One of the major pleasant surprises at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, ’71, a gripping and thoughtful drama set in Belfast during The Troubles, hits theaters this Friday. The film stars soon-to-be-household-name Jack O’Connell as Gary Hook, a British serviceman trapped behind enemy lines during a night of intense sectarian unrest.
O’Connell may be best known for his work on the U.K. soap hit Skins, but 2014 set him on a trajectory for Hollywood’s A-list. While American audiences might have spotted him in 300: Rise of Artemisia, it was the critically acclaimed British prison drama Starred Up, and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken that cemented O’Connell as the potential next “it” actor.
We caught up with O’Connell (and the film’s director, Yann Demange) back at TIFF to talk about what makes ’71 a unique war story, and how he’s handling the demands of movie stardom.
Check it out below, and enjoy!
How did you come to be attached to the film?
Jack O’Connell: Jina Jay, who cast ’71, I’ve got a good relationship with. So she made the right noises to Yann [Demange] and he just wanted to get together and meet me. It was like a straight-out offer, he had decided that I was his Gary, and he was going to make it work. That was flattering, it was the first time in my career that that had happened. So, beginning last year, I had three films, back-to-back. Well, one of which being Skins, but that kinda felt like a movie shoot as well. That’s how it came about, but it was very challenging to do three jobs, three very different characters, back-to-back.
What is it about the Hook character that makes him a unique centre for an action movie?
JO: I’d say because we see him as a human, we don’t know if he’s capable to get through it. He’s not a stone-faced killer, he’s not a savage. He loses his best mate, he’s got a relationship with his younger brother which is vital to him. He has to return, otherwise his brother’s f***ed. There’s no selfishness to him, so he’s got a good reason to get the f*** out of there. But he’s so out of his depth, and he’s a young lad. It’s quite plausible that’s been the case; if I was witnessing this as an audience member, I’d really appreciate the lack of bulls*** that we offer.
Do you think Yann’s accomplished that: a film free of bulls***?
JO: Yeah, yeah. We never try to perpetrate, or assume, or point fingers, or explain anything that hasn’t already been discussed. It’s not a revelation, hopefully we’re exposing the cost on ground level. We see the lack of animosity between Gary and, who were at the time, his enemies. And we see how brainwashing takes its toll, and how that then escalates into these conflicts.
It’s a hard film to pin down. What’s the first word that comes to your mind when you try to explain what it is to people?
JO: I hear the word “thriller.” But I never set out….or certainly on set, I didn’t feel like we were making a thriller. I guess in a word, it’s an “insight,” isn’t it? We’re portraying it on ground level, and we see costs like that. We throw out questions afterwards. So instead of boring an audience with low-budget cinema – with a portrayal of the politics and where this war started – we’re just in there. And it is thrilling, and that was Yann’s job, to provide that. But for me, I was portraying someone who, for as far as I was concerned, existed.
Did you film ’71 before or after Starred Up?
So did that make it hard to switch into a character that is very vulnerable and reactionary?
JO: Sure. That’s where Yann came in, and that’s why I’m here. With a lesser director I’d have been f***ed. So, I’ve come out here, mainly to support Yann because of his support for me during the shoot. He was always there to remind me when I was, perhaps, reverting back to something that I should have left in Belfast – funny enough, we shot Starred Up in Belfast, and then ’71 in Northern England. So that was his expertise, to have that sensibility, and enable and steer me in that way. I didn’t know the answers in this one, I don’t think anyone who’s in a realistic, life-threatening situation knows all the answers, you know?