May 16, 2024

Jack O’Connell, Back To Black, Hollywood Authentic, Greg Williams

Photographs and interview by GREG WILLIAMS
As told to Jane Crowther

Jack O’Connell doesn’t like to hurry his eggs. ‘Low and slow,’ he insists, talking me through his breakfast wrap one drizzly March Friday morning in north east London when I meet him at his home. He takes half an hour to scramble his eggs as he crisps his accompanying black pudding, sausage and streaky bacon for our brunch. ‘I’ve always wanted to do a cookery show,’ he chuckles as he diligently stirs. ‘Don’t rush them…’

The actor’s domestic vibe is similarly exacting – ‘a tidy house, a tidy mind,’ he says of his spick ‘n’ span home – and is also reflected in the way he approaches his work. Though he has form playing troublemakers, rule-breakers and trailblazers in projects such as This Is England, Skins, Starred Up, Unbroken, The North Water, SAS Rogue Heroes and Ferrari, Jack doesn’t adhere to the idea of playing a hellraiser on and off screen. ‘It’s a funny one, isn’t it?’ he says, scarfing down his breakfast wrap. ‘If I’ve got a good head on my shoulders, and I’ve slept, and I’m rested, and I’m on set, it’s the best place to be. You know what I mean?’

As Bob the dog (more of whom later) weaves round our legs, Jack shows me round his house, pointing out the art he’s bought on his travels, including a Shane McGowan (‘I picked this up in Bantry, in Cork – it’s painted with peat from the bogs’), and the plants he’s currently cultivating. ‘This fella needs to cheer up,’ he says of one of the plants he’s just repotted, its leaves scattered around the floor next to it, ‘and this fella is thriving…’ His art is mainly of musicians, which is apt considering he’s next playing the husband of Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s new biopic, Back to Black. ‘The last five or six years, I’ve started to really, really appreciate cinema. Not just actors, but the whole craft. I’ve always loved music but I never had the attention span for films as a kid. I’d get fucking bored – unless it was Braveheart with loads of scrapping, and all that action kicking off.’

While he might not have fully appreciated film and acting as a teen growing up in Derby, it intrigued him enough to attend a drama workshop twice a week in Nottingham with Ian Smith, the acting teacher who discovered Samantha Morton. It was while he was there that Shane Meadows came to cast for This Is England in 2004. He gave Jack his first role on a project that became an awards-winner and hugely influential to British cinema. ‘I was about 14 and suddenly I’ve got a BAFTA-winning film to my name,’ he marvels. Quite the trip for a kid from an industrial town in the north of England where working at the Rolls Royce or Bombardier plant was the usual ambition. 

Jack O’Connell, Back To Black, Hollywood Authentic, Greg Williams

‘I just grew up there, playing football and doing all the normal stuff. My mum and dad worked every hour of the day. My mum had two jobs and still had bailiffs coming around. I remember the bailiffs coming and nabbing our TV. I was halfway through watching Pingu, and they fucking nabbed the TV. I remember my mum having to be really crafty with how she’d get food on the table and whatnot. And that was despite my dad working his arse off. He worked himself into the ground.’ The death of his dad at the age of 18  is something that still informs the 33-year-old today. ‘In terms of my relationship with him, I never got to speak to him as an adult, which is the biggest bereavement I still feel. With that kind of loss, you never get over it. You just cope. I had 18 years with a fine, fine man. I know lads that never even had a day with theirs. So it is what it is. But he got to see the start of where I was getting to with work.’

Shane Meadows has continued to be influential in Jack’s career as he recently turned his hand to directing a music video for Paul Weller. ‘I loved the shooting experience, then I got into the edit and was petrified, because suddenly I’ve got all this material, and I don’t know where it’s going, and I don’t know if it’s going to work. So I reached out to Shane; I hadn’t spoken to him in years. I told him what the score was, and he was like, “Oh, Jack, whenever I finish my gig, I feel like I’ve just won the award. And then I get into the edit, and I want to do myself in.” When you’re an actor, if it’s shit, you just blame the director. This time round, I had no one to blame, so it was on me.’

