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February 16, 2024 9 min read

“The film’s a celebration of [Amy], her music and the subculture that I also identified with”: The Derbyshire-born actor goes Back to black


Paying homage to the perennial voice of Amy Winehouse, he talks meeting the real-life counterpart of his character, press-maligned Blake Fielder-Civil, the performative power of music when stepping into someone else’s shoes and his first foray into life behind the camera.  




“What kind of fuckery is this?” Amy Winehouse questioned in her hit single, “Me & Mr Jones”. I’m sort of thinking the same thing as I wait to meet Jack O’Connell, in the same North London pub, in the same corner, and in fact, in the very same two seats as we sat in two years ago, for an earlier interview.

How does he quantify the passage of these two years? You could say by scoring three epic roles that amassed global success. Landing a mega fashion campaign. Or, quitting smoking. All victories in their own right. But if there’s anything in this sequence of accolades that the actor has showcased during this advancement in time, it is that O’Connell has an exceptional memory for small details. “How was Mexico?” He smiles as he receives me over eighteen months after my stint travelling following our first meeting. The main difference this time is that only one of us bears a pint throughout our meeting (guilty). “I’m saving myself for a sesh on Paddy’s day instead.” The gym bag on his shoulder therefore makes sense, and he parts with it, getting comfy on a withered leather sofa, fiddling with a small white object in his hands. “It looks like a tampon, I know, but it’s stopping me from having a cig.”

He is much the same, if not more relaxed in himself, picking my brains on our conversation from yesteryear as if the sentences had only left my mouth an hour before. After pleasantries, I turn to pick his brains instead, in the lead-up to one of O’Connell’s biggest roles of the year, playing the ex-husband of Britain’s perennial icon, Amy Winehouse, in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s upcoming biopic, Back to Black.

Typically, biopics have a hard time of it. Paying homage, and most of the time posthumously, to an enamoured icon is a challenge before you’ve even publicly revealed who it is you’re spotlighting. Why? Because fiction causes friction with the annals of reality. “It’s all dependent on what the intention is,” shares O’Connell as he scratches his beard. “What’s the perspective? What’s the lens? With Back to Black, there’s no ulterior motive in creating this biopic. It’s for Winehouse. I'm not here to say that every Amy Winehouse fan is going to love it, because there's no accounting for that, especially if people feel possessive over it, but more power to them. There’s no snooping about [with this film], no trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s a celebration of Amy and her music.”

Named after Winehouse’s 2006 second and final studio album before her untimely passing in 2011 at just 27 years rold, the rumour mill states that the album reads as a poetic reflection on her tumultuous and widely documented relationship with, at the time, part-time literature student, Blake Fielder-Civil. Within a week of their meeting, the musician had Blake tattooed across her chest. More often than not in this intricate genre, actors assume the role of those who have passed, but for O’Connell, it was quite the opposite. Lauded for his unadulterated approach on screen—he’s borne all numerous times, filmed on 400 calories a day, and acclimated with injections to perform in the desert—this time, O’Connell rises to the challenge of playing a figure very much alive, but one historically chastised by public opinion.


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He calls it the “Blakeness,” addressing the darker shade of the film's arc. I’m curious to know if they met. “We did,” he nods. “It was something that I wanted to do out of courtesy, but didn’t feel was necessary to inform me of how to play the role.” He puts the sanitary-looking device in his hands down for a second to recount an afternoon spent together, “not to study him” he’s keen to note, but to get to know him. “We just fucking hung out together. His love for Amy seemed very genuine.” He pauses, narrows his brows and points at me. “Because I can detect bullshit yeah, Scarlett.” I nod at his directness, hoping I’m also effusing no trace.

“But it really surprised me. If you’ve got half a notion on this story, you know enough to agree that Blake has not been painted in a positive light at all. He’s seen as the villain,” due to his entanglement with Winehouse and her relationship with drugs. “And listen, it’s not for me to say if people’s thoughts are right or wrong, but all I can speak to is the stark distinction I saw between the persona that has been put out there by the tabloids and documentaries, compared to the person before me. Sure, I only met him once and it was in a vacuum, but he was really open and honest.”

In the same way that O’Connell detects bullshit, I deduce that there was something exhilarating for him in this role alongside honouring the vocal icon. A smile. “Of course. It documents the period of my youth where I was just coming on the scene.” Taylor-Johnson’s setting is the halcyonic tenor of North London in the early millennium, and NW1 its hedonistic mecca. Winehouse and arguably every other major musician of that period (Alex Turner, Liam Gallagher, Blur) were decorating the litany of Camden boozers, a catalyst in creating the indie wave that Tumblr had us in a chokehold over, a scene not too dissimilar from his seminal character Cook, that aided his crescendo onto the global stage in Skins. Harrington jackets, smudged mascara, beer-soaked skinny jeans that sat so tight they rivalled DVT socks. You know the sort.

With pubs that pulled in as many rising stars as pints, the culture was all about counterculture, and O’Connell was right at the fore. A quick operation in mental maths confirms that he would have turned 18 around that time. “I definitely romanticise this period because it’s when I started going out and drinking legally. I was wearing the fucking polo shirts and listening to The Libertines,” regails a plucky O’Connell. “I think it’s one of the coolest parts of this country’s character, the working class producing amazing art.”

Would you believe it, Winehouse and O’Connell narrowly missed each other, despite their affinity for the same circles. “She was so synonymous with the scene that I loved and the music I listened to. It was all about subculture,” something that O’Connell confesses drew him to the script. He pulls out his phone and begins to scroll through text messages with his character's real-life counterpart. For the most part, it’s typical exchanges about football, but he pulls up a photo, laughing as he pinches the screen to zoom in on a photo of his inked arm. “I was showing Blake the tattoos that I was getting on my arm every day.”

