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Jack O'Connell is serious about having a diverse career

The English actor ("Unbroken") talks about accents and pushing himself with Jodie Foster's "Money Monster."
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    Jack O'Connell plays a regular Joe who takes the star of a hit money show (George |Atsushi Nishijima

Jack O’Connell is a fan of New York but not so much Wall Street. He doesn’t mean all the greed monsters down there, though they don’t come off well in his new film, which is in fact called “Money Monster.” The English actor refers to how the combination of high traffic and the narrowing tail of the island can actually be dangerous when someone is in need of ambulances and firetrucks, which he noticed while filming down there.

“You’d see these emergency services forced to cut through the streets we blocked off, firetrucks taking a U-turn, having a nosy,” O’Connell says, dropping in some homeland slang. “It was slightly disturbing.”

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“Money Monster” is O’Connell’s second big Hollywood movie, after a series of electric turns in movies back home. He scored raves as a rage machine in the prison drama “Starred Up.” The same goes for his more reserved, panicked performance as a soldier fighting to stay alive in the IRA thriller "'71.” The actor was promising enough that Angelina Jolie took a chance, casting the relative unknown as Olympiad-turned-POW Louis Zamperini in her hit biopic “Unbroken.”

That role — strong yet sensitive — is quite different from O’Connell’s early work, which saw him typecast as aggro delinquents, in films like “This Is England” (as a skinhead) and the show “Skins” (as keyed-up James Cook). Just as he’s been trying to stay well-behaved, following a youth spent being self-destructive on the off-hours, O’Connell is adamant about trying new things.

“My respect for actors comes when I see them really pushing themselves and performing out of their comfort zones,” O’Connell says. “I admire character actors. Speaking selfishly, I consider myself quite observant. Ideally I’d like to establish myself as someone who can be unique and change my strengths.”

“Money Monster” — which finds him directed by another actress-turned-filmmaker, Jodie Foster — is another angry role: He plays Kyle, a working-class New Yorker who’s lost all his money on a stock recommendation from George Clooney’s Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer-type with his own popular (and often reckless) investment show. Kyle is so desperate he crashes a live show, armed with a gun and bombs, wanting to expose corruption on Wall Street. For O’Connell it meant spending most of the shoot frazzled and shout-y, though also vulnerable — a regular guy in way over his head.

“Kyle enters the movie with a lot of energy. He’s coming from a desperate place. I had to stay true to that vocally, to get to a place where I felt I could improvise with a foreign dialect,” he says, referring to his very thick Central England accent. (He’s from Derby.) “That was a huge challenge, because the movie required a bit of freedom and spontaneity in places.

“There’s a difference between impersonating as an actor and trying to do something that feels lived-in,” he says. “I won’t settle for anything less than the letter there.”

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O’Connell earned a lot of acclaim in “Unbroken,” which went on to be one of 2014’s highest grossers. To American viewers — and Hollywood execs — he was still a newbie, despite his long CV in the U.K. What kinds of films was he being offered right after?

“Typically the roles you really want aren’t the ones you get offered,” O’Connell reveals. “People would offer you obvious choices that aren’t risky in terms of casting. When I reflect on my body of work, it’s going to have to be diverse and interesting. And those opportunities aren’t easy to come by. It can still be a little frustrating — but if it’s worth doing it’s not going to be easy, is it?”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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