Jack’s latest acting work cast him opposite Marisa Abela as the two of them inhabit Amy Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil in Back to Black. Filming on location in the couple’s real-life stomping ground of Camden, Jack was reunited with Bob – a dog he’d befriended previously while acting in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in the West End in 2018. As we head out to walk the dog, he tells me of their sliding doors moment. ‘I was shooting at the Dublin Castle pub in all my Blake garb. And who should walk past? It’d been about a year-and-a-half or two years. Bless him, he remembered.’ Now Jack borrows Bob for walks and hangouts from his owner, Lisa, when he has downtime between film shoots. Back to Black was a special project, he says, as we stroll the rain-slicked local streets to his favourite coffee shop. ‘I loved it, mate. Marisa was spellbinding. She threw everything at it. She was in every scene, it was heavy for her. I just really respected the work rate and the process.’ In preparation for the role, Jack met up with Blake, an experience he describes as something of a revelation. ‘His persona’s very public. He’s got plenty written about him in the tabloids. You think you’ve got the measure of someone based on what’s out there. I think he’s been vilified. And compared to the fella I met – I just got on with him. I was quite surprised. 

Jack O’Connell, Back To Black, Hollywood Authentic, Greg Williams

Your best tools are your ears, and what you hear, and what you play off. You do a scene three or four times, and there’s gonna be a different nuance

It just felt like I had a lot in common with him. Any time he talked about Amy, it just rang true – and you can forgive being beguiled at that age. The kind of limelight that both of them ended up in… That meeting informed me a lot.’

As we arrive at Jack’s local coffee house I ask how he chooses his roles. ‘There’s jobs that you get, and there’s jobs that you chase, you know? It’s a bit of the law of attraction. There’s such a thing as just eating a bit of humble pie, and putting your hat in the ring. Even if you get fucking ignored, blanked and rejected, you know, not everything is just going to come your way. So I’m reaching out a lot more. I’m interested in being versatile.’ Before we can discuss further we’re welcomed warmly by Rodrigo, a barista from Naples, and we get chatting about football, Maradona and Paolo Sorrentino as Jack gets his coffee on the house. The two of them sing Napoli football songs together in Italian.

We move on to the local butchers, cups warming our hands, in search of a treat for Bob. As a proud northern working-class man, Jack recognises a certain pre-judgement operates in getting roles. ‘Do you think if I had a posh accent I would have a bigger career?’ he asks. ‘What I’m trying to understand – it’s bigger than myself, and my career – is that, do you get to have really good, aspirational jobs if you didn’t go to private school?’ Does he have a point? Though he’s played a wide range of roles, eras and accents with a diverse roster of helmers (including Michael Mann on Ferrari, Angelina Jolie on Unbroken, Jodie Foster on Money Monster), it’s interesting that there have been more American directors who have seen beyond his background. There are still ‘invisible lines and glass ceilings in play’ says the actor.

Jack O’Connell, Back To Black, Hollywood Authentic, Greg Williams

Jack has worked across TV, film and theatre – so which is his favourite space to get hooked on? ‘To use a cliché, film’s a director’s medium and TV is a producer’s. On TV you’re allowed more time to tell a story in a series, but you’re shooting fucking seven to eight pages in a day. Whereas, with film, obviously there’s always restraints as it relates to budget and what have you, but you can be a bit more focused. Your best tools are your ears, and what you hear, and what you play off. You do a scene three or four times, and there’s gonna be a different nuance to react to.’

His love of cinema is both as a practitioner and a punter, and as we stroll past his local picturehouse I ask him what role in any film he would have liked to have got stuck into. ‘The first one that’s coming to my head is American Psycho and Patrick Bateman. But I just think that what Christian Bale did with that is untouchable. And Jud in Kes. Sid in Sid and Nancy. That’d be the top three there.’ We nip into the retro cinema Jack describes as a ‘little viewing glass into yesteryear’ where he tells me over a Coke that he never watches his own work on a big screen alongside an audience. ‘I just watch at home, in the comfort of your own living room. So if you need to self-flagellate, you can just do it, in privacy! But there’s got to be a childlike curiosity to what you do. You know, when a toddler is playing, they’re not scared of how they’re looking, or if they’re getting it wrong. There’s a freedom to it. We lose it – the innocence, the fucking vigour, the fearlessness. To a toddler, fear doesn’t exist – the fear of getting it wrong; the fear of looking silly. But I think that’s got to be part of the process, isn’t it? You’ve got to be given room to fail. What’s borne out of that is what’s worth mining for. It’s the oxymoron of trying to be but not act. That’s always the goal. The best example I’ve got, which is lived in, is working with Shane Meadows. The cameras didn’t come out until the afternoon. He just spent the morning figuring it out. He didn’t know the story until he got into the edit. So we didn’t know. We were just there.’ 

Photographs, interview and video by GREG WILLIAMS
Jack O’Connell can be seen in Back to Black, out now 

March 13, 2023

thuso mbedu, the woman king, the underground railroad, hollywood authentic, breakfast club, greg williams, greg williams photography

There is a map of the world on the wall of Thuso Mbedu’s apartment in the San Fernando Valley, the sprawling satellite suburb that lies to the northwest of the Los Angeles mothership. Written in large, cursive script at the bottom of the poster is the phrase “She’s going places”. A handful of dots are scattered across the representation of the globe, indicating cities and countries that the actor has visited since she moved to the valley in 2020. But, she assures me, the picture is incomplete – she still has to add Utah (Sundance Film Festival), Zurich (movie promotional work), Dubai and Singapore (Christmas/New Year holidays), with – upcoming – Milan and Paris (fashion shows), Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai (birthday celebrations). She will be 32 this year, although that is hard to believe, given she plays late-teens so convincingly.

Thuso is certainly going places, but what the wallchart can’t really illustrate is just how far she has come in a relatively short time. I am in her apartment to talk about that journey from Pietermaritzburg, a city about 45 minutes from Durban (“Although that depends on who’s driving,” she laughs) to Hollywood’s top table, thanks to a brace of remarkable performances in Amazon’s The Underground Railroad and subsequently, The Woman King, with Viola Davis. There’s a lot to talk about. But first, breakfast.

Here’s the thing, though. Thuso doesn’t really do breakfast. “I have cereal,” she offers. “I find it gives me energy to go and work out. Otherwise, I’ll just grab a banana. I usually have Raisin Bran Crunch, because I’ve got a weird digestive system, so I need to have the bran and the fibre or whatever.”

thuso mbedu, the woman king, the underground railroad, hollywood authentic, breakfast club, greg williams, greg williams photography

I don’t usually eat cereal. Or drink cow’s milk. But it is Thuso’s breakfast we are here for, not mine. Then: “And I’m lactose-intolerant. So, it’s oat milk with cereal. Is that OK?” It is. “Although I will sometimes order in an omelette. I love omelettes.”

As Thuso pours us oversize bowls (next to her slender frame anyway) of Raisin Bran, I speculate that the fact she has omelettes delivered suggests she is not much of a hob botherer. “I love food. But hate cooking. I tell people they can come and stay in the spare room, but don’t expect me to look after you. I love the kitchen in my apartment, but mainly because it has great light for selfies.”

So, I ask, if she doesn’t make much use of the oven or hob, what’s in the fridge? She laughs, half embarrassed. “Water. Lots of water.”

So, there is. Plus, half a red onion, which remains a mystery. The water is all Essentia brand. Is that significant? “Yes! Because when I first arrived in America, I thought all the water was disgusting. And then one day our costume department head for The Underground Railroad was, like, ‘Oh, would you like some Essentia?’ So, I had a sip. And it was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, this reminds me of home.’ It was the best-tasting water I ever had. All the South Africans know that when they come to America, they need to get Essentia water, because that’s the water that they’ll enjoy, just like home.” Home, as we shall see, is all-important in appreciating Thuso’s back story. Everything circles round to South Africa and family – or lack of it. In The Woman King, Thuso’s character, Nawi, the wannabe Agojie warrior, tells Viola Davis’s Nanisca that she, too, has suffered in life. This actor didn’t have to dig too deep for that.

“My sister and I lost our mother to a brain tumour when I was four years old. And we didn’t have much of a relationship with our father. He was never in our lives. And so, our grandmother raised us. She was super strict.” Thuso screws her thumbs into the tabletop to press the point home. “Super, super strict, because her second husband – our grandfather had passed away – her second husband was the first black bishop in South Africa. So, we grew up under that – ‘This is so-and-so’s household, you will not misbehave.’ It was scary.”

thuso mbedu, the woman king, the underground railroad, hollywood authentic, breakfast club, greg williams, greg williams photography

She had an older sister, though, for support. She laughs, but there is a rueful undertone to it. “I think growing up, between my sister and myself, I was the quieter of the two. I was the more observational one. I guess to some extent the more sensitive of the two as well. And the shy one. My sister was the more extroverted one. We were told that people liked her more. So, I had to accept that that meant people didn’t like me, which was a lonely existence.”

I ask how such a morally conventional and heavily religious family felt about her choice of an acting career. “My mother had wanted to be a geologist. That was her heart, that was her interest. But because the [apartheid] system didn’t allow it, she became a teacher who taught maths, sciences and geography. Under that system, you could become a teacher or a nurse. My grandmother was actually a high-school principal. But we were the first generation who had the option to be doctors or to be whatever it is that we wanted to be. And that was expected of me. And then I chose the arts, which made absolutely no sense to anyone at home.” Another burst of laughter, but this is one of genuine joy, because, of course, things have gone rather well for her.

“Yes, but having told her that I didn’t see myself in an office or a lab coat doing a nine to five, my grandmother didn’t talk to me for about a month, because she really believed that I wouldn’t be there for the family.”

Her eyes widen to emphasise the importance of her next statement. “But our grandmother did a very good job raising us, as hard as it was.” And, obviously, her grandmother is where her drive comes from. “Yes, yes. And my sister and I are super, super close now, especially since our grandmother passed away the year after I finished university and we realised we only have each other in this world.”

That flash of her eyes reminds me of how much she can convey non-verbally. In a review of director Barry Jenkins harrowing, hallucinatory but essential The Underground Railroad, The New York Times said, “Mbedu’s magnetic performance relies as much on gesture and expression as dialogue, her every sign, flinch and defence conveying the muscle memory of terror.” Where, I ask her, does that capacity for mute communication come from?

“I think it’s because of the way I grew up. I’m a person who spends a lot of her time in her head. I think it’s allowing whatever the character’s thought process is to actually happen in real time. Instead of imposing, ‘Oh, she should be feeling like this right now,’ let it happen. And then, as a human being, your face will adjust accordingly.”

That trust in her ability to reflect inner turmoil or joy has served her well. After success in her homeland, particularly from her International Emmy-winning portrayal of Winnie in the teen drama Is’thunzi, she was given the opportunity to display her craft on an international stage, and she grabbed it with both hands and all her heart. Her performances as Cora, the escaped slave in The Underground Railroad, and Nawi, the kick-ass fighter in The Woman King, demonstrated that extraordinary gift for externalising the internal without resorting to dialogue or exposition.

thuso mbedu, the woman king, the underground railroad, hollywood authentic, breakfast club, greg williams, greg williams photography

Thuso clearly had to train hard for the latter role and, as we move to her compact gym and she demonstrates the hi-tech treadmill (“My favourite”) and her boxing skills, she explains that she has kept up the demanding physical regime from The Woman King. “I work out with Gabriela Mclain, who was our trainer and nutritionist for the movie, between four and six times a week, depending on the schedule. Obviously, you have to stop when you do press for the movie, but I’m getting back into it now. And then we did different types of martial arts. So, at some point I went and got myself this bag so I could box. Now, I want to go back to Muay Thai as well, because I started that for the movie.”

Is the physical side just part of her discipline as an actor? “I spoke with Danny Hernandez, our stunt coordinator, who knows that I did fall in love with [the training]. He was just, like, ‘Keep going,’ so that I am ready for the next project, so that I don’t feel like I have to start from zero again when the next opportunity arrives.”

So, what is the next opportunity? Because it must be a very exciting time to be Thuso Mbedu. It’s hard to believe the phone ever stops ringing. “It is exciting,” she agrees. “I’m also in a space where, again, I’m getting opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten in the past, having conversations with the different studios. Not only are they, like, ‘Oh, we’ve got these types of project that you could fit in,’ they’re also asking, ‘What would you like to develop?’ And that’s where my mind is. Hence, reading up on different things, putting ideas to paper.”

This reading up on different things includes researching the techniques of anime, manga and American comic books – she is keen to write an anime script, having been a huge fan of Dragon Ball Z while growing up in South Africa. (Show time coincided with afternoon prayers, so she and her sister would alter the living-room wall clock to make sure devotions would be over by the time that afternoon’s episode began.) She is also learning Korean for her birthday travels. “The heads-up was that they don’t speak as much English as you might expect in Seoul, so I thought I’d learn some of the language. And it is kicking my bum.”

Also on her slate is a new deal with Paramount+ to create shows with a message – albeit not as preachy as that sounds – which will be the direct descendant of MTV Shuga, a Pan-African series she acted in, which tackled tough themes, such as living with AIDS and gender identity. “The new deal is about creating stories that will educate people in Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa about climate, health and equality. And so, it can be a documentary, it can be a film, it can be a series. And they liked the ideas that we had given them, and so the next step is to develop it.”

It is interesting that, rather than looking for the next blockbuster, Thuso is keen on ploughing some of her good fortune back into her homeland and beyond. Where did this drive to serve come from? “I think at some point in high school, it was a case of knowing that my life could have turned out completely differently, had it not been for our grandmother. And so, I had the conviction that I should be that for someone else, even if it’s just one person. And so now I’m, like, OK, how do I use the gifts and the talents that I have to help someone else?”

thuso mbedu, the woman king, the underground railroad, hollywood authentic, breakfast club, greg williams, greg williams photography

So, is this where the plan to help fund an orphanage comes from – an idea I have heard she has talked about? “It is. I really believe that I’m on planet Earth to help those who do not have, to help enrich their lives in different ways that could literally be just me being there with them, listening to what they have to say to me, aiding financially, physically. And, yeah, I think that is my ultimate purpose. But before we even get to the orphanage, I want to actively try and find bursaries and scholarships for kids that can’t afford to go to school and have people fund them. The orphanage is my ultimate, ultimate, ultimate, in terms of changing lives. And then volunteering as well, so that by the time we are able to make the orphanage, it’s not a completely foreign experience to me. In the past when I was in South Africa, I’d volunteer at different orphanages to just come hang out with the kids a little bit, which was also scary for me because growing up, being super shy as I am, I always thought kids don’t like me.”

Given she has such an obviously fun and generous personality – as well as a whole arsenal of infectious laughs to call upon – I suggest that this is hard to believe. She shrugs. “I was told they didn’t like me, so I thought it was true. As a result, going into spaces where I have to interact with kids, I’m, like, ‘Are they going to like me? Am I going to make them cry?’ or whatever. But it’s been beautiful. And, of course, I have my first niece, my favourite person. She’s a kid who really likes me, and I get so surprised every time. I’m just, like, ‘Wow, she still likes me. Oh my gosh.’ It makes me so happy.”

It turns out Thuso has a whole “Wall of Happiness” – which is exactly that, a collage of beaming Thuso Mbedus with various friends, co-workers and family (including sister and niece) and at shoots for the likes of The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s random moments in my life. I know what is happening on the day in each picture and what about it brought me joy. Yeah.”

After we say goodbye and I am sitting in an Uber taking me back to LA proper, I realise something about the past few hours, an impression that has been forming throughout the morning. Although I have been invited into Thuso’s home, the place is low on creature comforts and high on practicality. The house seems to be entirely organised for the purpose of completing Thuso’s life mission: books for current projects, books for future projects, press photos, a trophy cabinet full of awards for her performance in The Underground Railroad, bottles of water, a desk and a gym. It all has a function. This is mission control for someone who has a plan. Put simply, Thuso Mbedu wants to change the world.

The Underground Railroad is available now on Amazon Prime Video; The Woman King is in cinemas now