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“He also sent me a playlist of music that he listened to during that time as well,” he searches, before realising, with a hint of disappointment, that the link has expired. Next to each song, Blake would pen a caption as to where he listened to the music, or what he’d be singing to in order to get ready. “We’d bang them on in the trailer while getting ready. And once those sideburns went on, I became him.”

Research on O’Connell’s resumé outlines his characters as ‘conflicted.’ Does he agree? “I think every role an actor plays is difficult in its own way. But particularly for Back to Black, it’s difficult when you’re playing someone that exists and people know about.” I ask if that made the process harder, but he feels guilty saying yes and instead turns to praise the film’s lead, Marisa Abela, who plays Winehouse instead. “The fucking infinite level of attention she put in, not just any actor can turn up and do that. She’s really fucking announcing herself with this one. The level of pressure that rested on her shoulders mate…compared to Marisa, it was a fucking walk in the park for me.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than O’Connell ambling through the narrative of the noughties chaos on screen. He was, after all, one of its younger adopters, but there’s been a greater cosmic pull for him to fill the shoes on-screen than his own familiarity. “It’s funny, on my way to meeting Blake for the first time, before we’d even started filming, I got in the car and “Valerie” came on the radio. There’s been loads of that cosmos-type shit happening around this film. Stuff happening with Sam [Taylor-Johnson], with Marisa. Matt [Greenhalgh] who wrote the script is a mate of mine as well. It really felt like something. The whole thing just unfolded.”

The “tampon” re-emerges again, and as O’Connell takes a quick toke, I share a fact in my research. In the space of 0.35 seconds, an earlier Google search detected about 35 million online results related to Amy Winehouse. For context, that’s nearly half the UK population. As much as Back to Black positions itself as a commemorative feat of Winehouse’s undeniable mastery, it’s a tale of a vitriolic media campaign that exploited the life of a musical genius. “Nothing I’ve ever experienced was comparable to what Amy had to contend with,” he shares. “I think for any sort of A-lister, quote-unquote in that era, it was just a fucking open fire and fair game on them from the press. It’s inexplicable, there’s no justification for it.” It’s what makes O’Connell proud of this film. “It’s exploring the view on what was fucking normalised back then, whereas today we associate it as abusive. I guess one of the main antagonists in the movie is that kind of media attention. Yes, she was subject to Blake, who from early on was the love of her life and vice versa, and of course, there are drugs involved, but there’s also this very acute level of limelight. There’s a toxicity to it.”

Is he numbed to the warts of fame given his early entrance? Perhaps. “It’s all clickbait shit though isn’t it?” he laughs, as I share with him the ongoing James Bond bets, and his name recently entering the group chat. “You give one comment in an interview and people will run with it. Whatever you say will always be fuel for people to talk about.” Unsurprisingly, O’Connell prefers life outside of the public eye. He is, as his childhood name states, infamously inked on his arm, just Jack the Lad. Jack, a lad turning up to work, hoping to do a good job, who switches off afterwards, surrounding himself with good people. There’s no pomp or frill or yearning for the entire world to be chanting his name.

It’s fitting that the steering of this ship comes at the hands of a director no stranger to the nuclear forces of the press, Taylor-Johnson, whom O’Connell felt an immense respect for. “I felt really open on set with Sam, perhaps in a way other jobs might’ve felt more restricting,” he reflects. “It was nice to be at home shooting with a director who is completely open and aware because of how loose we were able to be with it.”

Define open, I ask. “There was no heightened pressure, even though we were telling the story of Amy. We were able to have fun with it and be open to interpretation. I guess a lot of it was down to my comfort zone, really.” And where do us Brits find true solace other than the social value of the pub? “There were days where we were just filming in a pub all fucking day, drinking zero per cent alcohol, I might add…” I laugh as I sip ill-timed on my pint. “It was a terrible moment for me to drink,” I share. “Get that on the record, Scarlett sips,” he jibes.

Heeding Taylor-Johnson’s directorial approach, O’Connell embarks on his own directorial debut this year, and in keeping with his understated demeanour, the news of the accolade leaves his lips as if he’s just told me he’s going to the toilet. “It’s a music video for Paul Weller,” he shares, nonchalantly. “I fucking loved every minute of the shoot. I’ve never edited before so I’m kind of unravelling a little bit. It’s only four minutes long, but it’s been incredible to be involved from the concept to the very end. He’s a top-class gentleman. I’d love to be able to do more of this.”

He leaves me thinking about the role of these public houses where we often come together as one. A place where Winehouse felt at home. A place O’Connell continues to feel at ease. It’s a meeting point that for so long has played host to and always welcomed immeasurable talent of all kinds. “Pubs [are places] of reciprocity and ideologies of egalitarianism,” writes political science coordinators, Cristina Plecadite & Raluca Nagy. Places of human kindness where strangers can turn into friends, or, in this instance, acquaintances can meet two years apart and slip into conversation as though it was yesterday. I leave the pub, get into the car, and Paul Weller comes on the radio.

Back To Black releases in cinemas from 12th April (UK) and 17th May (US)


Interview taken from Man About Town Spring/Summer 2024.

Photography by Buzz White at One Represents
Styling by Luke Day 
Editorial Director Charlotte Morton
Editor Andrew Wright
Creative Director Jeffrey Thomson
Art Director Michael Morton
Fashion Director Luke Day
Production Director Ben Crank
Production Assistant Lola Randall
Grooming by Jody Taylor
Photography Assistants Josh Bryant, James Deacon
Fashion assistant Zach Sunman
Film Processing Terry at Bayeaux
Post-Production Adi Admoni
Special thanks to The Stag’s Head


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