in '71 and a defiant young convict in Starred Up soon followed, along with a tabloid reputation for being linked with young beauties and showing up hung over for interviews.
Despite his off-screen exploits, it was O'Connell's growing on-screen resume that caught the attention of fellow former wild child Angelina Jolie, who cast him as ultra-survivor Louis Zamperini in her wartime POW epic Unbroken. O'Connell threw himself into the demands of the role, which included dropping his thick Midlands brogue, subsisting on 800 calories a day for months and enduring prison camp scenes so physically demanding he blacked out on set. But the role was a perfect showcase for his indomitable temperament, and his efforts were recognized with a Rising Star award at the BAFTAs (an honor voted by the public) and a New Hollywood Award.