Jack O'Connell is just anonymous enough — for now, anyway — that unfamiliar viewers who see Money Monster are going to be stunned to discover he was brought up in Derby, England. The 25-year-old Brit nails the Queens accent, along with the borough’s blue-collar sensibilities, as Kyle Budwell, a man so enraged by a bad, savings-depleting stock tip that he takes hostage the TV financial guru (George Clooney) responsible for the bum advice.
O'Connell has earned acclaim in a series of low-budget British-produced films like This Is England, Starred Up, and ‘71. He also won wide praise for his lead role in his Hollywood breakout, the Angelina Jolie-directed WWII drama Unbroken, although the movie failed to live up to its pre-release Oscar hype. And while he played a mild-mannered soldier in that film, Money Monster shows O'Connell simmer in a performance that manages to upstage both his Academy Award-winning co-stars, Clooney and Julia Roberts. It’s no wonder the Oscar-winning actor who directed them, Jodie Foster, plucked a guy from Derbyshire to play a New Yorka.
At the Los Angeles press day for Money Monster, O'Connell revealed another quality: being a candid, grateful, soulful, introspective interview. He said actors can be a**holes to each other. He gave a truthful assessment of how his hard-scrabble upbringing in the U.K. would have led him down a dark path had he not made it as a performer. And he expressed frustration over the process of auditioning to play a young Han Solo in an upcoming Star Wars spin-off, a role that went to Alden Ehrenreich instead (the announcement came just hours after our interview). Few 25-year-old Hollywood neophytes would dare give such an honest response given the politics of the industry and what it could mean for future opportunities. Then again, few 25-year-old Hollywood neophytes have the chops that O'Connell possesses.
Like Unbroken, one of the last films we saw you in, Money Monster is directed by an Oscar-winning actress who is more about filmmaking these days. Developing trend, or pure coincidence?
Pure coincidence, I would say, mate. I mean if it is a trend then more female directors, please. But that’s speaking selfishly. I consider myself fortunate. Angelina I’ve stayed in touch with, she’s a very loyal person. She came and watched my play, The Nap. We did it up in Sheffield [England]. It was off the circuit, a little bit, in terms of London. I invited Angelina along, said, 'Look, I know you’re in the country. I’m doing this play if you want to come and see.’ And I couldn’t believe it, she turned up. I think going anywhere with her level of stardom is quite an issue. But she doesn’t let it impede her. I think that is very admirable.
What was your impression of Jodie as a filmmaker?
I loved her level of commitment. She was always there. And though she was an actor, she was never in her trailer, which is alien because actors love trailers. Some love them too much. But she’s very driven… Jodie kept me on my toes.
Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, George Clooney, and Jack O’Connell at Cannes (Associated Press)
Did you see any similarities in the filmmaking approaches of Angelina and Jodie, given they’ve had somewhat parallel paths?
I think they both recognize that everything you do as an actor is at some kind of cost. Whether it’s emotional or physical or financial or whatever. Not all directors respect that. Not all directors care about that. And I think that can also be a very effective environment to work in as well. But, I certainly appreciate the level of consideration that Jodie and Angelina both kept when they were delivering their direction and trying to steer my performance… It makes me feel like going the extra mile then.
You nail the outer-boroughs New York accent in Money Monster. What’d you do to perfect it?
I hung out with some Brooklyn fire guys. They took me out on an excursion or two, and that day I felt like a firefighter. And then I made sure I got out to New York early enough for me to get to grips and feel like my version of the Queens dialect wasn’t an impersonation, it was something that felt lived in and authentic, and also something you feel equipped enough with to be able to just dip in and out of. Especially if you happen to improvise and go off page, you’ve just gotta be able. And that doesn’t happen overnight.
And also I had a great dialect coach, Jerome Butler. Great man, great coach. And he was always on set, and always very honest with me. And I’m sure there were takes that we did as well where I didn’t sound anything like a New Yorker. But that’s the process of trial and error. It’s great that it’s going down well, if I can say that now. The feedback has been very positive, so I’m uplifted by that.
Did you make your way around the boroughs at all testing it out in real situations?
I don’t dare. Though when we were in the groove, and we had been shooting for long enough, I stayed in it a few months. I overnighted with the accent. But for me that means I can’t necessarily speak to my mum. 'Cause there’s no way I’m gonna try to do any accent to me mother.
