JACK O'Connell has revealed that it was hard to “shake off” the character of soldier Gary Hook in new thriller '71, which is based on the Troubles in Belfast.
The second-generation Irish actor plays the starring role in the new movie, which received it’s premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on Thursday evening in Leicester Square.
Speaking to The Irish Post on the red carpet, the 24-year-old said: “It’s always hard to shake it [the character] off, I never try and detach myself altogether from any role I’m playing, particularly when it’s this fast paced.
“So, it was easy to stay in, but I don’t think Gary is that far afield from myself. He’s the kind of figure I look up to at home, so in that sense I definitely felt an affinity.
“This militant role is a realm I almost entered myself, and to be here portraying that in a much more safer environment, sometimes perhaps not, but the majority of the time a much safer environment, it’s a f****** luxury! I really hold my respect to them who perhaps aren’t as fortunate as myself in that regard.
“I’m always keen to focus on the realities, particularly when it’s heartfelt, but as an actor I’d like to be more diverse and explore other realms.”
O’Connell, whose father is from Co Kerry, made his acting debut in 2005 and has since landed roles in Pat O'Connor's Private Peaceful, Skins and This is England. He also takes on the lead in Angelina Jolie's upcoming film Unbroken, but his focus is very much on his current project.
He believes that it’s the honesty of the story-telling in '71 that will appeal to audiences.
“I read through the script, we’re not trying to criminalise anyone, just depict the truth. I think we have a very ethical film on our hands.
“There are no answers, no attempt to shift the blame. I'm half-Irish myself, and could see that these events were realities to people. I wanted to normalise Gary as much as possible, make him someone who existed in that time.
“Honesty and the realm in which the movie is set drew me to it, the fact no one’s tried to recreate history or amend it. It’s just hopefully a truthful depiction.”
Filming took place mostly at night in Britain over nine weeks, and although the production benefitted from Northern Ireland Screen's backing from the outset, Blackburn and Liverpool were used as locations to recreate Belfast's red brick terraces.
“It feels like a foreign movie although we shot it up north, some might consider that foreign but officially not so, it’s good to bring it back. We’ve screened it elsewhere, Toronto,very far afield, so, to be here on home soil is sentimental.”
Throughout shooting, ex-military were posted on set to advise cast and crew on everything "from the way to hold a specific rifle to the squaddie lingo," says O'Connell. “At one point I was determined to join it after my football career messed up.”
He admits that filming was challenging at times, adding: "It was a tough shoot, but we knew it was going to be brutal.”
O’Connell is fast-establishing himself as a familiar face in Hollywood, but he confesses that the journey to the big screen has been a result of years of hard work.
“I’ve been working long enough to put myself where I am, and to see it paying it off is humbling. It’s taken me ten long years, so it doesn’t feel fast-tracked in the slightest.”
'71 is released in cinemas across the UK today