In the early morning hours of December 23, 1991, in the small town of Corsicana, Texas a deadly fire erupted in the home of Cameron Todd Willingham and his family. The blaze killed Willingham's three young daughters, Amber, Karmon and Kameron while Willingham's wife Stacy was at work, and Todd was the sole survivor of this heartbreaking tragedy. Willingham was soon after arrested and put on death row for arson and the murder of his three daughters, but the young father swore of his innocence even after he was locked up.
Jack O'Connell talks "Trial by Fire" and how he feels honored to deliver the film's powerful message
"Trial by Fire" examines the case of Cameron Todd Willingham (played by Jack O'Connell), his conviction and his relationship with playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) after the proclaimed "bleeding heart" begins a pen pal relationship with Willingham while he's on death row. The question begins to arise in Gilbert's mind if Todd was wrongfully convicted, and she sets out to get more answers on the case that quite possibly put an innocent man behind bars, and a pending needle in his arm. O'Connell sat down with Metro to talk more about the film, how he prepared for his role, and discuss why this case may be proof that there is a disturbing lack of justice in our country's justice system.
"Trial by Fire" is not meant to brighten anyone's day with false hope or even be a shot at political views- it's a raw and compelling story showing the extremely disturbing situation one man was put through, and on the other end of the spectrum also highlight the tenacity of the human spirit.
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O'Connell who is a UK native had not heard of the case prior to taking the role, but the actor was compelled by Willingham's story and truly tried to get an inside look at his life. "I had no prior knowledge, so reading the script was my introduction to Cameron's story, then it was just a case of doing research," says O'Connell. "[I tried to] figure out what my perspective on him is, and just tried to figure out who he is, what his interests are, what's important to him, tried to figure out his surroundings at the time. I also tried to get to know who Corsicana is [as a town] and get to know Texas --not just the political backdrop but the climate. All of these different factors gave me some training and helped me feel like I wasn't just doing an impression."
"Trial by Fire" has its low points, your heart breaks and you feel the desperation of Willingham's situation. "He was stripped of a lot of his freedom, on death row he's pretty much in solitude," says O'Connell. However, the movie also shows the strength and perseverance Willingham had, as Todd says in the film, you have to "find meaning in the suffering".
"His life was dependant on him trying to educate himself in some way. The system is set up for and fails people like Todd, you need money in that game. It's quite disadvantageous for him," says O'Connell. "I just think across-the-board that justice is a hard thing to maintain, it takes a full investigation, it caught me lost. I feel like Todd was found guilty based on a system that was pretty dated even at that time. My view is not one that kind of points the finger at anyone really, I think justice, on the whole, should take time, especially when people’s lives depend on it."
But if the finger isn't being pointed at one specific person, is it pointed at the downfall of a society as a whole? "It looks like it’s pointing towards a bureaucracy that would rather execute an innocent man than admit to its faults. I think there's a hint of that in Todd’s case, that’s my personal view, that's criminal," O'Connell adds.
Hope came in many forms throughout the film for Todd, sometimes it was more beneficial, sometimes it was hurtful. But the purest form of hope came from Elizabeth Gilbert, who quite literally became one of Todd's only allies. "He maintained his innocence throughout more or less, so to have somebody who was impartial to his case and have someone to talk to and even offer a form of escape--talking to her even for short stints of time, it offered the escape. The more time Elizabeth spent on Todd's case and investigating herself, the more she was convinced that he was innocent as well."
"Trial by Fire" is a film that certainly has a lesson, but the dire situations of the story make this lesson's message a lot more cutting than most. Watching the film may not give you the warm fuzzies, but it certainly will inspire many. Whether it be to take another look at the subject of capital punishment, to remember a man who was disregarded by so many, to delve into a wildly compelling story or simply even to be inspired by incredible acting-- "Trial by Fire" is a showcase of despair, hope, tenacity and morals.
"People have their views, and I don't necessarily consider it my job to change people's opinions on one thing or another. What excites me is telling stories, if they're made up, fine, if they're based on true events, great. I mean I think at the heart of this story is Elizabeth Gilbert and her work with the justice program. So certainly within this movie yeah, injustice does exist. But I'm not about to get on my soapbox and dictate it one way or the other," says O'Connell. "If I in any way offered Todd's voice and Todd's case and Todd’s innocence a platform, that’s an honor. That's something that I hold quite dearly, and I'm very fortunate to be able to do that."
"Trial by Fire" opens nationwide on May 17th