I respect actors that can. I’ve had relationships before with girls who are on certain jobs and they’re doing their accent to me. And I respect that. I do whatever I can to get over the weirdness of it. But it’s not something that I ever considered myself good at, which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I was overnighting with this accent and finding myself capable of just engaging with people with this dialect I was trying to achieve.
O’Connell and Clooney in ‘Money Monster’ (Sony)
You spend much of this film screaming at George Clooney. What was your on-set relationship like?
He makes it easier, just by being cool. He’ll take the edge off, and he just likes to chitchat. We have common interests with sports. So that was common grounds that we had and we could always refer to that. It was like our little safe place.
But the whole process was made easier by George being cool and very welcoming. Likewise with Julia. And that’s a credit to them. Because it’s by no means a compulsory part of their job. And some actors do forget the benefits of being sociable, polite at least. Because the environment that we’re working in, it would have been awkward if we were being a**holes to each other, which does exist.
What sports did you and George bond over?
Well he likes his basketball, so I was happy to entertain that. Baseball we talked about a little because I was there long enough to develop an interest in the New York Mets. I went down to Citi Field a couple times… I came up with a chant for [first baseman Lucas] Duda. [Chanting while slapping his knee] Who’s gonna hit that ball real far? Du-da, Du-da. I did it at Citi Field and it took off.
That’s amazing. You were the cheer-starter. What’d you think of George’s hip-hop dancing in the film?
I liked it [laughs]. I didn’t think too much of his shadow-boxing… That was during when I was doing my makeup tests and s***, so I was floating around and subjected to it.
Did the subject matter of Money Monster hit home for you? Do you share in people’s frustration over the world’s financial system?
Yeah, mainly because I don’t understand it. It’s a system that relies on jargon. People’s success relies on the majority of people not understanding it. If it was made a lot more simple, then it would be easy for everyone, and anything worth doing is never easy, right? So I’m not sure how much I disagree with it all. It’s there, and it works, but it’s criminal that it exists. A lot of my education on this topic comes solely from making this film. And I guess my frustrations.
And also if I wasn’t an actor, I dare say I’d be in a lot worse a position than Kyle. So that was easy for me to at least dip into and recall, that version of desperation. But it’s something that now I can only imagine. That was deliberate, to find myself in this scenario, to chase down this dream and be successful enough to afford good things for my family. That’s why I do it. So I guess I’m exempt. So with the way things are, I’m not sure I can claim too much. That doesn’t mean to say they’re right. I’m just neglectful of it, which makes me guilty, and also part of the problem.
O’Connell in ‘Money Monster’ (Sony)
If you weren’t an actor then, where do you think you would be today?
I don’t know, I think I would’ve done something quite stupid. I think I was a product of my environment, and I do believe that — particularly nowadays — things have gone in reverse. I came up through a time when you could climb socially, and you could better yourself. Those opportunities were there. And supposedly they’re there now, but I think they’re much less available.
So I don’t know. If I compare myself to my friends and realize where some of my friends where I’m from the same area as, they’re in trouble. A lot of them are in trouble. I’m not there anymore, and I feel a huge sense of guilt in not being able to be there for certain people. But that’s not the direction that my life has gone, and I’ve done well to escape it. So I can’t think of any reason why I’d ever go back.
I know you were one of the young actors out for the role of Young Han Solo. Can you say anything about what that experience was like?
Look, I auditioned for it. I love the process of auditioning, even the rejections. It will refine you and make you stronger as an actor.
Or sometimes it can be so tediously frustrating that it exhausts you as an actor. I think that applied throughout this process. It didn’t go my way, I wish them all the best of luck. But I don’t necessarily agree with the reasons given. I’m biased, so…
The process was exhausting?
Yeah. That process kind of contributes to the overall exhaustion that you have to face as an actor. It’s part and parcel of the job, and the roles that are worth getting are the ones that you’ve gotta fight for. As the way I see it, it’s only so often that you’re given a role that you’ve always wanted to play. The ones that you’ve always wanted, I think you have to fight for.
But the most frustrating thing is when you feel like your full potential hasn’t been recognized. Or, the imagination required for your potential to be recognized, isn’t necessarily there. And it’s very hard to convey all these things in one audition. But that’s the process and I don’t think one individual will change that.
Money Monster is now in theaters. Watch the trailer: