Jack O'Connell let out a big yawn in the middle of our interview. Who could blame him? It was after 6 p.m. on a recent Friday night in New York, and the tired star had spent the day doing interviews in support of "Unbroken." The film, directed by Angelina Jolie, stars O'Connell as Louis Zamperini, an Olympic long-distance runner and Air Force bombardier who, after crashing into the Pacific Ocean and surviving at sea for 47 days, spent two years as a prisoner of war at the end of World War II. The 24-year-old O'Connell had to lose a significant amount of weight to play Zamperini, and his performance has been heralded as one of the year's true breakout turns. That means people want to talk with O'Connell, and often. He's now living proof of the old cliché that actors receive their salaries not for the onscreen work, but the press requirements that come after.
"I had not heard that anecdote until last night," O'Connell admitted. "So the penny dropped hard."
"Unbroken" caps a big year for O'Connell, who also won rave reviews for his performances in the prison drama "Starred Up" and festival favorite "'71." And while he's not yet a household name, Jolie knew she wanted O'Connell to play Zamperini almost immediately.
"I'd been looking for Louis for so long and I really felt [Jack] was him," she told Access Hollywood. "I'd seen his work and I knew a bit about him, and then as soon as the door opened there was something about the way he held himself. He has a real strength and masculinity, but he has a humility."
Jolie's instinct paid off. "I wanted to do him justice. To justify the man," O'Connell said about bringing Zamperini's incredible life to the screen. "I was aware of that early enough to be able to approach the glory side of Louis with enough humility so that when we do see the ugly side, we realize it's a portrayal of a human being and not a superhero."
Zamperini, who died this year at the age of 97, may have never leapt tall buildings in a single bound, but his resolve was almost otherworldly. He survived a plane crash, near starvation, a shark attack, too many beatings to count and the psychological abuse of a man nicknamed The Bird (played in the film by newcomer Miyavi), a sadistic prison guard who tortured Zamperini during his time in captivity.
"We kept a distance," O'Connell said of his on-set relationship with Miyavi. "I felt particularly bad at first because it was his first professional film role, so I didn't want to make it any more awkward than it had to be. But he understood. I think that takes a level of maturity. I also think part of the problem was the reality of having the respect that we do have for each other. I really like Miyavi; I think he's a top fellow and I'll keep in touch with him enthusiastically. For Louis and the Bird, none of that could creep in. So besides the words of encouragement -- in between the scenes when were under the heat and I would think his performance was blinding, I'd give him a little pat and tell so -- I decided we needed to be aware of what was required."
Indeed, while O'Connell and Miyavi remain close, the same was not true of Zamperini and The Bird. Years after his release, Zamperini returned to Japan to forgive his captors; The Bird wouldn't even meet him. It's one of a handful of memorable moments from Zamperini's story that doesn't make it onscreen. (He also met Adolf Hitler after running in the 1936 Olympics; O'Connell said that scene was shot, but cut for time.) Based on Laura Hillenbrand's book and credited to four screen writers -- Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson -- "Unbroken" only touches on a part of Zamperini's life.
"I think it has more to do with the fact that the film ran three-and-a-half hours," O'Connell said when asked about what was left out. "And with the film being for a wide audience, we couldn't really expect them to sit there for that long. Angelina had to whittle it down to just over two hours. So then it became a point of, 'What do we need to see?'"
So if the rest of Zamperini's story ever made it onscreen, would O'Connell want to return for a sequel?
"You'd need a trilogy at least," he joked.