'Unbroken' Star Jack O'Connell on Empathizing With Prisoners, Becoming Louis Zamperini

'Starred Up'

A violent teenager is transferred to an adult prison where he meets his ultimate match, his father. 

The actor, starring in the Angelina Jolie-directed Oscar hopeful, can currently be seen in "Starred Up"

[WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Starred Up.]

Jack O'Connell barely says anything for the first part of his latest movie Starred Up, but the violent British prison drama still serves as an effective introduction to the actor who will soon be the focus of a great deal of U.S. attention this December as he stars in the Angelina Jolie-directed Oscar hopeful Unbroken.

O'Connell is probably best known for his role as Cook on the British series Skins, and he had a small part in the 300 sequel, Rise of an Empire, released in March. But he'll next be seen as real-life Olympian and World War II hero Louis Zamperini in Unbroken.

For those unfamiliar with O'Connell, the gritty Starred Up, on demand and in theaters, gives you a chance to see whether he could be the next big thing.

The title refers to ultra-dangerous prisoners, like O'Connell's character, being transferred early from juvenile to adult facilities, as he is at the beginning of the movie. As the film goes on, O'Connell's Eric fights with fellow inmates and guards and experiences a number of tense confrontations with his father, who's revealed to be incarcerated in the same facility. Since it premiered on the festival circuit last year, the Tribeca Film release has received rave reviews. The movie currently has a 98 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy, reviewing the title out of last year's Telluride festival, said O'Connell's "performance here as an ultra-violent anti-social kid in the slammer shows off the actor’s James Cagney-like bantam cock vitality and quicksilver mood changes."

After auditioning and talking about the character with O'Connell, director David Mackenzie tells The Hollywood Reporter he had a strong feeling that the actor was the right man for the job.

"I knew that he would be brave enough to go all the way with the character, which I think he has done," Mackenzie says, adding that O'Connell had the right presence and strength. "Also it was important to me that he looked like he was a boy as well because in and amongst all of this there's a kid. And I just saw those qualities and that was what I was after."

Indeed, O'Connell has some ultra-violent fight scenes, including one in which his character bites down on a man's genitals through his pants and a bloody near-hanging at the end of the film.

O'Connell insists that the film doesn't intend to glamorize violence and instead the cast and crew just tried to tell an authentic story instead of "making a movie out of something."

But he didn't have to do much research to understand life behind bars, noting that he has several friends in similar circumstances and has long empathized with those on that "path of misfortune."

"I'd already had a pre-set incentive of wanting to play that sort of path of misfortune," O'Connell tells THR. "I've always felt an affinity for one reason or another for that … a lot of friends of mine kind of find themselves in similar circumstances, which I sympathize for, I empathize with and I get to play it."

With Unbroken, though, O'Connell was intent on meeting the film's real-life subject before he began portraying him on camera, saying he felt those interactions were "essential."

The two met twice prior to shooting, with the first meeting captured on camera for the DVD extras, O'Connell says. The second one, though, was more personal and allowed O'Connell to realize just how suited for that role he was.

After hanging out with Zamperini and his family at his house, O'Connell says, "I tried on one of his jackets, which fitted, like to the inch. It looked all right on me. Everyone noticed this. That was quite a touching moment."

Since then, Zamperini has died, casting a pall over the film's upcoming release.

"I was always envisioning perhaps being on a red carpet with Louis. That's the way I'd seen it. It's going to be difficult conceiving otherwise now," O'Connell says.

But he already got a bit of an endorsement from Zamperini, who saw some of the footage before he died and was pleased with O'Connell's style of running, the actor says.

O'Connell's Starred Up co-star Rupert Friend was also impressed with O'Connell, telling THR, "I just thought he was the brightest, most exciting acting talent of his generation. I hope he carries on getting all the success he deserves."

Watch the Starred Up trailer below.